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France and the long shadow of Putin

(MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images) - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

One of France’s most powerful political figures wasn’t on the ballot paper – he was more than 1,500 miles away, at home in the Kremlin

Vladimir just did it. Without any fuss, he invited Francis to dinner at one of his dachas – Novo Ogaryovo, near Moscow. It was spring 2013, the gesture was a rare one, and not an innocent one.

The invite comes from the master of the planet’s biggest country, the president of the Russian Federation, after an interlude as the country’s prime minister. The guest no longer amounts to so much… a former prime minister but, since the French 2012 presidential election, just a Parisian MP.

But between Vladimir Putin and Francois Fillon, mutual interests means the normal protocols of hierarchy are ignored.

At the KGB – the Soviet precursor of the Russian intelligence services, where Putin rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, before becoming director of the FSB, the modern version – there was a golden rule: recognise and remember your true friends.

In the dacha’s kitschly-decorated dining room, there are just four around the table. Putin delicately serves Fillon from a bottle of 1931 Mouton-Rothschild, specifying that he chose the vintage for the year of the birth of the Frenchman’s mother, who had died seven months earlier.

The Russian, meanwhile, outlines his dream, of developing Siberia eastwards, opening it up towards the Pacific. ‘We found the rapprochement a little curious, but we drank to it,’ recalls Jean de Boishue, Fillon’s favoured Russian translator, who accompanied him as an advisor.

Putin recounted nostalgic tales of his years in Germany in the late 1980s when he was a ‘consular officer’ in Dresden – a neat term which does not reveal the KGB duties it involved. He asked Fillon to tell him about his constituency in Sarthe, to the south west of Paris, and about the capital itself, and parliamentary life in France.

The two men have a real affinity for one another. They have visited each other since they were prime ministers of their countries: Fillon from 2007 to 2012, Putin from 2008 to 2012. They share a passion for sports – one for martial arts, the other for motorcycling. Their views and interests converge.

Nicolas Sarkozy had somewhat lacked political sense when he swore, before his election, in 2007: ‘I will never shake Putin’s hand.’ The Russian remembers that. On the other hand, Fillon – who was described as a collaborator by Sarkozy – set out to cajole his Russian counterpart.

The pair invited one another to their official residences. They played billiards in Sochi, they shot the breeze at La Lanterne – the Versailles hunting lodge used by the French prime minister and President. They called each other ‘cher Francois’ and ‘cher Vladimir’.

At one of their first meetings, on the steps of Matignon – the French Prime Minister’s official Paris residence – Fillon made an audacious suggestion, translated by de Boishue: ‘What if we talk frankly?’ he asked his counterpart, as he led him inside. ‘With pleasure. But will our diplomats allow us?’ Putin joked with an ironic smirk.

On May 7, 2012, the day after Nicolas Sarkozy handed the keys of the Elysée Palace to Francois Hollande, Putin called Fillon – whose telephone was no longer ringing quite so much – to ask him his plans for the future.

‘I will lead the party,’ replied the deposed prime minister. It is was a sign. A step. The target was 2017. He wants to be president of the Republic.

Here we are, in 2017. After the referendum on the Brexit – which he supported – and the election of Donald Trump – which he supported – Putin is following the French election very closely. On March 24, he received Marine Le Pen in the Kremlin and was not satisfied with a mere handshake, instead treating her with the respect of an equal.

The Russian president, who said he was ‘very happy’ to see her, publicly issued what psychoanalysts would call a denial, and what political observers would describe as a middle finger to the West. ‘We don’t want, in any way, to influence current events,’ he said. He had already denied any influence in the US elections. Not everyone was convinced. Shortly before stepping down, in December 2016, US President Barack Obama accused Russia of wanting to rig the election and announced reprisals as a ‘tailored response to actions aimed at harming American interests’.

Putin knows his enemies in France. But there are also friends. Not all of them have the honour of dinner at his dacha, but the Kremlin can see the evidence of their support.

