Tomorrow: France Versus Ukraine? A Momentum Cut Short

While France has made remarkable conceptual progress in its support for Ukraine in recent months, a far-right victory could call that into question at the worst possible moment. Paris appears to be one of its best friends in Europe but it would turn into one of its worst enemies while it seemed to herald a new understanding of what was at stake in Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine and democracies. The scenario of a grand coalition excluding the National Rally would salvage support for Ukraine for the time being, but it is not certain that France can still play the role of driving force.

It all seemed to start well. In the months leading up to the announcement of the dissolution of the National Assembly, President Emmanuel Macron appeared to have accomplished a welcome change of course, which began with his speech to the Globsec forum in Bratislava on May 31, 2023. In that speech, he made a sort of implicit mea culpa, stressing in particular that it had been a mistake not to pay enough attention to the warnings of countries in Central and Eastern Europe about the Russian threat. He even opined that the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008 had led to a mistake, since the refusal to grant Georgia and Ukraine a membership action plan had not been accompanied by any real guarantee of security and protection. He then distanced himself from Washington and Berlin, who had refused to offer Ukraine any prospect of NATO membership at the Vilnius summit on July 11 and 12, 2023. Above all, as of February 26 this year, he had refused to rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine, prompting a barrage of attacks from part of the political class, particularly from the extremes. Initially reluctant, several European Union countries later rallied to the principle. Above all, the French President had clearly declared that he no longer wanted us to set ourselves red lines in our actions and buy into Russia’s. He insisted on the need for the EU to take a more proactive stance. He insisted on what he called “strategic ambiguity.” Like other NATO countries, he also agreed to allow Kyiv to strike military targets on Russian soil with French weapons under certain conditions. Finally, when he received President Zelensky three days before that fateful Sunday, he announced that he would be sending Mirage 2000-5s fighter jets and military instructors to Ukraine as part of a wider coalition.

Let us be clear: if, following the second round of parliamentary elections, the far right and its allies win an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly and form a government, all this will be called into question. We can even expect planned arms deliveries to be canceled, the budget for military aid to Ukraine, either directly or via transfers to the European Union, to be drastically reduced, the monitoring of sanctions implementation to be largely eroded, as well as the start of the fight against foreign interference, notably via Viginum, a state agency under the supervision of the French Prime Minister. The rest would follow: a far-right government would advocate the lifting of sanctions and the non-transfer of frozen assets from the Russian Central Bank to Ukraine. This government would present itself as an advocate of “peace,” which we know would mean a territorial freeze on Russia’s terms. Russia would then resume its attacks, and this victory for Putin would be an encouraging signal to other revisionist dictatorships around the world, including China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Although the National Rally president, Jordan Bardella, has pleaded in favor of maintaining current alliances “for the time being,” the project outlined by Marine Le Pen in her 2022 program of withdrawing France from NATO’s integrated command and denouncing the various agreements linking Paris to its partners across the Rhine and the Atlantic would gradually become reality, particularly if she were to be elected President of the Republic in 2027. Western intelligence services would probably stop sharing sensitive information with France. France would become the enemy of Ukraine and all democracies.

Jordan Bardella at the Eurosatory show in Villepinte on June 19 // Bardella’s X account.

As the sick man of Europe, France would be isolated within the EU and NATO; it would lose all credibility and be the object of mistrust that would prevent any cooperation. The far-right’s economic, doctrinal, and institutional project would be incompatible with its continued membership of the European Union. Beyond this foretold “Frexit,” even though the National Rally has officially abandoned the idea, the whole of French foreign policy, established over more than sixty years, would take the opposite trajectory to what it has been. Perhaps one day, France, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, would join Russia and China in vetoing resolutions favorable to international law.

The possibility of such regression on the other side of the mirror does not seem to have been taken into account in the President’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly, as if everything he had previously asserted was of secondary importance, and Russia’s war against Ukraine and us was not the top priority.

It is precisely the situation in Ukraine that we need to return to. When I visited Kyiv in March 2024, the first concern was for the United States, as the House of Representatives was still blocking the American aid package and statements by the Biden administration itself seemed to augur timid support. In this respect, we recall the American statements expressing alarm at Ukraine’s strikes against Russian refineries, which were legal under international law. At the time, eyes turned hopefully to France. During my latest trip to Ukraine in early June, the beginnings of trust — albeit still fragile — had been restored with Washington, and France was seen as a driving force in Europe. However, the main concern was that the medium-term strategy of Western powers still did not seem to be taking shape. While the announcement of the delivery of new weapons to better protect Ukrainian towns and better resist new Russian offensives was seen with hope, many doubted the Allies’ willingness to help Ukraine win and not just protect and defend itself. Nevertheless, President Macron’s statements seemed to offer a glimmer of hope: perhaps he had at least understood that Ukraine could not repel the enemy on its own, and that more direct commitment from the Allies would be required. He had at least had the merit of addressing a taboo.

