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EU sanctions set to crumble after French elections

French relations with Russia have become a heated campaign issue in Paris, with leftists riling against the Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Published: December 29, 2016, 8:49 am

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    But when France elects a new president in 2017, the Russian president is set to gain an important ally Europe.

    France’s center-left candidates in the coming election for the presidency, running far behind in the polls, have criticised both rightwing contenders Marine Le Pen and François Fillon for their friendly stances towards Russia.

    The victory of either rightwing candidate in the May election threatens to blow up the EU’s project of maintaining hostilities against Moscow, as sanctions have been a centerpiece of a Brussels strategy: promoting the NATO plan of encircling Russia.

    At the NATO July summit in Warsaw this year, the Alliance adopted a massive military presence along Russia’s border. Russia is classified by NATO as a “threat”. Before the summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Washington that the US and the EU have the right in the form of NATO to defend its territories on foreign soil.

    The NATO alliance, the strongest military alliance in the world, has all but abandoned its mission in the Mediterranean. The 11 September 2001 NATO response called “Active Endeavor” patrolling the Mediterranean to stop terrorists there, became obsolete when German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to throw open the country’s borders to all migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

    Fillon hasn’t gone as far as questioning the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Europe’s main defensive bulwark, while Le Pen has echoed the independent Gaullist stance on NATO.

    The most unpopular president in the history of the country François Hollande, has led calls for the Syrian leader to step down, mimicking the Obama administration’s refrain of “Assad must go!” That soon escalated tensions with Russia, who deployed forces to keep ally Assad in power.

    But as US President-elect Donald Trump is equally inclined towards friendlier relations with Moscow, the forged consensus on sanctions against Russia could soon implode. Trump, in releasing a letter from the Russian president’s, lauded Putin’s sentiments for being “so correct”.

    Russia’s involvement in ridding Syria’s onetime commercial capital of Aleppo of Takfiris — called a “war crime” by France’s unpopular Socialist leaders — has moreover spurred both politicians from urging closer ties between Paris and Moscow.

    In November an opinion poll stated that 61 percent of respondents approved maintaining economic sanctions imposed against Russia after its annexation of Crimea, while only a quarter wanted France to leave NATO. But the real kicker was that most French believed their role as a country with influence in the world, has seriously diminished.

    Only now are voters realising why this is so, and backing pro-Russian candidates. The rise of both pro-Russian leaders in France could therefore also weaken opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Already before Fillon swept to victory in France’s center-right presidential primary last month, the 62-year-old former prime minister delivered another stinging critique of the sanctions.

    “Is it intelligent, with a sanctions policy that has done absolutely nothing but ruin French farmers, to push Russia both into diplomatic mistakes and at the same time toward Asia?” Fillon said, referring to retaliatory import bans Moscow has imposed on European farm exports. “I think this policy has failed.”

    Fillon told the France 5 TV channel in February this year already: “The anti-Russian economic sanctions should be lifted in the shortest possible time. It was a silly step. The sanctions have had no impact in the sphere of international politics but only worsened relations with Russia.”

    Fillon, frontrunner to become France’s next president, wants closer ties with the Kremlin also after France suffered a blow to its military exports due to sanctions.

    In 2014 François Hollande hesitated for months before cancelling a €1.2bn warship deal with Russia, even as the EU’s sanctions started to bite.

    “Fillon is closer to the voters than Alain Juppe on several issues: the fight against the Islamic state, gay marriage, and Russia,” Alexei Pushkov, the member of Russian parliament’s upper chamber, wrote on Twitter.

    France’s lower house of parliament voted in favor of not extending EU sanctions against Russia in April this year. French members of parliament voted 55-44 in favor of a resolution to lift sanctions on Moscow imposed by the 28-member European Union.

    The Republican party voted for a lifting of sanctions, while the Socialists and Greens voted against. “[The sanctions are] totally ineffective today to solve this international crisis and are dangerous for France’s interests,” said conservative MP Thierry Mariani, who put forward the resolution.

    Since March 2014, Merkel and Hollande have led the push to impose several rounds of European Union sanctions on Moscow, bullying countries against their interests.

    Needing unanimous support from the other 26 EU nations, the pair was able to strong-arm national capitals to back the measures. With a sanctions opponent in Paris, the measures would be at risk of expiring in June, when EU nations must vote to renew them.

    Caroline Morard, a spokeswoman for Fillon, told the Wall Street Journal the candidate maintains the economic sanctions should be lifted “as soon as possible.”

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