Never, it is being said, has a presidential election in France seemed so uncertain. And never has there been so much concern about possible attempts by the Russian leadership to shape — perhaps even interfere with — the outcome.
Last month, President François Hollande of France denounced the Kremlin’s efforts to “influence public opinion” through “ideological operations” and its “strategy of influence, of networks” in France. His comments followed another accusation, by Richard Ferrand, the national secretary of the En Marche! (Onward!) movement, who claimed that the Kremlin was responsible for a series of cyberattacks against the party’s website and that it was seeking to undermine Emmanuel Macron, En Marche!’s presidential candidate, for being, among other things, too pro-European Union. The Kremlin has denied this.
The French government is worried that hackings or cyberattacks may occur during the upcoming elections — for president, in April and May, and for the national legislature, in June. Partly as a result, French nationals living abroad will not be allowed to vote electronically in the legislative election. (The option is never available for presidential elections.)
Computer breaches, propaganda, disinformation — even campaign financing — there are indeed many reasons to worry. And all the more so because the Kremlin’s sapping offensive in France is a vast and long-running project.
The Russian authorities have set up at least three influential organizations here. Le Dialogue franco-russe (the Franco-Russian Dialogue) is an association created in 2004 under the auspices of Jacques Chirac, then president of France, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. It includes companies involved in trade between the two countries, and claims that its purpose is to develop “economic cooperation and business relationships.” More than anything, though, it seems to be making the case for lifting sanctions against Russia and promoting the Kremlin’s geopolitical views. Le Dialogue franco-russe helped organize a conference about Syria on April 11, which was attended by the deputy foreign minister of Syria. According to the French secret services, the organization is “infected” with the Russian foreign intelligence service.
L’Institut de la démocratie et de la coopération (the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation) was set up in Paris in 2008. Its stated purpose is to create “a bridge of solid friendship between two great European nations, France and Russia.” Yet in numerous interviews its director, Natalia Narochnitskaya, has put forward very hostile views. The West wants to subjugate Russia, impose its rules on it, even “dismember” it, she has said, and to these ends it makes opportunistic use of human rights issues. For Ms. Narochnitskaya, Russia offers “an alternative to the West.”
The Kremlin’s third main proxy organization in France is the much less formal Forum des compatriotes (the Compatriots’ Forum). It first convened in 2011 and brings together Russian-speaking émigrés and descendants of émigrés in meetings held at the Russian embassy in Paris. This forum, and others like it in other countries, are at the heart of Mr. Putin’s “Russian World” initiative: an effort to mobilize the Russian diaspora for various linguistic, cultural or economic projects but also to build support for the Kremlin on such geopolitical questions as the war between Russia and Ukraine.
The leaders of these three organizations appear regularly in French news outlets and various media, in French and other languages, that the Kremlin has created and is wholly funding. The two most important of these, both active on social-media networks, are Sputnik and RT (Russia Today), which is to begin broadcasting in French this year.
Sputnik and RT have published numerous articles about, say, the problems ostensibly caused by immigrants, thereby reinforcing the fear and the backlash triggered by recent terrorist attacks. They do not hesitate to distort facts and even invent some. That technique, which used to be taught in some journalism schools in the former Soviet Union, seeks to create an emotional shock and suppress all capacity for analysis. By suggesting that facts don’t matter, it also fuels conspiracy theories.
When it comes to the presidential election, Sputnik and RT attack Mr. Macron while supporting the candidacies of Marine Le Pen, of the far right, and François Fillon, of an increasingly hardening mainstream right. It was on Sputnik News (in English) that Nicolas Dhuicq — a member of the Dialogue franco-russe’s bureau and a representative from Mr. Fillon’s party, Les Républicains, in the French National Assembly — recently accused Mr. Macron of being “an agent of the big American banking system” and receiving the support of “a very wealthy gay lobby.”
Backing from Russia can also be more concrete, particularly financial. So far only one such case is known in France, but it may not be unique. In 2014 Ms. Le Pen, the leader of the Front National party, received a loan of 9 million euros from the First Czech Russian Bank. (The bank, now in bankruptcy, counted Vyacheslav Babusenko, a former senior official in the K.G.B., among its principal directors.) A Cypriot company gave 2 million euros to Cotelec, the micro-party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen’s father and the Front National’s former leader. The company appears to belong to a Russian national who owes his career to connections with the secret service, according to the Russian edition of Forbes magazine.
Were those transactions loans, or were they quid pro quos? The Front National has actively supported the Kremlin lately and stated that it is “opposed to sanctions against Russia.” Mr. Putin welcomed Ms. Le Pen to Moscow recently, saying he was “very happy” to see her. She has called him “a man committed to values,” in particular “the Christian heritage of European civilization.”
French people, for their part, seem to be skeptical. In a 2015 poll (the most current on this issue), 85 percent of respondents did not trust Mr. Putin or his judgment in foreign policy. Between 2003 and 2015, respondents’ level of trust in him plummeted from 48 percent to 15 percent.
But none of that makes much difference to Moscow. As a recent article in the newspaper Die Zeit convincingly demonstrated in the case of Germany, the central aim of the Kremlin’s media outlets and networks is to foment fear and mistrust outside Russia and to undermine Westerners’ faith in the security of their countries, the integrity of their institutions and the stability of their daily lives.
In a resolution last November, the European Parliament warned against “Russian disinformation and propaganda warfare,” calling it “an integral part of modern hybrid warfare,” itself “a combination of military and nonmilitary measures of a covert and overt nature.” That war really is underway.
Its goal is to build the “post-West world order” that Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, called for in a speech he gave in Munich in February. And anyone who is aware of Russia’s internal situation — generalized corruption, a nonperforming economy, widespread poverty, the obvious deterioration of political and civil liberties — cannot but tremble at the prospect that Mr. Putin may have any influence on the presidential election in France.
Cécile Vaissié is a professor of Russian studies at Rennes II University and the author of Les Réseaux du Kremlin en France.” This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.