The question, albeit implicitly, was this: would helping Ukraine massively without intervening be enough for it to expel all Russian forces from its territory? The answer was certainly no. Some American strategists undoubtedly made the same analysis, but drew the opposite conclusion: since the Ukrainians cannot win the war on their own, we should not intervene, but rather try to stop it by striking a so-called balance. Yet this is unacceptable to Ukraine, in terms of international law, and for the very credibility of NATO’s power. It would mean that, at the end of the day, aggression pays, since Moscow would retain certain territories, and it would appear to be a betrayal of the commitments made by almost all democratic heads of state and government on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It would also be tantamount to giving Putin a license to kill, since we know that torture, summary executions, and child deportations are the norm in the occupied territories. Some Ukrainians are also tempted to reject this hypothesis for another reason: they believe that Ukraine’s future will in some way be brighter if they succeed in showing the world that they alone, with help, can defeat the Russians. But few military analysts believe this is possible. What is more, the cost of such an option will be even more insanely high for the Ukrainian people.

But to say that winning the war will necessarily entail the commitment of allied forces, the level of which will have to be determined pragmatically, is to spell out what has been left unsaid — and more seriously, what has not been given any thoguht. As we have seen, Emmanuel Macron’s hypothesis, albeit presented with great restraint, of the possibility of sending in ground troops, aroused a certain amount of emotion, even though he evoked a logical and potentially necessary step, even if he did not elaborate on the various scenarios it opened up. To speak of war on our side — by uttering the word — is to plunge into a more formidable abyss. It is better to think about it beforehand, not to reject the hypothesis, but to look it in the face.

We will not go into the whole story of Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine here. Let us just remember that, at the outset, Western aid was very measured. Some even introduced the distinction, of little military relevance, between defensive and offensive weapons. Kyiv, it was sometimes said, could use the former, but not the latter. The genocidal crimes committed in Bucha and the strength of the Ukrainian resistance soon led to the arrival of combat weapons, but we still had to wait for the heaviest weapons to be delivered — F-16 aircraft are only due to arrive shortly, and then only in very small numbers. Belgium has also just announced the supply of such aircraft, a welcome gesture indeed, but they are not due to arrive until 2028. This is in line with the statement, often made by Western leaders, that the war will be a long one, although the Allies could have won the war early on if they had wanted to. Just think of the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lives that would have been saved. We would also have closed the door on Russia’s ability to rearm and switch to a war economy.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive of summer and autumn 2023 was unsuccessful mainly because not all the weapons had been delivered, either in terms of numbers or performance. Many rightly said that Ukraine was being asked to fight with its hands tied behind its back. Some even had the audacity to blame Kyiv for these failures, even though none of the NATO armed forces would have launched a counter-offensive under these conditions. Everyone also knows that an offensive, especially in such conditions, is considerably more costly in human lives than a defensive action. A successful counter-offensive would already have required Ukraine to have the means to strike deep into enemy territory, using long-range missiles and fighter aircraft to cut off the enemy’s supply logistics. As we know, this was not the case.

Ukraine is now in a defensive position. The new arms packages that are expected to arrive all too gradually will at best enable Ukraine to hold out, but not to launch a new offensive. Substantial new aid will be needed before the country can be reconquered.

This is where the reality of the war — or, more accurately, the counter-war — that Ukraine must wage against Russia to counter the war waged by Moscow comes into play. Not only, as some strategy textbooks teach us, is attack the best defense, but Ukraine’s own goal, and ours, cannot be limited to defending territory not occupied by the Russian invader. The only conceivable and necessary war for Ukraine and for us is a war to reconquer the territories now occupied, without exception. What is more, we must do everything we can to ensure that the criminals, both those who gave the orders and those who carried them out, are tried and punished by international justice. It means demanding the return of Ukrainian children deported to Russia, and the payment over time of all war damages. Finally, it is to obtain credible security guarantees for Ukraine within NATO and the European Union.

From this perspective — and there can be no other — we must necessarily move from defense to attack. This is the only condition for security, not only for Ukraine, but for all European countries — most democratic governments are finally beginning to perceive this, and even to formulate it in these terms. It is to these considerations that we must link the question of the involvement of NATO countries in the war. Can we seriously believe that Ukraine alone will be able to push the enemy back from its borders? Even supposing that it can do so, admittedly with Western weapons and, increasingly, its own, which have proved their effectiveness, will this be enough to make Russia fall so that it will be obliged to give in on the other points (international justice, return of children, compensation for war damage)? It is more than risky to think so. What level of power and commitment from Western countries will be needed? Will we be content with air strikes from a distance, with a few hundred or thousands of instructors and “assistants,” or will we have to send tens of thousands of troops to fight on the ground?

