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How the war in Ukraine is benefiting the French president's reelection campaign

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Next month's presidential elections in France have been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, and that has been to one candidate's advantage. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The eight top candidates for president appeared one by one before a live TV audience and took questions from two journalists. The quasi-debate show was called "France Facing War."

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: One journalist asked incumbent Emmanuel Macron, you just spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin again. What is there to say to him after all this destruction?

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Macron responds by saying the journalist is right to highlight the horrors of a war on European soil but says he's talking to Putin and has also been working the phones with other world leaders, pushing for a ceasefire. How can any other candidate compete with that, asks Corinne Mellul, professor of international relations at Sciences Po University.

CORINNE MELLUL: He's the war chief right now, the chef de guerre, and during a war, you don't want to change leaders so that even if before the war, his reelection was almost seen as a foregone conclusion, now it's a certainty.

BEARDSLEY: Macron's numbers have gone up 5 points since Russia invaded Ukraine. Polls show him leading the pack, with 30% of the vote ahead of the first round. The next closest candidate is right-wing standard bearer, Marine Le Pen, with 17%. Also in the hunt are far-right populist and former journalist Eric Zemmour and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon. They've been negatively impacted by this war, says Douglas Webber, political science professor at international business school INSEAD.

DOUGLAS WEBBER: Three of the four major other contenders for the presidency have all embarrassed themselves by having made pro-Putin statements or having adopted pro-Putin stances in the past.

BEARDSLEY: The war has especially hurt populist Zemmour, who's been Putin's biggest cheerleader over the years, up until just days before the invasion that he said wouldn't happen. There's a video compilation of his pro-Putin remarks on YouTube.

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ERIC ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Vladimir Putin is a Russian patriot with a grand foreign policy and a powerful army, he says, adding that Russian demands in Ukraine are completely legitimate. Once the darling of the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim camp, Zemmour has now lost considerable credibility.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Valerie, Valerie, Valerie, Valerie.

BEARDSLEY: Supporters cheered conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse at a rally in the town of Meaux, east of Paris. Along with Macron, Pecresse is the only other mainstream candidate in the top five. She supports sanctions on Russia and welcomes Ukrainian refugees.

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VALERIE PECRESSE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: But the war in Ukraine should not be used as a pretext to skip the debate of ideas, she told her audience. The destiny of the French people will play out in a few weeks, and Emmanuel Macron is about to get a free pass, she says. Macron has refused to debate until the second round, when the two highest-scoring candidates will face off. Retiree Michel Fouchault (ph), who served two terms as the mayor of a small town, came out to the rally to support Pecresse.

MICHEL FOUCHAULT: (Through interpreter) If you're an official seeking reelection, you've got to debate your record, recognize your errors and accept to put your ideas up against those of other candidates. This is the basis of our democracy.

BEARDSLEY: Fouchault says a presidential election is the chance to debate issues important to the country, like the economy, immigration and French identity. He says that's not happening this time around, and many people feel this election has been hijacked.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOTAN PROJECT'S "TRIPTICO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.