"The Guardian":Russian influence on French election
By Natalie Nougayrède:
The golden domes of one of Vladimir Putin’s foreign projects، the recently built Russian Holy Trinity cathedral in the heart of Paris، rise up not far from the Elysée palace، the seat of the French presidency.
Dubbed “Putin’s cathedral” or “Saint-Vladimir”، it stands out as a symbol of the many connections the French elite has long nurtured with Russia، and which the Kremlin is actively seeking to capitalise on in the run-up to the French presidential election.
France is an important target for Russia’s soft power and networks of influence. The country is a key pillar of the European Union، an important Nato member and home to Europe’s largest far-right party، the Front National، whose leader، Marine Le Pen، is expected to reach the 7 May run-off in the presidential vote and has benefited from Russian financing.
Le Pen took the extraordinary step of travelling to Moscow to meet Putin in March، just a month before the French vote، to boost her international profile and showcase her closeness to the Russian president’s worldview – including his virulent hostility towards the EU and his vision of a “civilisational” clash with radical Islam. Yet she is far from being the only presidential candidate to favour warmer relations with Russia، nor to reflect a certain French fascination with the Kremlin strongman.
Alongside Le Pen، two of the three other main contenders in the highly unpredictable French contest have toed a more or less pro-Kremlin line. They have criticised western sanctions policies over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and have shown understanding، if not outright support، for Moscow’s involvement in Syria. These are: François Fillon، the mainstream rightwing candidate، and Jean-Luc Mélenchon، a hard-left populist who has recently been making strides in polls.
As a result، Kremlin-controlled media and trolls have concentrated their attacks on the only candidate who has criticised Putin’s regime and his foreign policies while having a serious chance of reaching the run-off and perhaps the Elysée: Emmanuel Macron، the 39-year-old centrist and former economy minister. His platform notably includes a strengthening of the EU through further integration alongside Germany، the country whose leader، Angela Merkel، has been an important obstacle to Putin’s ambitions on the continent.
Earlier this year Macron’s campaign publicly accused Russia of trying to discredit him through fake news distributed by Kremlin-run media such as RT and Sputnik، including rumours about his sex life. That was shortly after Julian Assange had told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that WikiLeaks would soon “throw oil on the fire of the French presidential election” – a statement RT and Sputnik interpreted as designed to target Macron. By contrast، pro-Putin social media in France have been busy lavishing praise on Le Pen، Fillon and، more recently، on Mélenchon.
Russian meddling in elections has become a hot political topic in the US، and there has been much speculation about Russia’s attempts to favour Brexit as well as anti-EU parties in the Netherlands and Germany. But France is now widely seen as the key country where Russia has a strategic interest in encouraging illiberal forces and seeking to drive wedges between western democracies.
Paradoxically، it is also a country where this very issue has drawn relatively little attention in the electoral debate. Indeed، financial scandals and political morality have been much bigger focuses، with international affairs kept mostly to the sidelines.
There have been a few exceptions، however. One came last week after a deadly chemical weapon attack in northern Syria، followed by a US missile strike on a Syrian airbase. These events burst into the French campaign. The French Socialist government has long denounced Moscow’s complicity in the atrocities committed by the Assad regime in Syria. By contrast، Fillon has consistently refused to ascribe any responsibility on Putin and insists that “talking to Russia” is the way forward. He believes France should ally with Putin against Islamic State. Yet، perhaps because of the public outcry after the chemical attack massacre، he refrained from repeating statements he had made last year، describing Assad as a bulwark against jihadism.
Mélenchon has shown similar complacency: he has never called out Russia’s or Assad’s war crimes in Syria. He has also mostly agreed with Moscow’s line on Ukraine. Last month he suggested that an international conference should be organised with Russia to “discuss Europe’s borders”. This echoed a long-lasting Russian proposition that the west has so far consistently rejected.
Likewise، Fillon has likened the annexation of Crimea to an expression of “self-determination”. The idea of redrawing Europe’s architecture also sits comfortably with Le Pen’s promise to pull France out of Nato’s integrated military structure and to organise a referendum on EU membership.
Another mention of Russia in the campaign occurred when the Canard Enchaîné newspaper reported a few weeks ago that Fillon had been paid €50،000 (approximately £42،000) while he was a member of parliament in 2015 for setting up a meeting between Putin and a Lebanese businessman. Fillon denied any wrongdoing as well as any financial connections with Moscow.
France is culturally different from other large western democracies in its approach to Russia. Unlike in the US and the UK، parts of its political class are prone to romanticism about past historical ties with Moscow، such as the Franco-Russian alliance of 1892-1917، or De Gaulle’s 1966 rapprochement with the USSR.
Communism was a strong political force in post-war France، and anti-American sentiment has lingered on. But France’s recent political turn to the right، the growth of populism، as well as the fallout from terrorist attacks and anti-Muslim rhetoric، have helped spread a narrative in which Putin’s Russia is cast as an unavoidable partner، if not a model، in framing a new “multipolar” world order. The far right is ideologically attracted to Putin for his authoritarianism and his championing of ultra-conservative، Christian values. The far left sees in him a welcome pushback against American power.
Yet surveys show Putin’s repressive regime is highly unpopular among the French public، despite intense lobbying carried out in cultural، political and business circles – which two well-researched books، Nicolas Hénin’s La France Russe: Enquête sur les Réseaux de Poutine and Les Réseaux du Kremlin en France by Cécile Vaissié، have brought attention to. These networks often operate in close connection with the Russian embassy as well as with the “Russian spiritual centre” which has opened next to Saint-Trinity cathedral.
Russia’s shadow looms over the impending election. French officials have been on the alert for signs of Russian meddling in the campaign. The polling watchdog has warned against Russian disinformation. As in Germany، measures have been taken to increase cybersecurity. Intelligence services have spoken publicly about the risk of foreign interference. In February the French foreign minister denounced Russian cyber-attacks and “meddling in French democratic life” as unacceptable.
In a recent Nato meeting، the French foreign minister declared Russia was “a threat but not an enemy”. French expatriates have been informed they will not be able to vote online but will have to use paper ballots instead – not unlike a measure already taken earlier this year by Dutch authorities.
When Putin met Le Pen، he applauded the far-right leader for “representing a European political spectre that has been fast developing”. Whether that embrace can weigh on the outcome of the French vote will be watched closely across the continent – and in Moscow.