A Shared Democratic Struggle in Ukraine and France

In France, the announcement of the dissolution of the National Assembly had the effect of a tsunami. In three weeks’ time, we risk seeing a cohabitation that would severely test French support for Ukraine and even the foundations of our democracy. However, even in these dark times, the struggle to defend democracy is not lost. It must be a long-term endeavor.

Given the shock that followed Sunday’s EU election result in France and the almost immediate announcement of the dissolution of the National Assembly by President Emmanuel Macron, there has been hardly any discussion about Europe or Ukraine. Yet this result and this decision endanger the future of both more than ever.

More than 50% of voters cast their ballots for lists that want to challenge European integration and whose leaders have adopted at least some of Vladimir Putin’s arguments in the weeks before and after the launch of the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine at the end of February 2022. The same people now oppose, in the name of a false kind of peace, France and Europe’s commitment to providing Kyiv’s troops with the necessary weapons and assistance to fight the aggressor and free their country from Putin’s hold. They also portray Joe Biden’s United States as an adversary and have called for France to leave NATO or, at the very least, its integrated command. Such a decision, under the present circumstances, would weaken the Alliance at a time when Moscow is seriously considering the possibility of conventional confrontation in the medium term and where the nuclear threat is continually wielded against countries supporting Ukraine. This result shows that a large portion of our fellow citizens, more than half of those who went to vote, have not grasped the significance of what is at stake in Ukraine and do not understand that Putin’s war engages the future of democracy and freedoms on the European continent.

President Macron took a considerable risk by deciding on an immediate dissolution and a rapid electoral campaign. Nothing compelled him to do so. The choice of this haste, to force the French to decide whether or not to deliver the country to the extremes, is no more democratic than taking the time to establish, with the support of left and right forces attached to the fundamental principles of our Constitution, a tempered (proportional with a minimum threshold for seats or with a majority bonus) or mixed (majoritarian with a strong dose of proportional) voting system. This is what former Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne wanted. In March, National Assembly Speaker Yael Braun-Pivet made a proposal to this effect, which unfortunately was not supported by part of her own camp.

The current two-round majority voting system forces pre-electoral alliances to have a chance of winning seats. It leaves social democrats, on the one hand, and the republican right, on the other, with the choice of a pre-electoral alliance with the central presidential bloc or the extremes, without allowing them to exist independently and reflect their actual weight in the national political scene based on citizen votes rather than poll estimates. Moreover, it solidifies the central bloc, whose components do not present themselves separately to the voters (this is likely why part of the presidential majority did not want proportional representation, preferring to avoid a reshuffling of their internal power dynamics).

Ultimately, this voting system deprives citizens of the opportunity to express a nuanced, plural choice from which a majority could be formed, based on the refusal to abandon Ukraine and dismantle the European Union. Such a majority’s primary objective would be to defend democracy endangered by the rise of extremes in France and, internationally, by Moscow and Beijing’s desire to dismantle international institutions and treaties. Only such a majority could marginalize the radicalities that now poison the political debate. It would require, to lead it, a personality with a proven record of avoiding an overbearing position, capable of leading true collective work without partisan calculation. This would have obviously implied that the President accepted a form of cohabitation with the coalition of moderates, facilitated by a fundamental agreement between the head of state and the government on foreign policy, European construction, defense of Ukraine, and refusal to yield to totalitarian powers.

Such convergence between the two branches of the executive, as defined by the French Constitution, will obviously not exist in the event of a total or partial victory by the National Rally Yet this is highly likely. If it happens, France’s voice within European bodies—not just in Parliament—will be weakened, if not discordant. This will further complicate decisions to financially and militarily support Ukraine and consolidate the Union. In the coming months, if European aid weakens, the future of the war could tilt in favor of Russia. We have seen how the “air gap” in American aid has recently put Kyiv’s troops in great difficulty, on the verge of collapse. Another shortage of ammunition, equipment, and funding would give Moscow a considerable advantage.

Beyond Ukraine, it is also the capacity of Europe and France to rebuild a defense tool commensurate with international challenges that will be weakened, in a context where the possible election of Donald Trump in the United States casts doubt on NATO’s future role and prospects. Finally, at stake is the possibility of giving the European Union the means not only to remain a great economic power but also to cease being a political dwarf in the face of predatory Russian and Chinese powers on the one hand and the American “godfather” on the other, at a time when the world is undergoing significant changes.

It is too late to change the electoral law and the two-round majority voting trap is likely to produce the aforementioned effects but the fight for democracy does not stop. It must continue within European institutions, on the French political scene, and in Ukraine, over the long term. In France, the arrival of the National Rally in government would not eliminate the institutions or the checks and balances they provide. The President would have a role to play, as would the Senate and the Constitutional Council. The free press and media would not disappear overnight. Therefore, if a round seems lost, the game is far from over, and there are still many ways to take action to uphold and promote democratic principles. The greatest danger we face is discouragement when we need long-term mobilization. Let us remember that Polish democrats, with Donald Tusk, eventually overcame the liberal regime established by the Law and Justice party. Victory was confirmed in the European elections on June 8.

A primary requirement is to concretely demonstrate that it is not possible to enter into a pact of any kind with the extremes. We must refuse to be their hostage or stepping stone. Therefore, all politicians seeking the votes of the French in the coming days to defend democracy should refuse to forge alliances with the extremes, so voters can make their choice clearly and truthfully.

The top priority, in view of the second round, is to create a cordon sanitaire against forces whose actions and rhetoric are the antithesis of democratic principles. On this basis, we must continue to support Ukraine, whose citizens pay a high price to oppose Putin’s fascism, and prepare for more French elections. Because it will no doubt not be long before we go to the polls again, giving democracy’s defenders a chance to regain the upper hand.

Jean-François Bouthors is a journalist and essayist, contributing to the magazine Esprit and serving as an editorialist for Ouest-France. He is the author of several books, including Comment Poutine change le monde published by Editions Nouvelles François Bourin in 2016.

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