French Elections and Liberal Democracy’s Crisis, or, ‘Never Start a Cyber War With Russia’

Simon van Woerden is Communications Director at YPFP NY. The views expressed are his own. Follow Simon on Twitter.

French citizens will head to the ballot box on April 23, with a possible second round on May 7. Right-wing populist Marine Le Pen is ahead in the polls, projected to take 26% of the votes, followed by the centre-left candidate Emmanual Macron with 20%. Nevertheless, Le Pen may not be so lucky in the second round, when the opposition against her Front National will be less fragmented.

After Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, many have looked anxiously to the upcoming elections in Netherlands, Germany, and France. Even without Trump, the right-wing populism that is on the rise in many parts of Europe has given pause to political analysts and raised questions about the robustness of European parliamentary and social democracy, liberalism, and tolerance.

Russia’s covert hacking and all-but-overt Crimea invasion has been seen as a destabilizing force aimed at NATO, a transatlantic thorn in Russia’s side. France not only boasts Europe’s largest standing army, with military spending second only to the United Kingdom, but also holds a key position in NATO. Thus, NATO adversaries attempting to dislodge pro-European candidates and promote populist, antidemocratic tendencies (like that of Le Pen) may see France as a prime target for destabilizing campaigns. As The Economist wrote recently, “it is perhaps no coincidence that Ms. Le Pen’s party has received a hefty loan from a Russian bank and Mr. Macron’s organisation has suffered more than 4,000 hacking attacks.”

Against the backdrop of the Kremlin’s both covert and open jabs at Western stability, leadership and dominance, information and technology play fascinating (and terrifying) roles. Wikileaks, which has repeatedly leaked information which de facto bolstered Putin’s regime, including those damaging Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, is now turning its spotlight on the French election. For the moment, Assange’s outfit is practicing equal opportunity shaming, although perhaps Le Pen, like Trump, has the unusual advantage of being know as a non-traditional figure, and thus allowed to transgress against whatd’s expected of presidential candidates.

It is quite the ploy: playing off the West’s respect for hard-hitting investigative journalism and its reluctance to hack of political adversaries on a large scale in allied nations. For the West it is a lose-lose: copy Russia’s hacking tactics within your allies’ borders and face their outrage; attack Wikileaks’ selective leaking and face accusations of tampering with freedom of speech and journalism.

At the very least, the liberal, democratic, Western, “free world”, is on the defensive all over the world. This does not mean these battles were not always raging in the background, but it does draw the fighting out into the open and further feeds popular disgust with the no longer high-and-mighty elites in their own backyards.

A young man protests Marine Le Pen’s appearance at Sciences Po in Paris in April 2012. (Rémi Noyon/Flickr)

Liberals and progressives in France, the rest of Europe, and the US have their work cut out for them, even if Putin-backed populism fails in France. The Women’s March and similar protests are hopeful signs that it is possible to organize a resistance through democratic institutions, but they are not yet a match to the emergent challenge of Putin-fed populism. Looking around for a new progressive icon of universal human rights and democracy, none are readily visible — save perhaps for the new UN Secretary General António Guterres, who nevertheless cannot command more than a moral authority.

But who knows — maybe we will see an unexpected upstart candidate taking the lead in France?