Europe’s far-right parties admired Putin. Now they’re stranded.

Michel Euler/AP
A man passes by a campaign poster of French far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour. His 2018 comment that he regretted there was no "French Putin" has come back to haunt him.
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For several years it was fashionable among extreme right-wing European politicians to express their admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was the sort of strong leader they thought their own countries needed.

Now they are paying the political price for having cozied up to him.

Why We Wrote This

Vladimir Putin was once a hero to Europe’s far-right politicians. What does his invasion of Ukraine mean for their reputations and their future?

In France, far-right presidential election candidates Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen – neither of whom had made any secret of their fondness for the Russian president – are now falling in the polls despite having condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

They, and far-right leaders elsewhere on the continent, are qualifying their condemnations, though, by suggesting that NATO provoked Mr. Putin by expanding too far eastward, into lands once controlled by the Soviet Union.

The war in Ukraine has been embarrassing and damaging to extreme right-wing parties in Europe, but foreign affairs are not top of their voters’ concerns.

“Populism’s lifeline simply is not foreign policy,” says Georgina Wright, an expert at the Montaigne Institute, a Paris-based think tank. “So no, this isn’t the end of far-right parties.”

Four years ago, long before Eric Zemmour became the most sulfurous of the far-right candidates in France’s current presidential election campaign, the TV pundit told reporters that he dreamed of a “French Putin” and regretted that there wasn’t one.

As the war in Ukraine enters its second month, Mr. Zemmour’s comment has come back to haunt him. Once seen as a possible threat to President Emmanuel Macron in the April elections, Mr. Zemmour’s poll ratings have plunged since the Russian invasion began.  

He isn’t alone among his ilk. As the war in Ukraine rages on, far-right leaders across Europe are now paying the price for having once cozied up to the Russian president who is now trying to destabilize Europe. The war in Ukraine has led to a continent-wide shift away from extreme voices that could erode their influence in the future.

Why We Wrote This

Vladimir Putin was once a hero to Europe’s far-right politicians. What does his invasion of Ukraine mean for their reputations and their future?

“Even before the war, most far-right parties weren’t doing well because of the pandemic,” says Gilles Ivaldi, an expert in populism at Sciences Po. “People are unlikely to turn to populist alternatives and most of those parties – in France, Austria, or Italy – have had links with Russia or were Putin admirers. We’ve seen a clear trend that far-right parties have lost legitimacy.” 

In France, another far-right presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, has found 1.2 million campaign leaflets distributed last month to be an embarrassment: they feature a 2017 photograph of her shaking hands with Mr. Putin.

Italy’s far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini – who once described Mr. Putin as “the best statesman currently on earth” – was snubbed by the mayor of Przemyśl, Poland near the Ukraine border during a recent visit. 

And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s pro-Kremlin stance has come under fire since the war broke out. Opposition politicians staged a demonstration outside the headquarters of state-owned news agency MTVA and at another war protest, demonstrators shouted “Russians out!” 

Krzysztof Cwik/Agencja
Mayor of Przemyśl, Poland, Wojciech Bakun (left) and Italy's far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini clash during a media address after Mr. Bakun called Mr. Salvini a "friend of Putin" and presented him with a T-shirt of the Russian president, March 8th.

Distancing themselves from a “changed” Putin 

Populist politicians have gone to great lengths since the Ukraine war began to put themselves on the right side of history, though they are also trying to defend themselves from accusations of flip-flopping that sap their credibility.

“They’re not admitting they were wrong, but [saying] that the Putin we’re interacting with today is different from the one before,” says Tara Varma, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. “Most of them say it was right to extend a hand to him, that Russia is a part of Europe and we can’t exclude them.”

Ms. Le Pen is a case in point; she recently told reporters that the war had “partly changed” her view of the Russian president and defended her meeting with him by arguing that “the Vladimir Putin of five years ago is not exactly the same one as today.”

Another common denominator among far-right European politicians is an attempt to nuance their opposition to the invasion of Ukraine so as to distinguish themselves from Western governments.

Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), for example, has officially denounced the war. But party leaders have argued that NATO pushed Mr. Putin into a corner by expanding eastward to embrace former Soviet allies.

