Editor’s note: This story was originally published April 22, 2017.
Less than a month before the fiercely contested French presidential election, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was campaigning not in Nantes or Lyon but in Moscow, where she had an unannounced meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. After exchanging pleasantries with Russia’s leader, for whom she has openly expressed admiration, Le Pen pledged that one of her first actions as president would be to cancel sanctions against Russia.
“A new world has emerged in the last few years,” Le Pen told VICE News and other journalists after the meeting. “It’s the world of Vladimir Putin, it’s the world of Donald Trump in the United States, it’s the world of Mr. [Narendra] Modi in India, and I think I am the one who shares this vision of cooperation, and not a vision of submission or a vision of warmongering, like the one which is put forward far too often by the European Union.”
Le Pen’s surprise trip to Moscow at the height of a raucous French campaign, in which she has been jostling for the lead with more-traditional candidates Emmanuel Macron and Francois Fillon, was indicative of the outsized role Russia has played in the election, endorsing France’s right-wing candidates while smearing Macron. So was the knowing grin that crept onto Putin’s face as he told Le Pen on camera that Russia didn’t “want to influence” the vote in any way.
Putin’s smile couldn’t disguise the fact that Russia has financed Le Pen’s National Front party in the past and has been accused of surreptitiously backing her this go-around. Unlike Le Pen and the center-right Fillon, who have both called for closer relations with Moscow, the pro-EU Macron has been the target of smear pieces in Russian state media and cyberattacks that his campaign says originated in Russia.
The meeting in front of TV cameras in the gilded Kremlin reception room was a win-win — a display of legitimacy for both Putin and Le Pen. For Le Pen, the rare sit-down with a world leader cast her in a presidential light before the election. It also confirmed that the Kremlin was once again in her corner after Putin praised Fillon after he took an early lead in November.
For Russia, a Le Pen win would be at once a victory lap and damning blow to the EU, further weakening already strained support for sanctions against Russia related to its role in the annexation of Crimea. After Brexit, the EU itself might not survive a Le Pen presidency. That would leave countries to individually work out relations with Moscow, as the Kremlin prefers, and create more room for Russian influence on the continent.
Betting on Europe’s far right
Having forged close ties with far-right parties in Austria, Italy, France, Germany, and elsewhere, Moscow has been accused of interfering in politics across Europe through propaganda and disinformation. The fear is that its meddling could frame campaign issues and potentially shift election outcomes, as it may have done in the United States, where intelligence agencies concluded that Russia hacked Democratic Party emails in a bid to help Donald Trump win the White House.
While the growth of the populist far right in Europe can in no way be blamed on the Kremlin, the landscape no doubt makes France and Germany — which has elections in September — “vulnerable” to Russia’s election exploits, said Tatiana Kastueva-Jean, head of the Russia/NIS Center at the French Institute of International Relations.
A Eurosceptic president like Le Pen would be a boon for Moscow, which views the current European Union leadership as too influenced by Kremlin critics in Poland and the Baltics, she said. That’s not to mention that fractures in Europe could speed the end of EU sanctions adopted against Russia over its involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.
“If Le Pen comes to power, it would correspond with the secret but obvious desires of the Kremlin, namely the weakening of the European Union, the weakening of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the NATO alliance,” Kastueva-Jean said. “These politics would weaken the Western camp and give Russia a lot of freedom for geopolitical and diplomatic maneuvering.”
Moscow has a history of trying to influence European politics going back to Soviet times, when it reportedly gave money to trade unions and political groups. A shared love of conservative social stances — exemplified by Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law — and strong-handed leadership makes Putin’s government and the far right a natural match, but the Kremlin’s motivations are more political than ideological: Far-right parties have become natural allies thanks to their growing popularity and arguments against European integration.
Alina Polyakova of the Atlantic Council, who studies both Russian disinformation and the European far right, said the Kremlin’s top goal is good relations with those in power in Europe. In the absence of this, the aim is to “manufacture some sort of political paralysis while at the same time raising the level of pro-Russian voices” to “destabilize politics and sow chaos,” she said.
Le Pen’s Russian History
Le Pen and Russian politicians have been forging their mutually beneficial friendship for years. She first came to Moscow in 2013, and the next year her foreign policy adviser Aymeric Chauprade visited then-Russia-occupied Crimea. He joined members of far-right (and a few far-left) parties from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Serbia, and Spain to observe the widely criticized referendum to join Russia.
The National Front had difficulty taking out bank loans in France, but following its friendly support of the Crimean annexation, the party found easy credit in Russia. Cotelec, a financial branch of the National Front, received a $2.5 million loan from a Cyprus-registered holding company reportedly belonging to a former KGB agent in 2014, days after Le Pen met speaker of Parliament and ruling party member Sergei Naryshkin in Moscow. The party itself later obtained an $11 million loan from First Czech-Russian Bank in Moscow, which Czech intelligence has in the past suspected of ties to Russian spy agencies and which is owned by a company belonging to sanctioned Putin ally Gennady Timchenko.
In text messages leaked by Anonymous International, Kremlin officials in March 2014 allegedly discussed asking Le Pen to support the annexation of Crimea, and once she had, spoke of the need to “thank the French in some way.” The Cotelec loan was approved the next month, leading to accusations that Le Pen had taken pro-Russian positions in exchange for funding. She has denied them.
