This Week in Info War

The French presidential elections: High tide for Russian information war?

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France’s 7 May runoff between presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will be a critical test of whether political foresight and measures to strengthen national resilience can protect a country against Russian interference in a globalized world bound together by information and financial flows.

Le Pen’s National Front (FN) is openly pro-Moscow and gladly accepts Kremlin financial and political support. In 2014, it received a €9 million loan from Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank. In 2016, Le Pen asked Russia to loan her party an additional €27 million to help prepare for the ensuing national election campaign, after French banks turned her down. On 24 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the “great importance” of ties between his country and France as he met Le Pen at the Kremlin. In contrast, Macron, leader of the En Marche movement, has criticized the Kremlin’s crackdown on human rights and favors maintaining Western-imposed sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.  

Since Le Pen has had trouble broadening her base, however, Moscow has tried to manipulate the campaign in other ways. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently warned that foreign cyber hackers could tamper with the presidential elections. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal recently reported that security-research firm Trend Micro has determined that hackers trying to access the Macron campaign’s email accounts are from “Fancy Bear,” the Russian-backed group that hacked the Democratic National Committee in the United States. WikiLeaks—likely in an attempt to tie Macron to the U.S. and French political establishment—said it has thousands of compromising documents on the candidate, while “mainstream” Kremlin media also has given considerable attention to Macron. Attacks traceable to the Kremlin-funded Sputnik news service have blasted Macron for leading a gay lobby in French politics, supporting globalization and acting as a U.S. agent representing American banking interests. 

Russia’s meddling has stirred a strong response. The French Network and Information Security Agency, generally responsible for protecting government and key industries from cyberattacks, has offered a cybersecurity awareness-raising seminar for political parties. All of them accepted, except for Le Pen’s far-right National Front. President François Hollande, as part of a renewed focus on cybersecurity, ordered a “mobilization of all means necessary” to face down cyberattacks and cautioned Russia against using Soviet-inspired influencing measures.

Civil society also has taken the lead, with prominent newspapers such as Le Monde launching platforms that verify the reliability of sources of information. Additionally, government bodies have done their part. The French polling commission, for instance, issued a warning against polls deemed illegitimate under French law. The magazine Le Canard Enchaine has reported that intelligence services have invited all political parties to be briefed on Russian cyberattacks.  The Macron campaign, meanwhile, has denied press credentials to Kremlin-owned RT and Sputnik on the grounds that they are propaganda organs. Russian officials were predictably outraged, lamely challenging critics to gives specific examples of where it had used fake news to undermine Macron; plenty were available.

These missteps and the heavy-handedness of Moscow’s interference appear to have inoculated the French body politic for now. But even if Macron wins on Sunday, as the polls suggest, the battle to limit Russia’s role in France is far from over. Moscow’s influence there is deeper than electoral politics thanks to a powerful network of civil-society organizations and think tanks that promote Russian interests. Long-established cultural institutions linked to the presence of a Russian diaspora dating back to the 1920s still flourish, and France has the largest Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Finally, the two countries are linked by extensive business interests.