Europe’s extreme right-wing parties have “all publicly come out against the invasion,” says Paul Vallet, a lecturer on European history at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. “But because it fits with their anti-EU, anti-NATO agenda, they can easily pick up on the narrative put out by Russia – that the decision to invade was forced on it by the policies of NATO and the U.S.”

If such parties are trying to wriggle off the hook, however, European leaders such as Spanish President Pedro Sánchez are determined not to let them. “Europe will prevail,” he declared last week in parliament, in a violent attack on the leader of the far-right Vox party. “Salvini, Le Pen, you and Putin will not get away with it!”

Anna Szilagyi/AP
Hungary's right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, addresses supporters as they gather in Budapest, Hungary, March 15, 2022. The so-called "peace march" was a show of strength by Mr. Orbán ahead of scheduled April 3 national elections.

Not the end of the far right

Europeans stand unequivocally behind Ukraine, according to public opinion polls. A March IFOP poll in France, Germany, Italy, and Poland showed that 84% had a positive opinion of Ukraine. Only 16% felt the same way about Russia. 

That has put pressure on politicians to rethink their relationships with Mr. Putin, especially those in the throes of an election. In Hungary, where the war has become the single most important issue in the run-up to parliamentary elections on April 3rd, Mr. Orbán’s reluctance to take a harsher stance on the Russian invasion could widen the divide between Budapest and the European Union. It is already creating strains with traditional Hungarian allies such as Poland.

“In terms of international politics, European politics, it is very damaging for Viktor Orbán,” says Bulcsú Hunyadi, an analyst at Political Capital in Budapest. “He is becoming more and more isolated.” 

But a poll conducted by Nézőpont Intézet found that the war has not hurt Mr. Orbán at home. In fact, he has extended his lead over an opposition coalition by presenting himself as the leader best equipped “to help Hungary stay safe and in peace,” according to Hungarian journalist Katalin Foldvari.

Links to Mr. Putin are more of a liability in France, where candidates with past affinities for the Russian president have seen their poll ratings sink in recent weeks. Mr. Zemmour seems to have fallen from grace, dropping to 12.5% this week, after saying that “if Putin is guilty, the West is responsible,” and that Ukrainian refugees should stay in Poland.

Ms. Le Pen might still pose a threat to Mr. Macron, thanks to a decision early on to focus her campaign on social welfare reforms – now an even more pressing issue for the French as the war pushes up food and energy prices. She is currently polling at 18.5%.

But it is President Macron who has benefited the most politically from the Ukraine war, with polls putting him at 29.5%. The French leader has bolstered his image as a statesman by keeping diplomatic channels open to Mr. Putin, and has also benefited from “rally round the flag” sentiment.

Political leaders not facing elections still risk damaging their credibility as they perform about-faces on their views of Mr. Putin’s Russia, which voters may find hard to believe.

When Mr. Salvini visited Poland, the mayor of Przemyśl, a border town that has taken in tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, told the League party leader “I have no respect for you,” after pulling out a T-shirt featuring Mr. Putin similar to the one Mr. Salvini wore smilingly during a 2014 visit to Moscow.

A survey this week found that following the incident, the League’s support fell.

Spain’s far-right Vox party has led an anti-feminist, anti-regional independence strategy that may cushion it from the fallout from its past sympathies for Mr. Putin’s Russia. Still, it has found itself at odds with its fellow far-right European partners, in defending the decision to send weapons to Ukraine – something Hungary’s Mr. Orbán has been unwilling to do.

But even as far-right parties across Europe scramble to defend – or explain away – their previous ties with Mr. Putin, analysts say the Ukraine war will not spell the death of populist parties in Europe. Their voters are historically more preoccupied with social welfare protection, identity issues, and immigration than with international affairs.

“I think the backlash will be on the state’s ability to respond to this crisis,” says Georgina Wright, director of the Europe Programme at the Montaigne Institute, a Paris-based think tank. “Populism’s lifeline simply is not foreign policy. So, no, this isn’t the end of far-right parties.”

Dominique Soguel in Basel, Switzerland; Lenora Chu in Berlin; and Nick Squires in Rome contributed reporting to this article.

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