Would a Fillon Presidency Overturn France's Russia Policy?

A French U-turn on Russia appears unlikely but some changes can be expected.

After winning the conservatives’ primary elections on November 27, François Fillon is now best positioned to be the next president of France. Although political forecasts are like horoscopes these days, his victory over the far right’s Marine Le Pen in the second round of the Presidential elections next May remains the most plausible scenario. Mr. Fillon has above all garnered attention abroad for his positions on Russia, which break with the diplomatic line currently pursued by Paris. He has called for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia and for forging an alliance with Moscow in the fight against terrorism, particularly over Syria. He is also said to have developed personal ties with Vladimir Putin from when they were both prime ministers (2008 to 2012.)

How much in Fillon’s stance can be attributed to tactical positioning in domestic politics and how much constitute a foreign policy program? What underpins his vision and, most importantly, would he be able to implement it as such, if elected? Overly focusing on his declarations on Russia, many have proclaimed a radical overturn of France’s – and contingently Europe’s – policies on Russia. More than his views on Russia, however, his calculations regarding the European and transatlantic contexts will be key in determining his policies towards Moscow: what France’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis revealed is a growing Europeanization of its policies towards the East. A French U-turn on Russia appears unlikely but some changes can be expected, particularly if certain trends in the two aforementioned contexts continue.   

Unpacking Fillon’s positions requires going beyond the simplistic and often captious “pro” versus “anti” Russia binary. In France and elsewhere, this dichotomy is insufficient to fully comprehend domestic debates and anticipate their implications for policy. Politicians sometimes use the Russia question for unrelated tactical aims while some commentators tend to distribute the “pro” and “anti” labels mainly based on their own ideological predisposition. Calls to maintain an open dialogue with Russia or cooperate with Moscow on some sectorial dossiers cannot be put at the same level as endorsing the illegal annexation of Crimea or advocating the lifting of EU sanctions without getting anything in return. Fillon eventually condemned the annexation of Crimea and stated that he would not recognize it if elected (in that sense adopting a clearer position than President-elect Donald Trump, who has remained evasive on the subject. However, Fillon wants the EU sanctions gone.   

Fillon’s position on Russia comes both from domestic political considerations and deeper beliefs about international affairs. It has been tailored, in the context of the primaries, to appeal to various segments of his party base. He’s said, for instance, to have the support of French businesses, who have important stakes in the Russian market and who have been lobbying for the removal of EU sanctions. Fillon supported a non-binding parliamentary resolution introduced in that sense by Thierry Mariani, who many regard as the “voice of Russia” in the French political class. The resolution invoked the negative blowbacks suffered by French agriculture from Russia’s counter-sanctions. Yet admittedly, as an MP for French citizens abroad, Mr. Mariani has probably more expatriated businessmen than expatriated farmers among his constituents. More profoundly, Fillon’s discourse reflects a deeper ideological trend in the French right towards a growing sympathy for Russia based on the attachment to traditional and Catholic values, anti-Americanism and an admiration for strong leaders. In this narrative, Russia is perceived, at the same time, as a potential savior of Middle Eastern Christians, as a bastion defending traditional values and as a counterweight to Washington.