Russia’s meddling in the French election

The French people will soon elect their next president. It could be the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, the candidate Russia may actively be trying to get elected.

The potential  influence of Russia on the French election needs to be scrutinised, especially in the wake of evidence that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin interfered in the US election to help get Donald Trump elected.

Why Putin wants to weaken EU and NATO

Putin has a direct interest in the weakening of the European Union and the destabilisation of the NATO military alliance to extend his power and potentially recover a hegemonic role.  Putin's popularity in Russia since his election to power in 2000 is best understood primarily in terms that Americans who voted for Trump would understand: he promised the make Russia great again.

In April 2005, Putin described the collapse of the USSR in December 1991 as the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century’.  He made this statement shortly after eight formerly Communist states had been admitted to the EU (May 2004), and not long before a further two (Bulgaria and Romania) were admitted (January 2007). Of these ten, three – the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – had not been merely under Soviet influence, but actually part of the USSR. The fact that they (plus four other post-communist states; three others had been admitted in 1999) were admitted to NATO in March 2004 only rubbed salt into the Russians’ wounds. Ever since, Putin has been determined to reverse the trend towards what he sees as an expanding anti-Russian and democratic Europe.

Russian wars and cyber-attacks

In recent years, Russia has substantially increased the complexity of geopolitical relations by combining aggressive military interventions like in Syria with intimidating cyber-attacks with major consequences in a period of terror attacks in France.

For example, during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the French government was strictly opposed to Russia and suspended the delivery of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. Soon afterwards, the French channel TV5 Monde, which represents France all over the world, was aggressively hacked through a powerful cyber- attack aimed at destroying the physical network system – allegedly by a group calling itself ‘cyber caliphate’ associated with the so-called Islamic State. For a few months after the Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket terror attacks in Paris, these events had a strong psychological impact on public opinion. The official investigation concluded that this attack might have been the work of a group of organised hackers in Russia supported by the Kremlin.

The role played by Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict is also a source of division and ambiguity among European political leaders. Facing a terror threat and the involvement of their own young adults in jihadist movements, European countries need both an alliance with Russia to fight the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and a reaffirmation of democratic values in the face of the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s intervention revealed Putin to be a powerful military leader who supported dictatorships, yet who was also fighting terrorism alongside democratic countries.

Why Putin likes Le Pen

Beyond war on the ground and online, Russia also exercises its political influence by conspicuously financing far right and Eurosceptic populist parties.

For example, the campaign of Marine Le Pen’s National Front is partly financed by a Russian loan. Le Pen is a strident opponent of the EU and has promised to start work on ‘Frexit’ if she wins the presidency in the elections on April 23 and May 7. She has also been highly critical of NATO. For example, concerning the annexation of Crimea, Le Pen said in a January media interview that Russia did not invade Crimea which she said had “always been Russian” and that EU sanctions on Moscow over the Ukraine conflict should be lifted.

Le Pen has become the favourite candidate of Russia, since pro-Russian candidate Francois Fillon became embroiled in a scandal over the misuse of public funds.

For the left, the positioning of the candidates in relation to Putin is complex. The far left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon calls for greater independence from the US and a reorganisation of military alliances, implicitly recognising the leadership of Russia. The socialist candidate Benoît Hamon adopts the opposite position, advocating a reinforcement of the NATO alliance on the basis of shared values about democracy.

Finally, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, who is often presented as an outsider and a potential winner of the presidential election, has a strong pro-EU program. Recently, he has become the target of ‘fake news’ in Russian newspapers and social media with the dissemination of stolen e-mails by WikiLeaks. These fake news items suggest that Macron may be homosexual or an American spy. Macron has also identified thousands of cyber-attacks from Ukrainian IP addresses – which could well be of Russians based in Ukraine - against his new political party’s website.

Whether or not Russian government-directed cyber-attacks on West European parties’ and candidates’ websites are ever proven conclusively, there is no question that Russian mass and social media, including those in West European languages, are disseminating fake news and gossip intended to undermine political entities in this year’s European elections that are considered either openly hostile or else less friendly towards Russia than others.

The parties and candidates the Kremlin favours share several features: they are anti-EU, anti-immigration, nationalist, and favour both ‘strong’ leaders and improved relations with Russia. In the French case (but not the Dutch, while the Alternative for Germany is split on this issue), the National Front also wants to leave NATO – which would clearly be in Moscow’s interest. Ironically, all this means that what was once the home of Communist power now strongly supports far-right parties and candidates; in addition to the National Front in France, this includes Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany. Russia’s national interest in being internationally recognised as both a global Great Power and a hegemon in much of Europe explains its interference and preferences in European elections. For Putin, it would be particularly satisfying if a pro-Russian party were to come to power in Germany: after all, not only is it the most powerful actor in Europe, but the Eastern part had been under Communist control for four decades, and its integration into the Federal Republic in 1990 was considered an humiliation by many Russians.

It would be reassuring to assume that the experience of both Brexit in the UK (in January 2017, Nigel Farage claimed that the EU was far more of a danger to Britain than Russia) and Trump’s victory in the US has taught most European voters the dangers of following and even electing right-wing populists. Unfortunately, given the current mood in many Western democracies, including Australia, such an assumption cannot be taken for granted.

The West European elections of 2017 could prove to be very helpful in Putin’s ongoing attempt to make Russia a feared and respected Great Power – perhaps even a Superpower - again.

This article was first published by the University of Melbourne's Election Watch.

Photo: Flickr Global Panorama