As the French prepare to vote Sunday in a presidential election marked by acrimonious debate about Russian influence in Europe, there’s little doubt about which candidate Moscow backs.
Last month, the combative populist Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Front flew to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin. It was a display of longtime mutual admiration. The frontrunner in a field of 11 candidates, Le Pen shrugs off allegations of corruption and human rights abuses against Putin, calling him a tough and effective leader. Her hard-line views on immigration, Islam and the European Union win praise from Putin and enthusiastic coverage from Russian media outlets. Her campaign has been propelled by a loan of more than $9 million from a Russian bank in 2014, according to Western officials and media reports.
Meanwhile, aides to Emmanuel Macron, the center-left former economy minister who is Le Pen’s top rival, have accused Russia of hitting his campaign with cyberattacks and fake news reports about his personal life. Although French officials say the computer disruptions were minor and there is no conclusive proof of links to the Russian state, President François Hollande and other leaders have warned about the risk of interference comparable to hacking operations that targeted the U.S. elections. The French government, aided by briefings from U.S. agencies about their experience last year, has beefed up its cyber defenses.
American politics was jolted when 17 intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russia had covertly intervened in the 2016 presidential campaign with the aim of electing Donald Trump. Such activity is nothing new in Europe, where Russia has launched a series of clandestine and open efforts to sway governments and exert influence, according to European and U.S. national security officials, diplomats, academics and other experts interviewed by ProPublica in recent weeks.
“The Russians have had an aggressive espionage presence here for a long time,” a senior French intelligence official said. “The Russians now have more spies, more clandestine operations, in France than they did in the Cold War.”
European and U.S. security officials say Russian tactics run the gamut from attempted regime change to sophisticated cyber-espionage. Russia has been linked to a coup attempt in Montenegro (the Balkan nation had dared to consider joining NATO); an old-school spy case involving purloined NATO documents and an accused Portuguese double agent; a viral fake news story about a 13-year-old girl in Germany supposedly raped by Muslims, and a caper by suspected Russian hackers who briefly seized control of an entire television network in France.
“One of the reasons Russia has been so successful has been its ability to develop tactics and techniques it selectively uses depending on the target country,” said Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Center of the Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank. “There’s a nuance to it as well. That’s something that in the West we fail to grasp.”
The French elections are the latest front in what is likely to be a conflict for years to come. Officials say France and Europe are vulnerable because of converging crises: immigration, terrorism, structural economic inequities, the Brexit vote in Britain last year, the rise of populism and extremism. The French election offers a particularly tempting target to the Kremlin, which wants to weaken and divide the West and multinational institutions such as the European Union and NATO, according to Western officials and experts.
Le Pen’s proposed policies align closely with Moscow’s geopolitical goals. She promises to reinstate national borders, abandon the euro currency and hold a referendum on whether France — which will be the EU’s remaining nuclear power after Britain’s departure — should remain in the 28-member bloc.
“For Russia, there is a desire to display power,” said Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations, a think tank in Paris. “They have openly chosen their candidate. It’s very serious. If Le Pen is elected, which is not impossible, that would be part of a chain of events including the Brexit and the election of Trump that would amount to a spectacular reconfiguration of the Western political family. The Russians want to weaken Europe, and to break NATO. The stakes are very high.”