France’s top intelligence agency fears that Russia is trying to sway the upcoming presidential elections in favor of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
On Wednesday, the satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné reported that France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) believes a disinformation campaign coordinated by the Kremlin threatens to undermine April’s election.
The report suggests Russia will seek to help Le Pen’s chances by using bots to post millions of positive messages about the National Front candidate online. The agency also believes Russia may seek to upend Le Pen’s opponents by publishing their confidential emails.
The allegations are being taken seriously, so much so that Le Canard claims the next defense meeting at the Élysée Palace will address this subject specifically.
Neither the DGSE nor the Kremlin responded to a request from VICE News for comment on the allegations.
A poll published Thursday shows that Le Pen would win the first round of voting in April’s election but ultimately lose out to centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in the final runoff. Republican candidate Francois Fillon – the favorite just weeks ago – languishes in third as a result of ongoing corruption allegations.
Haven’t we heard all this before?
Ever since U.S. intelligence agencies pointed the finger at the Kremlin for hacking into the DNC servers and successfully disrupting November’s presidential election, there have been allegations that President Vladimir Putin’s cyber army would turn its attention to elections taking place across Europe in 2017.
The Democrats believe Russia to be in league with WikiLeaks – which published leaked DNC emails as well as emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has repeatedly denied the information came from Russia.
WikiLeaks has already highlighted documents in its archives related to Le Pen and Fillon. Last week Assange told a Russian newspaper that he had uncovered new information about Macron in the cache of Hillary Clinton emails — though he refused to detail the contents of the emails.
How would the campaign work?
According to Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, any Russian campaign would have three elements:
- The first part would see bots deployed to post messages across the internet to raise the profile of the far-right candidate and damage her opponents.
- Russian hackers would compromise the accounts of the candidates and publish any damaging information either on WikiLeaks or by sending it anonymously to media organizations.
- The third section of the campaign sees the Kremlin-run news agency Sputnik, which launched a French-language version of its website in 2015, running articles flattering Le Pen and criticizing her opponents. The agency denies it is seeking to impact the election outcome, and does on occasion publish balanced stories, but this is simply “an attempt at plausible deniability,” Nimmo told VICE News.
Could it swing the election in Le Pen’s favor?
“Most of these attempts are likely to be of marginal impact, but what they do is give extra amplification to Le Pen,” Nimmo said. “In a tight race, that could be significant.”
As we saw with Trump’s victory and the Brexit campaign, anything that nudges the vote by even a couple percentage points can have a major effect on the outcome. The overall impact may come down to whether the candidates have sufficient incriminating information in their emails to sway public opinion one way or the other.
Does Le Pen have ties to Russia?
Le Pen has a long history of supporting Russian positions on international matters. She was very critical of sanctions imposed by the international community against Russia after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. According to some reports from Russia, Le Pen has promised to recognize the annexation if she is elected president.
Le Pen’s party has been open about an $11.7 million loan it received from a Russian bank in 2014 to fund various campaigns. The loan was granted after the party was refused help by a dozen French and European banks.
At the same time, former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen— Marine Le Pen’s father — was given a separate $2.5 million loan from a holding company run by a former KGB agent.
In December it was revealed that Le Pen requested a $30 million loan to fund her presidential campaign from a bank with close ties to Putin. U.S. Congressman Mike Turner called on the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to look into Le Pen’s Russian links.
Can France do anything to combat this?
Nimmo says that the best deterrent to any spread of false information is public awareness.
“The most important player in this is civil society, not the government. French media and civil society are very much aware of the problem and are looking at ways to counter it, and the most important thing is awareness. The more people realize that they have to think twice before they believe or share questionable news sources, the harder it’ll be for the disinformation to spread.”