New French poll separates citizens from elites on Ukraine conflict

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — As the conflict between Russia and western powers continues in Ukraine, truly independent, impartial analysis is growing increasingly difficult to formulate in real time. Press censorship and the blocking of opposing sources under the guise of protecting official government narratives in a time of conflict does little to serve those who seek to objectively assess information and data on all sides to present honest analyses and an approximation of accurate “ground truth”. Attempts by all actors involved to manipulate information in the fog of war with “good guy vs. bad guy” hagiography is also not helpful or constructive from a news and informational standpoint. But are all these mechanisms of attempted narrative control and promotion effective when it comes to influencing the average citizen?

A new poll published by Harris Interactive in France provides the beginning of an answer. Conducted online on Feb. 27, 2022, the survey suggests that the average French citizen has a considerably more nuanced view of the conflict, its causes, and its impact, than those promoted by their leaders at the European Union or French national level.

Although 92 percent of French say that they’re interested in news about the conflict, and 94 percent are empathetic toward Ukrainian citizens, only about half want a NATO military intervention in the non-NATO country. By comparison, this is less than the 60 percent popular French support for France’s anti-terrorism operations in Mali in 2012. It’s also much less than the 73 percent of French in 2011 who supported France’s “humanitarian intervention” in Libya which ultimately resulted in a coup d’état against leader Muammar Gaddafi, destabilization of the country, a flood of refugees toward Europe from Africa, and a civil war that has yet to be resolved. So, the French are split on western military intervention in Ukraine, with support paling in comparison to previous foreign military operations. The French tend to be big-hearted, but not too adept at assessing long-term impact — humanitarian or otherwise — of the wartime measures to which they entrust their government early on in conflicts.

This context of learned distrust could also explain why few French (37 percent) support sending weapons to Ukraine. But the European Union has already overruled the French people in the absence of democratic consultation or debate. EU Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell announced the transfer of “lethal weapons” from its member states, including France, to Ukraine — and “even fighter jets” — with €450 million in EU financing.

Two thirds of French do support sanctions against Russia, but only 20 percent think that economic sanctions will be effective. However, the French sure do think that anti-Russian sanctions will be “effective” on Europe, though – and not in a good way. According to the survey, 72 percent of respondents are certain that European energy prices are going to increase. Imposing economic sanctions against a partner that provides 40 percent of Europe’s gas (and 60 percent to 70 percent of Germany’s), compounded by the lack of infrastructure to pivot quickly to an alternative, makes that a pretty good bet.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the poll relates to where the French place responsibility for the Ukraine conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin is judged responsible for the conflict by 96 percent of respondents, the U.S.-led transatlantic military alliance, NATO, by 68 percent of French, U.S. President Joe Biden by 62 percent, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by 57 percent. In other words, no involved nation comes out of this blameless in the eyes of the French, which is far from the simplistic one-sided messages being peddled by its leaders and their allies.

It’s clear that the various state actors see this conflict through the eyes of their own interests and are pulling out all the stops to ensure that the average citizen does the same, unquestioningly. Public opinion, unsuppressed, has always played a role in shaping the course of conflict — military or otherwise.

NATO has long staked its entire raison d’être on drumming up drama with Russia, while Russia’s very existence is dependent on preventing America’s and NATO’s ability to launch missiles from within marching distance. Ukraine’s survival seems increasingly dependent on figuring out how to assert its own sovereignty and independence in the form of lasting neutrality as a “no man’s land” between the two factions, lest it end up subjected to an endless East-West tug-of-war and instability. Each one of these actors manifestly has an interest in exploiting the expanded window of possibilities created by the conflict’s rapid escalation to achieve its objectives.

And this is why no nation, bloc, or alliance involved is interested in backing down. And the French are apparently well aware that the only truly innocent parties are the average citizens being dragged along for the hellacious ride by the interests and actions of their governing elites in their name.