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Analysis-Eyeing win, inflation debate gives Le Pen chance to lay Russia ghosts to rest – Metro US

Analysis-Eyeing win, inflation debate gives Le Pen chance to lay Russia ghosts to rest

French far-right presidential candidate Le Pen gives a news conference
French far-right presidential candidate Le Pen gives a news conference in Vernon

PARIS (Reuters) – In a rural town south of Paris, far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen delivered a simple message to local farmers: Russia’s war in Ukraine means the price of feed, fertiliser and staple goods will keep rising unless the French government acts.

An economic nationalist, Le Pen told them as president she would block European sanctions on Russian oil and gas to contain energy price increases. She said she would scrap VAT on salt, cooking oil and dozens of other goods to dampen the surging rate of inflation and protect household incomes.

For a presidential challenger who prior to the war had been an open admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia might be sensitive ground to tread on. But her focus on the cost-of-living consequences is resonating with many voters for whom foreign policy has little bearing on whom to vote for.

“I am not against sanctions on Russia. I am perfectly in favour of all the other sanctions,” she told France Inter radio. “I don’t want the French to feel the full force of consequences stemming from any decisions to stop the import of oil and gas.”

A Le Pen victory would reverberate through Europe and across the Atlantic in Washington, installing a deep euro-sceptic in the Elysee Palace and potentially destabilising the trans-Atlantic NATO security alliance.

Five years ago, before she faced Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 presidential election runoff which she lost heavily, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted her at the Kremlin with open arms. She declared admiringly that she shared the same values as Putin and that a “new world order” was emerging with him, then-U.S. President Donald Trump and her at the helm.

Her campaign in that race was partly financed by a Russian bank, which she is still reimbursing.

Le Pen, a 53-year-old lawyer-turned politician, has said the trans-Atlantic relationship needs to be rebalanced to serve France’s interests better. Meanwhile, her proposal to leave NATO’s integrated command so that France would no longer be caught up in undesired conflicts would be a boon to Putin.

“A division of the Western camp is Putin’s best hope of reigniting an all-out war,” Benjamin Haddad, senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council wrote in Le Figaro.

“Marine Le Pen’s approach to Ukraine would lead to the massacre of Ukrainians, to a longer and more widespread conflict throughout the territory, with lasting economic consequences for Europe.”

NOT STINGING MYSELF FOR MEETING PUTIN

Since Russia invaded its neighbour, Le Pen has tried to cast aside her admiration for Putin saying, she has changed her mind.

She condemned Moscow’s actions and embraced the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in France, dispatching party members to send buses to bring some back.

She says she would be ready to provide defensive weapons to Kyiv and has even called on Macron to recall France’s envoy to Russia over alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine.

All that while leaving the door open to Russia, not Putin, to once again being a European ally.

“I’m not going to beat myself up for knowing someone that I have only ever met once,” she told Reuters in late March.

Foreign policy for the French is historically not a vote winner. Even so, Macron has already tried to score points.

PUTIN COMPLIANT

“It is not with me that you’ll find complicity with Mr Putin and it’s not with me that you need to find financing from Russia. That’s the other candidate,” he told reporters on April 5 during a campaign stop in Brittany.

Nonetheless, Le Pen has been able to play on Macron’s own ambiguities with the Russian leader. During his term, Macron has gone to lengths to woo Putin to the Western corner, inviting him to the royal palace in Versailles and the presidential retreat in southern France.

Much of that to the dismay of eastern and Baltic European partners.

“Russia will not disappear and it would be very negative for Europe that Russia becomes definitively aligned with China, which is what Emmanuel Macron has tried to avoid his entire five years,” Le Pen told France Inter.

With much fanfare just before Russia’s invasion, Macron travelled to Moscow for talks with Putin, though he returned empty handed. As the war has entered its second month, Macron has defended his continued negotiations with Putin despite criticism.

But for many voters, he has allowed himself to be distracted by more pressing matters at home.

An IPSOS poll showed that almost 60% of people put purchasing power as their top concern, compared to Ukraine at just 20%.

“Ukraine doesn’t interest me. I want to have more in my pocket, that’s what I want,” said Andre, a retired undertaker in the Normandy town of Vire.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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