“It’s not just unpopular, but highly salient,” said Ethan Winter, lead analyst with the progressive think tank Data for Progress, noting that Trump has flirted with a similar formula, such as when he broke with conservative orthodoxy to defend social safety net programs like Medicare during his 2016 campaign.
But in a moment when Europe has rallied like never before to confront Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, Le Pen’s ties to Putin have emerged as both a political vulnerability and potential threat to NATO and the united Western front against Moscow.
While Le Pen has moderated her message and tried to soften her image, dropping plans to withdraw from the European Union, she is still calling for reconciliation with Putin and her party is still paying back an almost 10 million euro loan (about $12 million) it received from a Russian bank.
“When you speak to Russia, you speak to your banker. That is the problem, Mrs. Le Pen,” Macron said during a televised debate Wednesday night.
Le Pen retorted that she was “a totally free woman” and that she backs some sanctions on Russia and France’s support for Ukraine.
But she said she opposes cutting off Russian oil and gas imports because it would hurt French people who are already suffering from higher energy prices that she blames on an ideological and punitive push to transition too quickly to a green economy.
The imprisoned Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny urged French citizens to vote for Macron, saying on Twitter on Wednesday that Le Pen is compromised by Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also offered support for Macron.
“While I do not think that I have the right to influence what happens in your country, I want to say I have a relationship with Emmanuel Macron and I would not want to lose that,” he told French TV station BFM on Wednesday. “If Le Pen understands that she has made a mistake, our relationship could change.”
Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the Washington-based New Democrat Network, who has advised the U.K.’s Labour Party and worked in European politics, said American liberals need to realize that populist-nationalist movements like Trump’s and LePen’s have taken the place of traditional center-right parties in many Western countries.
“I don’t think people understand the extent to which the European center-right is in a moment of crisis. There is no center-right government in any of the major European countries right now,” he said.
It feels very different from Le Pen’s last campaign in 2017, which came on the heels of the unexpected victories of Trump and Brexit, when it looked like the far-right was unstoppable.
Even if not ascendant at the moment, right-wing parties and politicians from Trump to Le Pen to Hungary’s Viktor Orban share some things that make them appealing to Putin: mistrust of NATO, support for fossil fuels, and skepticism of the multicultural Western democratic values.
“Virtually all of these parties have ties to Putin,” Rosenberg said, adding that a weak Macron and Biden are good for Putin ahead of another potential Trump presidential run in 2024. “No question Putin and his allies are going to use high gas and inflation to weaken Western political resolve.”