Gossips call them ‘Russian agents’, as they did during the Cold War. In the most cases, they are right-wing and far-right, often Gaullists, or to the left of the left, communists sometimes.

Among themselves, they don’t often agree and some hate one another. What brings them close to Russia is often a mix of woven friendships, romantic ideas, political pragmatism, commercial interests, or ideology. For some it is simply admiration of the country’s sporty, authoritative, manly leader: Putin.

Since the Cold War, Russia has been a political, emotional and ideological signifier in France. If you are a Gaullist and / or nationalist and / or a partisan of pure ‘realpolitik’, then you are hostile to Anglo-Saxon domination and you consider Russia a great power, without worrying about the regime.

If you are a liberal and / or European-Atlanticist, the nature of the government prevails over the idea of the nation, and Putinian autocracy prohibits you from considering Russia, a full partner.

The US or Russia: you like one or the other. You defend the policy of one, or the other. You are placed in a box: you are an agent of the CIA or the FSB, or you are one of the two new great political families: European or nationalist.

At least, such categorisation was easy before the election of Trump. The new US president now blurs all the lines: an objective ally of the Russians, suspected by the FBI of connections with the Kremlin.

Enemies and friends emerged clearly during the March 21 televised debate, which featured the five main French presidential candidates. That evening, the ideological divide was clear. On the one hand, the Social Democrat and the Socialist: Emmanuel Macron and Benoît Hamon, the two defenders of the European Union. On the other hand, the far left-wing and the extreme-right: Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen – essentially united by their hatred of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, the EU, free trade and American imperialism, and its corollary: admiration for Putin’s Russia. For Mélenchon, it satisfies his anti-Americanism. For Le Pen, her fascination with an autocrat who knows how to hold his people with an iron fist, respecting the traditional Christian values of the White West.

Between these two sides was the candidate of the Gaullist right: Fillon. Unlike his opponents of the far left and the National Front, he is not in favour of the destruction of the EU and is not opposed to Germany, deemed the enemy by those other two.

But he once spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty – the prerequisite for the formation of the eurozone – and his sympathies are more inclined towards Moscow than towards Washington. Asked about the annexation of Crimea by Russia – condemned by the UN, the EU and the US – Fillon responded by comparing it with the ‘annexation of Kosovo’ by the West. In fact, Kosovo was not annexed by anyone: it was separated from Serbia with NATO’s military assistance. But this comparison is a recurring theme of Moscow propaganda.

During the debate, an alliance was even sealed, live on air, between the Gaullist Fillon and the man on the far left, Mélenchon, in defence of the autocrat Putin, who they both permitted the annexation of Crimea, in defiance of law and international treaties.

Without anyone blinking, both bluntly suggested that the borders created in 1991, from the break-up of the former Soviet Union, should be renegotiated – hardly the best guarantee of calm for the future of the planet and an unfortunate echo of the factors which led to the Second World War. Such a conformity of views is not new. Fillon’s Twitter account expresses many statements in defence of the Russian cause, as does that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Putin could not hope for better spokesmen. Of the five main candidates, three are in harmony with Moscow policy: they consider the annexation of Crimea and military operations in Ukraine to be not invasions, but attempts to reconstitute parts of a lost empire. And two of them, Le Pen and Mélenchon, endorse the Russian president’s will to destroy the EU.

A distant observer, James Rubin, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs under President Bill Clinton, is dumbfounded: ‘If a candidate destined to lead a great state like France does not see the threat of Russia and refuses to use the term ‘invasion’ for Crimea and Ukraine, then there is no principle in international politics.’ The shadow of Putin and his influence in the French election is unlike anything we have seen before, an aberration in this truly staggering campaign.

During the campaign, two other characters have gradually come to the fore. They are called Sputnik and RT, a bit like the droids from Star Wars. They are a both news organisations, established in France in 2014 and 2015, but which have emerged more significantly this year.