Although its treasurer said late last year the National Front was seeking loans in Russia and other countries, Le Pen said she did not discuss financing during her April trip to Moscow. Leonid Slutsky, the nationalist member of Parliament who arranged the visit, told VICE News that he didn’t know of any current Russian government funding for the National Front.
“If she took out credit, then she took out credit,” he said. “Any of us can take out credit in any bank, including banks in Russia or France or wherever.”
French authorities have opened an investigation into the National Front treasurer over allegations of fraudulent campaign activities, and the EU is seeking to recover €339,000 in misused funds from Le Pen.
Beyond Le Pen
Moscow’s influence extends beyond financing and supporting France’s far right. Russian authorities have set up three influential civil society organizations in France that have worked to build support for Russian foreign policy and for the lifting of EU sanctions. One of them has been accused by French secret services of being a front for Russian spies, though nothing has materialized. Similar accusations have been leveled against the huge new Orthodox cultural center built by the Russian government next to a French presidential compound in downtown Paris, part of a pro-Kremlin influence campaign spearheaded by the Orthodox church. French counter-espionage services have reportedly sought to surround the Orthodox center with jamming devices over fears it would be used for surveillance.
The French center right, like traditional conservative parties in some other European countries, has increasingly co-opted rhetoric and policy from the far right, with former president and The Republicans leader Nicolas Sarkozy setting an anti-immigrant tone in the primaries. The party’s eventual candidate, Fillon, published a book called “Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism” and promised immigration quotas based on country of origin — nationalistic policies often bolstered by the Kremlin.
And like Le Pen, Fillon called for closer relations with Russia, a talking point that came after Moscow made overtures to The Republicans. In 2015, the Russian Peace Foundation, which is directed by Slutsky, paid to bring 10 French parliamentarians from the party, including former transport minister Thierry Mariani, to Moscow and Crimea to meet the local leadership and buy souvenirs like an “Obama, you’re a douchebag” T-shirt. It brought another group of French parliamentarians to Crimea in 2016. Both visits were condemned by the French foreign ministry.
But deputy chairman Yelena Sutormina told VICE News that the Russian Peace Foundation doesn’t receive money from the government and the trips did not have any political purpose.
Russian media meddling
While Russian politicians have built ties with French MPs, Russia’s foreign-focused state media RT and Sputnik have been lavishing coverage on Europe’s migrant crisis, an issue on which France’s far right — led most notably by Le Pen — has made political hay after a string of gruesome ISIS-organized terror attacks, including Thursday’s shooting at Paris’s famed Champs Elysees. An analysis this year of Sputnik found that since the establishment of its French-language site in 2016, it had put out an average of three articles a day about immigrants. (RT, which the British media regulator Ofcom has found in violation of impartiality standards more often than any other broadcaster, is launching a French channel this year.)
While experts have argued the audience of these Russian outlets is limited, Polyakova said factually incorrect stories they publish can make their way into mainstream media and the public discourse. “Like an ink drop in a pool of water, at first you see the origin, but then it just dissipates and you can’t see it,” she said.
That was the case when a Sputnik interview with Nicolas Dhuicq, a member of Parliament from Fillon’s The Republicans party, blew up after the politician alleged that Macron was an “agent of the big American banking system” and backed by a “wealthy gay lobby.” That story reignited rumors Macron was secretly homosexual and forced the candidate to deny he was the gay lover of Radio France chief executive Mathieu Gallet. Macron soon suffered a slump in the polls, prompting his aide Benjamin Griveaux to accuse Russia of a “smear campaign” against him.
At the same time, the secretary-general of Macron’s En Marche! party said it was suffering several thousand cyberattacks each month “coordinated by a structured group,” which he said was based in Russia. (The Kremlin denied interfering.) The Macron campaign is not the first French organization to accuse the Kremlin of hacking: According to the head of France’s TV5, investigators found that a 2015 cyberattack that took the channel off-air for hours was linked to APT 28, the same group accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee during the U.S. election.
For now there is no publicly available evidence to back up En Marche!’s claim. But it has again raised the specter of Russia’s ability to meddle in western elections.
“It would be huge, if, say, the hackers stopped in the States and decided to refocus on Europe,” said expert Andrei Soldatov, author of books about the Russian secret services and their electronic surveillance.
One mitigating factor this time around is that the U.S. election hacking has made European leaders more vigilant against Russian interference. A November resolution by the European Parliament warned about “aggressive Russian activities in the cyber domain” and called for coordination by member states to “counter disinformation and propaganda” from Russia.
In France, outgoing president François Hollande has warned against Russia’s “ideological operations” to influence elections, and foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called the cyberattacks against Macron an unacceptable “form of interference in French democratic life.” The foreign ministry has suspended e-ballots for voters living abroad “due to the extremely high threat of cyberattacks that could affect the conduct of electronic voting.”
“After what happened in the United States,” Ayrault said, “it is our responsibility to take all steps necessary to ensure that the integrity of our democratic process is fully respected.”
The Russian threat to Europe’s elections will not be over after the presidential vote. France will hold elections to the national legislature in June, and national elections will soon take place in Germany, which chancellor Angela Merkel warned is already “having to deal with information out of Russia or with internet attacks that are of Russian origin or with news which sows false information.”