Spectre of Russian influence looms large over French election

Vladimir Putin has applauded far-right presidential nominee Marine Le Pen and officials are on alert for campaign meddling

The golden domes of one of Vladimir Putins foreign jobs, the recently built Russian Holy Trinity cathedral in the very heart of Paris, rise up not far from the Elyse palace, the seat of the French presidency.

Dubbed Putins cathedral or Saint-Vladimir, it stands out as a mark of the many linkages the French nobility has long encouraged with Russia, and which the Kremlin is actively seeking to capitalize on in the run-up to the French presidential election.

France is an important target for Russias soft power and networks of force. The country is a fundamental pillar of the European Union, an important Nato member and home to Europes largest far-right party, the Front National, whose commander, Marine Le Pen, is expected to reach the 7 May run-off in the presidential election and has benefited from Russian financing.

Le Pen took the remarkable step of travelling to Moscow to gratify Putin in March, only a few months before the French election, to boost her international profile and showcase her closeness to the Russian presidents worldview including his virulent aggression towards the EU and his imagination of a civilisational clash with radical Islam. Yet she is far from being the only presidential nominee to preferences warmer the relationship with Russia , nor to reflect a certain French fascination with the Kremlin strongman.

Alongside Le Pen, two of the three other primary competitors in the highly unpredictable French competition have toed a more or less pro-Kremlin line. They have criticised western sanctions policies over Russias activities in Ukraine and have shown understanding, if not outright support, for Moscows involvement in Syria. These are: Franois Fillon, the mainstream rightwing nominee, and Jean-Luc Mlenchon, a hard-left populist who has recently been stimulating steps in polls.

As a result, Kremlin-controlled media and trolls have concentrated their attacks on the only nominee who has criticised Putins regime and his foreign policies while having a serious chance of reaching the run-off and perhaps the Elyse: Emmanuel Macron, the 39 -year-old centrist and former economy diplomat. His platform notably includes a strengthening of the EU through further integration alongside Germany, the country whose commander, Angela Merkel, has been an important obstacle to Putins ambitions on the continent.

Earlier this year Macrons campaign publicly accused Russia of trying to discount him through fake report distributed among Kremlin-run media such as RT and Sputnik, including hearsays about his sexuality life. That was shortly after Julian Assange had told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that WikiLeaks would soon shed petroleum on the flame of the French presidential election the following statement RT and Sputnik interpreted as designed to target Macron. By differ, pro-Putin social media in France have been busy lavishing praise on Le Pen, Fillon and, more recently, on Mlenchon.

Russian meddling in elections has become a hot political topic in the US, and there has been much hypothesi about Russias 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 armies and was striving to drive wedges between western democracies.

Paradoxically, it also represents a country where this very issue has drawn relatively little attention in the electoral debate. Indeed, fiscal scandals and political moral have been much bigger focuses, with international affairs retained mainly to the sidelines.

There have been a few exceptions, nonetheless. One reached last week after a deadly chemical weapon onslaught in northern Syria, followed by a US missile strike on a Syrian airbase. These occurrences burst into the French campaign. The French Socialist government has long denounced Moscows complicity in the cruelties committed by the Assad regime in Syria. By differ, Fillon has all along been refused to ascribe any responsibility on Putin and insisting that talking about here Russia is exactly what forward. He believes France should ally with Putin against Islamic State. Yet, perhaps because of the public outcry after the chemical onslaught massacre, he refrained from reiterating proclamations he had made last year, describing Assad as a bulwark against jihadism.

Mlenchon has shown similar contentment: “hes never” called out Russias or Assads war crimes in Syria. He has also mainly agreed with Moscows line on Ukraine. Last-place month he suggested that global conferences should be organised with Russia to discuss Europes borderlines. This ring a long-lasting Russian proposition that the west has so far consistently repudiated.

Likewise, Fillon has likened the annexation of Crimea to an expression of self-determination. The notion of redrawing Europes architecture also sits comfortably with Le Pens promise to pull France out of Natos integrated military structure and to organise a referendum on EU membership.

Another mention of Russia in awareness-raising campaigns occurred when the Canard Enchan 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 gather between Putin and a Lebanese businessman. Fillon denied any wrongdoing as well as any fiscal connections with Moscow.

France is culturally different from other major 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 -1 917, or De Gaulles 1966 reconciliation with the USSR.

Communism was a strong political force in post-war France, and anti-American feeling has loitered on. But Frances 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 Putins Russia is cast as an inevitable collaborator, if not a simulation, in framing a brand-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 watches in him a greet pushback against American power.

Yet surveys show Putins repressive regime is highly unpopular among the French public, despite intense lobbying carried out in cultural, political and business circles which two well-researched volumes, Nicolas Hnins La France Russe: Enqute sur les Rseaux de Poutine and Les Rseaux du Kremlin en France by Ccile Vaissi, have brought attention to. These networks often operate in close the purposes of the Russian embassy as well as with the Russian spiritual centre which has opened next to Saint-Trinity cathedral.

Russias shadow looms over the impending election. French officials have been on the alert for signs of Russian meddling in awareness-raising campaigns. The polling watchdog has warned against Russian disinformation. As in Germany , measures have been taken to increase cybersecurity. Intelligence services have spoken publicly about health risks 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 proclaimed Russia was a threat but not an foe. French expatriates have been informed they will not be able to vote online but will have to use paper votes instead not unlike a measure already taken earlier this year by Dutch powers.

When Putin gratified Le Pen, he applauded the far-right commander for representing a European political spectre that has been tight developing. Whether that embrace can weigh on the results of the work of the French election will be watched closely across the continent and in Moscow.

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