French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at a press conference at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France, February 17, 2022. EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON/Pool via
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at a press conference at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France, February 17, 2022. EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON/Pool via Reuters / POOL

Opposition contenders in France's upcoming leadership election mocked President Emmanuel Macron's diplomatic efforts in the Ukraine crisis, accusing him of putting up a show for electoral gains.

However, they also found their own past comments and dealings with Russia coming under scrutiny.

Macron has led European efforts to avert war in Ukraine, flying to Moscow earlier this month to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and spending hours on the phone with him and other world leaders over the past weeks to mediate.

Reacting to black-and-white photos of a concerned-looking Macron sitting by a phone at his desk, posted by his official photographer on Instagram, far-right leader Marine Le Pen accused him of showboating.

"I have come across pictures of an unshaven Emmanuel Macron, head in hands. This is all very artistic, but it's not serious to use these subjects for PR," Le Pen told RTL radio.

Asked about the criticism, a government official said: "If they consider diplomacy to be just PR, then they're glossing over thousands of years of diplomacy."

Le Pen, whom Macron defeated with 66% of the votes in 2017, is a distant second in opinion polls behind the president for the first round but could qualify for the April 24 runoff which could be tighter than five years ago.

The latest Ifop opinion poll shows Macron ahead with 25% for the first round on April 10, with Le Pen and another far-right contender, Eric Zemmour, vying for second place with 16% each. Polls show Macron winning the runoff against all candidates.

Zemmour, a former TV commentator known for inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric, said Russia's decision to recognise two breakaway Ukrainian regions as independent showed Macron was not respected by Putin.

However, it is not clear whether the criticism could hurt Macron, since the Ukraine crisis has also put his opponents on the backfoot, forcing the usually Russophile Le Pen and Zemmour to issue mild criticism of the Kremlin's moves.

"For now, Macron reigns as president, while the other contenders look like they are paddling in the children's pool," analysts at the Eurointelligence newsletter wrote.

"The candidates most supportive of Russia, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, now have to justify their own stance."

Le Pen, who accepted a loan from a Russian bank in 2014 to fund her 2017 campaign during which she paid a visit to Putin, was forced to condemn Putin's latest move.

"It's obvious the escalation President Vladimir Putin decided is really regrettable. But it's not definitive," she told RTL radio on Tuesday.

And a September 2020 tweet by Zemmour in which he says he is in favour of a "Russian alliance" and that Moscow is "the most reliable ally, even more than the United States, Germany or Britain," was being ridiculed on social media.

In a statement on Monday, Zemmour said Russia's decision to recognise the two Donbass regions "violated Ukraine's sovereignty".

"Russia is responsible first and foremost for this situation, but it's also the result of the policy carried out by the West and NATO," he said.

(Writing and additional reporting by Michel Rose, Editing by Angus MacSwan)