Take the Riviera villas from the oligarchs: Ukraine’s war hijacks the French presidential campaign

The Communist candidate for France’s April presidential election has proposed storming the winter palaces of Russian oligarchs on the French Riviera and handing them over to Ukrainian refugees as candidates scramble to adjust their positions in a campaign hijacked by the war in Ukraine.

With the first round of the French presidential election looming less than six weeks later, a lackluster campaign overshadowed by the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic has been derailed by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign policy is usually a sideshow in French presidential campaigns, but the largest military invasion of Europe since World War II left French presidential candidates with no choice but to venture into geopolitics and test their qualifications as future supreme leaders.

With a few notable exceptions, candidates for the Elysee Palace hastened to adjust their schedules, swapping campaign events with pro-Ukrainian rallies and trying to clarify – or correct – previous comments on the Russian president.

French presidential election © JowharFabien Roussel, the Communist Party candidate known for his defense of French beef, is perhaps the most striking proposal: the expropriation of the Russian elite’s luxury properties on the French Riviera.

“The Russian oligarchs close to Putin own many billionaire’s villas on the Cote d’Azur. I suggest that the state ask them to welcome refugees from Ukraine,” the Communist Party chief wrote on his Twitter account on Saturday. He also called on all French towns and villages to accommodate at least one or two Ukrainian families displaced by Putin’s war.

Putin’s supporters are in a weak position

Russell is one of several left-wing candidates who have cast a single low-pitched ballot in the run-up to the election. They include Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the campaigning socialist candidate, whose campaign in Bordeaux on Saturday focused almost entirely on the war in Ukraine.

Hidalgo’s team had originally envisioned a festive event, installing a large screen for the audience to watch the rugby six match in France against Scotland. Instead, the theater was decorated with the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, while Hidalgo’s speech was rewritten from start to finish.

The socialist candidate, who appeared on stage with a Ukrainian girl, called for tougher sanctions against Russia and urged the European Union to launch a speedy membership process in Kyiv. She also criticized rivals accused of sympathizing with Putin’s Russia – a tactic mirrored by the other leading candidates.

>> Ukraine crisis highlights stark divisions among France’s presidential candidates

On the right of the political spectrum, conservative candidate Valerie Beckers said those who “defended” the Russian leader in the past “have now lost their credibility to rule France”. The stab targeted far-right critic Eric Zemmour, who has repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin’s nationalist rhetoric, and National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, best known for visiting Putin during the 2017 presidential campaign.

Asked about this over the weekend, Le Pen said the invasion of Ukraine “partially changed.” [her] Putin’s opinion,” accusing the Russian president of “crossing the red line.” But she, like Zemmour, warned against imposing crippling sanctions on Russia, which she said would also harm French public opinion.

Macron’s bow and arrow

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ballooning inflation pushed the cost of living to the fore in French voters’ fears — forcing President Emmanuel Macron’s government to take urgent action to shore up citizens’ purchasing power.

The war in Ukraine allowed Macron, whose candidacy had not yet been announced, to remain above the battle and take advantage of his presidential powers. However, it also complicated the question of how and when he should announce his candidacy for re-election, with only days left before the March 4 deadline.

On Saturday, Macron made a short visit to France’s annual Agriculture Fair in Paris – a traditional, unmissable event for current and challenged presidents alike. He warned that the conflict in Ukraine “will continue” and “we must prepare for the consequences.”

Protests all over the world in solidarity with Ukraine

One candidate who would almost certainly skip the agricultural fair was left-wing troublemaker Jean-Luc Melenchon, who refused to change his campaign on the war in Eastern Europe. “In a democracy, we don’t stop just because Russia invaded Ukraine,” Melenchon said during a weekend tour of the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion.

Like Zemour and Le Pen, Melenchon has faced a barrage of criticism since the start of the Russian military offensive, with critics circulating his recent remarks that NATO had provoked Putin with plans to “annexate Ukraine.”

While criticizing the Kremlin’s “intolerable” attack on Ukraine, Melenchon stuck to his “unbiased” court on Sunday, stressing that France should stay out of the rift between Russia and US-led NATO allies. He also criticized the French government’s decision to send defensive military equipment to Ukraine, urging Macron to push for a ceasefire rather than “gesturing like a little boy with a bow and arrows.”

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