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Apr 21, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

Russia Campaigns for the French Presidency

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen
(KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

The European Union's busy election season is an important campaign opportunity, not only for the politicians running, but also for the Kremlin. Several leaders and governments around the world have accused Moscow of coordinating disinformation campaigns to influence other countries' political affairs over the past year.  The Kremlin quadrupled its spending on media activities abroad in its latest federal budget, and since half its projected expenditures are labeled confidential, Moscow may well be devoting hundreds of millions more to the cause. Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia's legislature and a top political strategist, has been stumping across the European Union this campaign season, meeting with representatives of nationalist parties such as Alternative for Germany. And now Moscow has turned its focus toward France as the country gears up for two months of presidential and legislative elections.

Rumors of Russia's meddling in the run-up to the vote, mostly through disinformation campaigns on social media, have been swirling for months. The allegations are not terribly surprising; given its interest in deepening the divides in the European Union as a whole, Russia is likely trying to amplify the political discord in one of the bloc's core member states. But as much as Moscow hopes to sway the outcome of the upcoming votes, or at least disrupt the subsequent political transition, it knows from recent experience that its electoral interventions can only do so much.

For the Kremlin, the stakes are high in the French elections. Moscow sees France as a potential counterweight not only against Germany in the European Union, but also against the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). France, moreover, is critical to the negotiations over the conflict in eastern Ukraine as one of four members of the so-called Normandy Group. The run-up to the elections offers the Russian government a chance to either help usher a more sympathetic figure into power in Paris or to create enough chaos to keep France focused on its own problems for the near future. The country is already deeply divided, making it all the more vulnerable to Russian influence.

Four Is a Crowd

Polls promise a tight race in which four candidates — Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron, Francois Fillon and Jean-Luc Melenchon — have a shot at getting through to the second round of voting. Each of these contenders has a different take on Russia. Macron, of the centrist En Marche! party, has openly criticized the Kremlin, while the left-wing Melenchon has questioned the EU sanctions regime against Moscow. Fillon, who is rumored to have an amiable relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin dating back to their days as prime ministers, has also condemned the sanctions and called for the West to cooperate with Russia in Syria. But of the frontrunner candidates, Le Pen is Russia's most enthusiastic supporter by far. In addition to calling for an end to sanctions against the country, she has pledged to pull France out of the European Union and eurozone, a position that will facilitate Moscow's efforts to widen the bloc's rifts. Le Pen even traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin and Volodin in March.

For the Kremlin, the stakes are high in the French elections. Moscow sees France as a potential counterweight not only against Germany in the European Union, but also against the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). France, moreover, is critical to the negotiations over the conflict in eastern Ukraine as one of four members of the so-called Normandy Group.

For most of the candidates, campaigning to keep good ties with Russia is a way to legitimize their platforms. France, after all, pursued an independent foreign policy after World War II, striving to maintain a balance in its relations with Russia and the United States. Fillon and Le Pen, however, also share some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's views on social issues — positions they've used to try to win over France's Catholic voters.

Playing Favorites

The Kremlin hasn't endorsed any candidate in particular, though state-run media outlets have promoted figures, particularly Le Pen, who espouse Moscow's views of the West. Russia's main state-run news agencies, Sputnik and RT, have both devoted heavy coverage to the National Front leader in their French broadcasts. The head of Sputnik's Paris bureau attributed its ostensibly favorable treatment of Le Pen to other candidates' unwillingness to grant interviews and insisted it was not Russian propaganda but rather an attempt to present French viewers a "different angle." Either way, Le Pen has relished the extra publicity.

But very few people in France actually engage with Sputnik or RT. Consequently, the Kremlin has reportedly turned to social media to get its message across, flooding social networking sites with spurious news stories. The editorial director for French newspaper Le Monde recently said in an NPR interview that the tactic is nothing new but that the advent of the internet and social media has amplified its effect. To stay on top of the problem, Le Monde has created a new team of employees dedicated to debunking spurious stories and developed online software to help readers verify sources. Facebook, likewise, has reportedly shut down some 30,000 accounts in France using a new algorithm it devised to root out sham profiles designed to simply resend information — or disinformation. Even the Kremlin has acknowledged the problem. When French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine published a story alleging that Fillon received $54,000 from the Russian government in 2015 for arranging a meeting between Putin, a Lebanese billionaire, and the CEO of Total SA, Moscow dismissed it as "fake news."

Beyond the media campaigns and meetings, little concrete proof exists that the Kremlin is backing Le Pen and her party. The National Front has received nearly $10 million in loans over the last three years from a small Russian bank, First Czech Russian Bank, whose former owner is on the U.S. sanctions list. So far, though, this is the only suggestion of Russian funding for the party. The overall dearth of proof is hardly surprising considering Russia's traditional secrecy about its political ties abroad. The government painstakingly obscured its financial support for foreign political movements such as the French and U.S. communist parties during the Cold War; the details only surfaced after the Soviet Union's collapse.

A Different Approach

While the Kremlin faces allegations of promoting certain candidates, it has also been accused of undermining others. Macron claims that Russia has discredited his campaign by spreading conspiracy theories on social media about his finances and his private life. Sputnik sparked rumors about Macron's sexuality and circulated stories that he was a U.S. agent. And in February, the head of Macron's campaign blamed the Russian government for cyber attacks against its computer networks. The En Marche! founder and former economy minister supports the European Union and has urged the bloc to take a hard line on Russia for meddling in European elections. But it remains to be seen whether the country's interventions in the French elections will have their desired effect — or any effect at all for that matter.

Moscow likely won't be able to push French voters one way or another, despite its efforts. It can, however, make the political process more hectic and unstable. Of course, the Kremlin's electoral interventions don't always work out the way it wants them to. Its attempts to put a friendlier administration in the White House, for example, seem to have backfired, and U.S.-Russia relations have further deteriorated. Still, Moscow can't pass up the chance to try to undermine the united Western front against it.

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