None of the Western political leaders can evade these questions and pretend to ignore them, even if everyone understands that none of them is detailing them publicly.

As soon as we raise the prospect not of a war that Ukrainians are waging day after day, with unprecedented courage, but the war in which we could be directly involved — literally what I called Our War — an irrepressible fear tends to arise. Of course, everyone can and needs to understand this, even more so the people of Europe, particularly in the West, who were promised an end to wars on their territory. The hope that Europe would mean peace was not insane; it was, moreover, the worthies of projects; but people were too confident and rash. In the end, a large proportion of the peoples of Europe are torn between a deep-seated fear of war and a sense of its unreality. They do not want to see that war is already here; they refuse to consider that Russia’s war against Ukraine is the catastrophic prelude to a potentially wider operation, whatever its exact forms.

Putin has long been happily playing on these fears, which the far right is mainly relaying in France. For at least 22 years, this fear has been the main deterrent for Western governments. This fear has undoubtedly eased since February 24, 2022, and the latest decisions — admittedly still incomplete and limited — by most major Western governments to authorize Kyiv to attack certain bases in Russia with their weapons, is a first step in this ebb of fear. However, much of this fear still remains, and this helps to explain why most heads of state and government in democratic countries are still reluctant to talk about the exact nature of the Russian war and its possible extension. Many continue to stress that “we are not at war with Russia” — as if Moscow were not waging war against us — or prefer to use the term conflict, as if to avoid naming the aggressor.

TF1, screenshot.

With the far right coming to power in France — not to mention the prospect of a Trump election on November 5 — fear mongering will take over again. Not only will Russia continue to use its old rhetorical tactic of nuclear blackmail, which would be abundantly relayed by the new officials, but it could make even more intensive use of other destabilizing processes, which it has begun to do and which several intelligence services are warning against, including terror attacks, arson, and the destruction of critical infrastructure (energy, water, telephones). The far right could only amplify them, frightening public opinion into demanding a seat at the negotiating table — a way of abandoning Ukraine. Putin’s regime would then be well-equipped to continue its policy of takeover and aggression elsewhere (Georgia, Belarus, Moldavia, Armenia, Africa, and Syria in particular) and to win the loyalty of some of its allies (Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia — and now France).

At a time when we need a firm resolve to go all the way to bring Moscow to heel, and to prepare public opinion for greater involvement in the war, France would do the opposite and give up the fight. This would be a return to the pacifism of the 1930s and, in another context, of the Cold War. At a time when Paris was once again becoming the strategic center of Europe and, potentially, the vector in Western Europe of a European consciousness currently embodied by most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Nordic countries, it would pass over to the side of shame and dishonor. The Allies are already beginning to consider the scenarios of a French withdrawal and the emergency measures they might take. This is already a sign of our marginalization.

Just as public opinion was beginning to understand, albeit timidly, what was at stake with the Russian war and the impossibility of living in peace with the regime in power in Moscow, a victory for the extreme right would take them in the opposite direction. They would begin to believe that, against all reality, we could continue to live with Russia as it is on our doorstep. We would be back on the road to dependence on Russian raw materials, and instead of a necessary war economy, we would have a subjugated, and therefore more fragile, economy, subject to Moscow’s diktat on energy prices.

Of course, the worst is not certain. The scenario of a grand coalition, or government of national unity excluding the National Rally if, with its allies, it does not obtain an absolute majority, would save support for Ukraine, at least for the time being. But given the risks of instability, it is unlikely that France could continue to play the role of a driving force in the world. What is more, this would not remove the threat of the extreme right, which has just received strong support from Moscow. Here too, a defeat for Russia in Ukraine would, admittedly, not make this deadly poison for democracies flow back, but at least limit particularly active Russian propaganda.

If the far right prevails at the ballot boxes, gradually destroying the rule of law and calling into question the value of the main supranational declarations of law — the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Charter, the Paris Convention, etc. — France would be taking a Russian path. The ideological affinities between the extreme right and Putinism are so great. It would be the France of Montoire [where Hitler and France’s Philippe Pétain met in 1940]. The result would be an upside-down Nuremberg, in which crimes would cease to be punished and would be tolerated. Constitutional and international law would be thrown out the window to serve a policy of discrimination at home and support for aggression abroad. Whereas we had hoped for 1945, we would witness the opposite.

International and security affairs analyst, former head of department at the General Planning Commission, guest professor at Sciences-Po Paris, non-resident senior fellow at Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), blogger at Tenzer Strategics, author of three official reports to the government and 2" books, including Quand la France disparaît du monde (Grasset, 2008), Le Monde à l'horizon 2030. La règle et le désordre (Perrin, 2011), with R. Jahanbegloo, Resisting Despair in Confrontational Times (Har-Anand, 2019) and Notre Guerre. Le crime et l'oubli : pour une pensée stratégique (Ed. de l'Observatoire, 2024).

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