State-against-state warfare is back on the European continent. Governments—including those once considered neutral or risk-averse—have made decisions that had been unthinkable just weeks before: unprecedented sanctions likely to severely hurt their own economies, drastic increases in defense spending, and the delivery of lethal weapons to a country at war.
All this amounts to a new geopolitical reality that the public was not expecting. Now, voters across the continent are facing opportunities to express their views at the polls in a series of key votes.
In Hungary and Serbia, right-wing leaders Viktor Orbán and Aleksandar Vučić successfully played up their ability to protect their populations in the context of the war, convincingly winning elections last weekend. But the upcoming presidential vote in France on April 10—with a second round held April 24—may be the most significant of the lot, given the size and importance of the country.
The run-up has been like no other in recent memory. With voters already transfixed by the war, few are paying attention to the electoral contest. The campaign itself has offered little reason for voters to refocus: President Emmanuel Macron, the current front-runner—who announced he would run at the last moment—has spent little time on the trail, while most candidates canceled rallies after the war broke out. As a result, a recent poll found only 62 percent of French people are interested in the campaign, a figure that’s far lower than usual.
How the war influences this election could be instructive far beyond France.
The impact on voters
When the war started, 82 percent of the population claimed to be “concerned” by it, with 65 percent saying it will play an important part in determining their vote.
Another poll asked voters to rank the main issues that will shape their choice. Cost of living remains the top one (52 percent), followed by the war in Ukraine (33 percent) and the environment (28 percent). Normally, domestic issues such as employment dominate such polls, but the shift in priorities—in the 2017 presidential election, no foreign or military issues were among the top concerns—stands to reason: The war has already had tangible consequences on the French economy (the rising price of gas, for instance) and society (around thirty thousand refugees have arrived in France). This means the line between foreign and domestic policy is blurred.
The French public is more or less receptive to the Russian narrative on Ukraine, with one out of two believing at least one of the Russian arguments on the origins of the war—such as the notion that the West is pushing Ukraine into NATO or that Russian-speaking Ukrainians support the invasion. But this does not mean they support Russia, since 78 percent of voters in late February believed the Russian invasion was “illegitimate.” All the candidates have condemned the attack, and now pro-Russian voters—already very skeptical of the political and media system—will need to choose from what is available, or sit out the election completely.
The impact on candidates
…. to be continued
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