VLADIMIR PUTIN must wonder what he did right. From the refugee crisis to Brexit, Europe’s troubles have allowed the Russian president to portray himself as a bulwark of stability in a region of chaos. America’s election brought an apparent Kremlin sympathiser to the White House. And now France is on the same track. François Fillon’s victory over Alain Juppé in the presidential primary of the centre-right Republican Party leaves an avowed friend of Mr Putin as the favourite to occupy the Élysée after next spring’s election. (Mr Fillon’s most serious rival, the nationalist Marine Le Pen, has a yet more marked Moscow tilt.)

Mr Fillon’s Russophilia is born of conviction rather than expediency, and he does not hide his views. During last week’s debate with Mr Juppé he compared the Russian annexation of Crimea to Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia, an argument he could have lifted directly from the Kremlin.

The expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders in the 1990s, he muses, was a provocation bound to generate blowback. Little wonder Mr Putin singled out the “upstanding” Mr Fillon for praise before the vote.

Historical revisionism is one thing. More worryingly for Germany, France’s partner in the four-party “Normandy format” set up to negotiate with Russia and Ukraine, Mr Fillon wants to scrap the economic sanctions that the European Union imposed on Russia over Crimea and its incursions in eastern Ukraine. Opinions in the EU are divided on Russia, from hawks like the Balts and Poland to doves like Italy and Hungary. So far Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has held the club together, ensuring a regular rollover of the toughest measures. But the consensus is slowly fraying; to lose the French would be a shock.

Like other EU countries, France blows hot and cold on Russia. Few voters sympathise with Mr Putin.

But energy firms and agricultural exporters chafe at the loss of business. The Kremlin’s military playgrounds, real and potential, feel a long way from Paris. And a nation savaged by attacks sponsored by Islamic State (IS) is open to the idea of working with Mr Putin in Syria, over the heads of anxious eastern Europeans if necessary. In 2014 François Hollande, France’s current president, hesitated for months before cancelling a €1.2bn ($1.3bn) warship deal with Russia, even as the EU’s sanctions started to bite.

But France matters more than most. Leaders like Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, may earn points at home by railing against sanctions, but at EU summits in Brussels they listen to Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande and fall into line. In October, immediately before the latest such gathering, the pair met Mr Putin in Berlin and were shocked to hear him threaten to visit upon Aleppo the fate of Grozny, the Chechen capital pulverised by Russian forces in the 1990s. Mr Hollande’s tough response impressed the Germans; and, in Brussels, Mr Renzi’s call for a “strategic discussion” on Russia policy backfired. It is hard to imagine Mr Fillon acting this way.

The picture is further complicated by the election of Donald Trump. A German senior official says America’s president-elect appears to have a set of “emotions and reflexes” rather than a foreign policy. Yet admiration for Mr Putin has been a constant of his otherwise flip-flopping worldview. His calls for détente with the Kremlin in the name of tackling IS are enthusiastically endorsed by Mr Fillon. The EU has held together on Russia partly because of transatlantic unity, including the occasional prod from Barack Obama. Should Mr Trump quietly let America’s sanctions on Russia die, perhaps as part of a bigger deal on co-operation in Syria, Mrs Merkel’s job will become near-impossible.
At first, this might not make much difference. Sanctions have failed to deter Mr Putin, who now relies on bellicose nationalism to drum up domestic support, since he no longer has an oil windfall to spend. Maintaining the EU’s unity is not much of a prize, say some, next to the costs of confrontation with a nuclear-armed neighbour with whom European firms seek to trade. Nor would a wink from the West as Mr Putin’s bombers raze Syrian cities differ much in practice from the current approach.
Moreover, if his hand is forced, Mr Fillon is unlikely to place Moscow before Berlin. President Fillon would surely devote his energies to reforming the French state, not shattering EU unity.

On the traditional post-inauguration visit to Berlin he can expect to receive an earful from Mrs Merkel (as Mr Hollande did in 2012, over his campaign remarks on Greece’s bail-out). The Franco-German relationship remains at Europe’s heart; Mr Fillon is not the sort of loose cannon who might demolish it.

Grin and bear it
The problem is not that Mr Fillon will become a Kremlin stooge at the heart of the EU. It is that he may make it harder for Europe to manage Mr Putin’s caprices. What if one of the frequent incursions by Russian jets into NATO airspace triggers an incident? What if the Kremlin’s disinformation machine attempts to turn a European election, as German spooks fear? What if Mr Putin makes a play for Belarus? Not breaking ranks on sanctions merely means sticking to the status quo; a fresh crisis will require a fresh response, and Mrs Merkel will not want to act without France.

Still, these are unpredictable times. Mr Fillon is not a shoo-in for election. The effects of Mr Trump’s victory are hard to divine. Officials in both Paris and Berlin wonder whether an American rapprochement with the Kremlin might encourage Mr Putin, free from fears of American-sponsored “colour” revolutions at home, to stand down abroad—and perhaps even to become a more constructive partner on multilateral issues such as arms control.

And should Mr Putin not let up, Mr Fillon may undergo the same journey as Mrs Merkel, who turned decisively against the Russian president when he lied to her about his mischief-making in Crimea. (Such is the hope in Germany.) Mr Putin, as ever, is unpredictable and his plans unclear. The worry is that the election of Mr Fillon may render the EU unpredictable and unclear, too.