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The official start to France’s presidential election campaign could not have come at a worse time for incumbent Emmanuel Macron’s far-right rivals, whose long history of sycophancy toward Vladimir Putin has them looking like collaborationists amid his assault on Ukraine.

Far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour have long expressed admiration for the Russian President, whose nationalist screeds and bombings in Syria have informed their own anti-immigration and anti-terrorism diatribes. They are both paying for it now.

The hashtags #VladimirZemmour and #MarinePoutine (in French, the Russian President shares his name with that of the Quebec junk food) have been trending on social media, thanks to an avalanche of attacks by supporters of Valérie Pécresse, the presidential candidate for the centre-right Les Républicains. Her campaign team coined the devastating hashtags.

The deadline has now passed for presidential candidates to file their papers, including the signatures of at least 500 sponsors from a list of 42,000 elected-office holders, and the 35-day campaign in advance of the first-ballot vote on April 10 is shaping up to be unlike any other since the introduction of direct suffrage in 1962. And no candidate stands to benefit from this as much as Mr. Macron.

With a bloody war raging in Europe, the electoral battleground has suddenly shifted from the domestic domain to the continental sphere. The future of Europe is on the ballot in direct and tangible ways. The debate now revolves not around abstract concepts about the division of power in the European Union, but around which candidate can stand up to Russia’s aggression.

This is a problem for Ms. Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, whose party remains deeply in debt to the Russian banks that financed her 2017 presidential bid. She trekked to Moscow during that campaign for a Kremlin meeting with the Russian President, where she thanked Mr. Putin for his military intervention against “terrorists” in Syria and expressed her opposition to European sanctions slapped on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea. She said then that her “point of view on Ukraine coincides with that of Russia.”

The Paris-based daily paper Libération reported this week that Ms. Le Pen’s party had been forced to dump 1.2 million copies of a campaign pamphlet prepared for the beginning of the official campaign because the tract contained a photo of Ms. Le Pen shaking hands with Mr. Putin.

The National Rally leader, who has for weeks been in a tight three-way race with Mr. Zemmour and Ms. Pécresse to finish second behind Mr. Macron on the first ballot, did this week condemn Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and agreed France should accept Ukrainian migrants displaced by the war. Mr. Zemmour, who has long favoured closing France’s borders, has opposed taking in Ukrainian refugees, saying it is “not good to tear people like that so far from their country.”

The anti-capitalist far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a long-time apologist for Mr. Putin’s crusade against NATO expansionism, has also been on the defensive since Russian troops moved into Ukraine. His Socialist rival, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose campaign has foundered, this week accused Mr. Mélenchon of being an “agent” who serves “Mr. Putin’s interests.”

Theoretically, the incriminating histories of Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Zemmour and Mr. Mélenchon should boost the efforts of Ms. Pécresse, who has struggled to make an impression since winning her party’s presidential nomination in December, to corral the anti-Macron vote. At a rally last weekend near the site of the D-Day landing in Normandy, she promised to make France a “spearhead for the resistance and the combat for democracy” in the face of Mr. Putin’s war. But it will be hard for her to compete with Mr. Macron in that department.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Macron delivered a televised address from the Élysée Palace aimed in part at reminding French voters that the job he currently holds is not one for imposters.

“War in Europe is no longer confined to our history books or our school manuals; it is here before our eyes,” he said. “This war is the fruit of a revenge mindset, nourished by a revisionist history of Europe, that seeks to return it to the darkest hours of empires, invasions and exterminations.”

Mr. Macron, who spoke to Mr. Putin for more than an hour on Thursday, has positioned himself as Europe’s indispensable head of state – the only one truly capable of mediating between the Russian President and his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, and of preventing a bad situation from getting worse. His approval rating has skyrocketed in recent days to its highest level since his 2017 election.

His re-election, once in doubt, is increasingly looking like a mere formality.

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