The Russian hacking collective Anonymous International has leaked close to 40,000 text messages allegedly sent and received by a high-ranking Russian official that reference a potential financing deal between Russia and France's far-right National Front (FN) party in exchange for FN leader Marine Le Pen's public endorsement of Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
The online French investigative journal Mediapartpublished the hacked text messages, which allegedly belong to Timur Prokopenko, head of Russia's internal affairs department.
Last November, reports surfaced that the FN had secured a loan worth 9.46 million euros ($10.40 million) from Moscow's First Czech-Russian Bank (FCRB), adding to an earlier 2 million euro ($2.20 million) loan from Russia to FN-linked group Cotelec, which is run by Marine's father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Cyprus-based Vernonsia Holdings Ltd, a company allegedly owned by a former member of the KGB, reportedly underwrote the loan to Cotelec.
Marine Le Pen has denied any link between the loans and the party's position on Crimea, arguing that her party turned to Russia after it was shunned by French banks. French and European banks are notoriously timid about lending the FN money, and the anti-immigration political group found itself on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010.
Last March, Le Pen publicly recognized the results of Crimea's referendum to break from Ukraine and formally join the Russian Federation. Le Pen's stance was at odds with the common position held by France and other Western countries, including the United States, which viewed the referendum as "unlawful."
The same day that Le Pen vocalized her support of the referendum, Prokopenko allegedly sent text messages to Konstantin Rykov, a pro-Putin blogger also known as "Kostya," who, according to the hackers, had access to Le Pen.
In the messages, the two men applaud Le Pen's endorsement, saying that the party leader "has not betrayed our expectations." The two men agreed to "find a way of thanking the French."
According to Mediapart, the transcripts published by the Russian hackers are authentic. VICE News could not independently confirm the legitimacy of the hacked messages. One of Prokopenko's contacts has since confirmed that the transcript of a conversation he had with the Russian official is accurate.
In other messages, dated March 11, 2014, Prokopenko allegedly asked Kostya if he could arrange for Marine Le Pen to travel to Crimea to observe the referendum, while also making reference to "financing."
3.17pm: "Answer, Kostya."
3.20pm: "Regarding Marine, they're in the middle of a local election campaign, she's campaigning. Today-tomorrow, the National Front will make its official position on Crimea known. Is she prepared to travel her (which is unlikely), her or her deputies. I will know more this evening."
3.22pm: "Oh! That's great. Maybe they can convince her."
3.22pm: "Regarding the financing, no."
3.23pm: "Thanks a lot, the MID [Russian foreign affairs ministry] will speak to her."
Mediapart also reported that FN politician Aymeric Chauprade — who traveled to Crimea in 2014 to observe the referendum — helped broker the 2 million euro ($2.20 million) loan to FN's arm Cotelec.
Speaking to French daily Le Monde on Friday, Chauprade said there was "no link between his trip to Crimea and the securing of the loan." Meanwhile, Le Pen has denied ever meeting Kostya, saying Friday that she had "absolutely no idea who this gentleman is." Kostya declined to comment to Mediapart about the text message he allegedly exchanged with Prokopenko.
FN treasurer Wallerand de Saint-Just — who signed the 9.46 million Euro deal with the Moscow bank — told VICE News on Friday that contact between high-ranking Russian officials and FN members did not seem "abnormal" to him, adding that he was "completely incompetent when it comes to discussing the FN's international policy."
"I don't know if there were negotiations ahead [of the loan], there were negotiations with the bank," he said. "Personally, I was never aware that they wanted to thank us regarding this matter [support on Crimea]. I will remind you that our interest rate is 6 percent — hardly a gift."
Florent Parmentier, a researcher at France's Sciences Po, thinks the Kremlin was probably aware of the transaction, although he was hesitant to say that Le Pen's endorsement of Crimea's annexation was in direct exchange for the loan. "The Kremlin had to have given its implicit or tacit approval," Partmentier told VICE News.
The FN has a history of cozying up to the Kremlin's current leadership. Both parties share a basic ideology built around nationalism, anti-US sentiment, and a desire to see the European Union implode. It is also the only French political party that supports Putin's regime, although some politicians — such as former Prime Pinister François Fillon and former Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement — are individually pro-Russia.
"Russia is having trouble going mainstream, that's its big issue. Consequently, it needs to find alternate ways to be heard, such as political groups," Parmentier said, adding that, "Russia financing the FN does make sense."
In October 2014, after France threatened to delay the delivery of Mistral warships on backorder from Russia, Le Pen called for the country to honor its deal, saying, "We are not the US' lapdogs."
In the past, Marine Le Pen has described Putin as "a patriot" who defends "the values of European civilization."
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud onTwitter: @meloboucho