It took a whole year for the French right-wing populists to change course towards Vladimir Putin. Jordan Bardella, the party leader of the Rassemblement National (RN), spoke out in favor of arms deliveries to Ukraine on the first anniversary of the start of the war. "I am for deliveries of everything that allows Ukraine to defend its sovereignty and its borders," Bardella said in an interview.
At first glance, this seems like a radical change of course. It seems that the French right-wing populists are correcting their old, pro-Russian course and even admitting their guilt. "There was a collective naivety about Vladimir Putin's intentions and ambitions" and "his "will to expand," Bardella said in an interview with the liberal daily L'Opinion last week. He was in favor of defending Ukraine's territorial integrity. "One cannot be a patriot and a sovereignist and look on indifferently at the violation of the sovereignty of a European state," said Bardella.
The MEP attracted attention during the visit of the Ukrainian President to the European Parliament, when he joined the standing ovation after his speech in Brussels at the beginning of February and applauded Volodymyr Zelenskyj. So far, the RN MEPs had voted unanimously against all resolutions against Moscow.
In France, where parties on both the far right and left of the political spectrum have adamantly refused to reassess their Russia policies, Bardella's admission of guilt received much attention. It would be a "moral mistake" not to admit the "collective naivety," according to Bardella, who described Moscow's war of aggression as a kind of wake-up call: "Reality has knocked on our doors."
It is questionable whether the 27-year-old Bardella is actually representative of the party and thus embodies a general turning point within the RN. The fact is that Bardella, who is clearly breaking with the line of his predecessor Marine Le Pen, has had no support from her. An RN MP anonymously admitted that Bardella's stance did not meet with "general approval" within the party. "Bardella stirred up a lot of dust with this," said the party member.
"What I said corresponds to my conviction and what our voters think," Bardella justified himself to the left-wing daily Liberation. Recent polls show the party is divided on the arms supply issue. 49 percent are in favour, which is well below the French average. Overall, 60 percent of French people are in favor of arms deliveries.
Two days after Bardella's change of course, Le Pen issued a press statement on the anniversary of the start of the war, in which she criticized the "irresponsible bellicism" of Western leaders without naming them. Working for peace would not mean swearing allegiance to anyone. France must take the initiative for a peace conference, she demanded in her "Message of Independence".
The latter is an allusion to the long-held notion that France, as a so-called neutral power, has always mediated between the USA and Moscow and has distanced itself from the supposedly blind "Atlanticism" of many Europeans, especially that of the Germans. Le Pen has been in favor of France leaving NATO for years. "As for me, I will continue and tirelessly carry the message of independence and peace," Le Pen said.
Although she immediately condemned the invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine, Le Pen had always been proud of her good relationship with Moscow. For example, during the presidential election campaign last year, she had a campaign brochure printed that included a photo of her with Kremlin boss Putin. After the Russian troops marched in, she had the brochure pulped. Le Pen also financed her party thanks to a million-dollar loan from a Russian bank, which is why she stood firmly by Moscow, honored Putin as the savior of Christian civilization and did not condemn the annexation of Crimea as illegal under international law.
Despite her closeness to Putin, Le Pen won more than 41 percent of the vote in April's presidential runoff. Her party also caused a surprise in the parliamentary elections that took place a little later, because the RN, with 88 MPs, was able to form a large parliamentary group for the first time. "It cost neither Marine Le Pen nor Jean-Luc Mélenchon many votes to have supported Putin and maintained an ambivalent attitude towards Ukraine," said Bruce Teinturier, head of the polling institute Ipsos.
Since these successes, Le Pen has followed the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's course. For example, the leader of the group has asked her MEPs to dress neatly, respect rules and not bully in the Assemblé National. They obviously want to show that the time is ripe and that the RN is capable of assuming governmental responsibilities.
"If we had listened to Marine Le Pen or if she were president, the Russian flag would have been flying over Kiev long ago, I am firmly convinced of that," said Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, MP for the ruling Renaissance party, criticizing Le Pen's stance on the Ukraine conflict .
The RN voted against all resolutions condemning Russia's war of aggression and has always spoken out against arms deliveries. "What Jordan Bardella is doing is cheating," said Anglade, who recalled that for years the RN represented the Kremlin's positions in France and disseminated its anti-European propaganda.