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Russia’s Ukraine invasion disrupts French presidential campaign

PARIS — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is disrupting a highly anticipated event on Western Europe’s political calendar: France’s presidential campaign.

Campaigns which were already sluggish because of the COVID-19 pandemic, have now almost ground to a halt. Political shows have been replaced with TV specials on Ukraine, some candidates are canceling their travels across the country and the public debate has shifted from domestic issues to geopolitics.

Not to mention that President Emmanuel Macron is now caught up in what’s described as Europe’s worst military threat since World War II and it’s unclear how and when he will announce he’s seeking reelection.

The presidential vote’s first round is looming on April 10, and candidates have until March 4 to officially declare they are running.

“It is a major crisis, which will be perceived as such by the French, and not as a distant issue,” Brice Teinturier, deputy general manager of polling institute Ipsos, told Le Monde. “It will further obscure the debate, where there is a lot of confusion, with many candidates, catalogs of proposals and unclear visions of the future.”

The Ukraine crisis is forcing Macron and his opponents to rethink their political campaigns. And it remains unclear who could benefit, as it’s the first time in recent history that a presidential election has been hijacked by foreign policy — an issue that is not usually a top priority for French voters.

However, French political and media agendas have now changed. Next week, a debate on the crisis will take place in both the National Assembly and the Senate.

Thursday evening, Macron had to cancel his participation in the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France’s annual dinner, a must-attend political event for politicians, as he had to be at a European summit on the military crisis. Greens candidate Yannick Jadot reportedly decided to skip his visit to the Paris International Agricultural Show — another go-to milestone for presidential campaigners — to attend the European Parliament’s plenary session in Brussels instead.

On Thursday, an evening political show with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on public TV channel France 2 was hastily replaced by a two-hour special on the war. “With Ukraine, the media space devoted to the presidential election is further reduced,” political scientist Olivier Rouquan told Les Echos.

Walking on eggshells

For Macron, the fact that the Ukraine crisis is monopolizing headlines is a double-edged sword.

Even more than before he will have to balance his job as president and his bid for reelection. Over the weekend, the French head of state will hold calls with U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as reported by Le Parisien. But he will also make time for a quick visit to the Paris International Agricultural Show.

The international crisis could “reinforce the stature” of the incumbent president, an official from Macron’s campaign told Playbook Paris. However, it will be harder for him to campaign on a positive, optimistic note, as originally planned. Macron supporters have been asked to keep a low profile over the weekend and refrain from distributing leaflets.

A number of issues that haven’t yet been touched upon will now struggle to emerge in the debate, the official added.

In recent days, Macron’s opponents have also had a hard time being heard on issues other than Ukraine. And they’re wary of criticizing the president too blatantly now that there is a war on European soil, for fear of appearing to work against France’s interests. “I always respect the role of the president of the Republic, and I do not mix the candidate I fight with the one who carries out actions on behalf of France,” Marine Le Pen told BFMTV Friday morning.

The crisis has shed light on some of the candidates’ cozy views on Moscow, which are now proving increasingly untenable.

After the Russian invasion, Le Pen, her far-right rival Eric Zemmour and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon have had to backtrack on previous favorable comments on Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and clarify their ambiguous position on Russia. All three politicians had previously issued controversial statements on the Ukraine situation, echoing the Kremlin’s rhetoric that the Russian military intervention is triggered by NATO aggression.

And Valérie Pécresse, candidate for the right-wing Les Républicains party, had to answer for former conservative Prime Minister François Fillon dragging his heels over stepping down from the boards of two Russian energy companies he sat on. Fillon only resigned Friday evening after coming under mounting political pressure.

Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting.

This story has been updated.

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