Ideologically similar, they are both financed by the Russian state and belong to the same government agency Rossiya Segodnya (‘Russia Today’). They declare themselves independent of the Kremlin but are mouthpieces of Russian foreign policy – in relation to the EU and Syria, for instance – and of the regime’s underlying ideology at home: its national identity, conservative values and Christianity. Populists, and Donald Trump, get a good airing.

Nationalists, from the left and right, from Jean-Pierre Chevènement to Philippe de Villiers, receive preferential treatment. In the election campaign, the pro-Russian candidates Le Pen and Fillon are also feted.

With its reference to the great Soviet achievement of 1957, the first satellite to orbit the earth, Sputnik does not hide its allegiance. RT is a little more veiled. Its two initials could be mistaken for the term for a ‘Retweet’, rather than an organisation formerly called Russia Today (which launched in 2005 as the TV branch of the RIA-Novosti news agency).

This is part of a strategy of camouflage. ‘The technique is very Soviet,’ says Julien Nocetti, a Russian specialist at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). ‘The Soviets spoke of creating a ‘permissive environment’, which meant sending out media content, by broadcasting messages. Today, they talk about ‘active measures’. They control everything at home, to avoid subversion, and carry out subversion themselves abroad, to defend their interests.’

The strategy? The principle of ‘fake news’, but more sophisticated: to relay rumours and put them on the same level as established facts. To be ‘an alternative information provider, to show the way in a monde bipolaire’, as Sputnik explains on its French website. To erase any distinction between truth and falsehood, as outlined by Margarita Simonian, editor-in-chief of RT in Moscow, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel: ‘There is no objectivity, only approximations of truth, gained through as many voices as possible.’

The goal? Establish the idea that Russia is an alternative reference to the west in a world that is no longer unipolaire and instil ‘counter-propaganda’ in the face of dominant thought. The ultimate – barely concealed – objective is to reverse Western hegemony, in the sense of the values that Europe and pre-Trump America represented.

It is to ‘undermine the sources and the dominant discourses of the Western media, to stir up the defiance and the discontent of Western opinion towards their leaders, to discredit the organisations perceived by Moscow as being under Western domination,’ says Nocetti. In the West, he adds, RT and Sputnik target ‘the fringe of public opinion critical of ‘the system’, distrustful of traditional media and eager for alternative sources of information’.

These two are particularly effective on social networks. Sputnik already broadcasts in 33 languages. RT has more than 200 employees worldwide (mostly in Russia), is available in five languages and has a cable channel, a YouTube channel, a television channel and a website that boasts more than 2.5 million unique visitors per month, after only one and a half years of existence. Its overall budget is $300 million this year.

The good news for fans is that RT France is recruiting. Whoever fills the vacant post of deputy editor-in-chief – to be based in Paris – must have the heart and soul of a warrior in hostile territory. An ad for the post, circulated on social media, explains: ‘This is a media that is controversial,’ the ad says, ‘and it will continue to be so in the coming months… It is therefore necessary to find a candidate who will not be afraid of pressure and will be able to endorse a controversial editorial policy.’

For the English-language version – Larry King, the former CNN interviewer, of the famous braces – was recruited for a seductive sum. For the French version, RT has already called on the services of Yves de Kerdrel, from Valeurs Actuales, a magazine in perfect harmony with the views of the Kremlin: conservative, Christian, nationalist, anti-European, anti-liberal, anti-American – all blended with the fears and insecurity of the suburbs, of Muslim immigration and Islamic terrorism.

When you are not a friend of the station, talking on the phone with a Sputnik or RT journalist is impossible. There is nothing on their websites to indicate how you can reach them. Hélène Carrère, the secrétaire perpétuelle of the Académie française and the Fillonnist MPs Thierry Mariani and Nicolas Dhuick have their contacts there and are regularly interviewed.

But the few journalists with whom I could speak on the phone seemed embarrassed, even panicked. ‘We have to refer you to our press service in Moscow,’ I was told. There followed countless e-mails where I am required to ask my questions in advance, each time, directing them to a different name, until I reach a ‘director’, who answers in writing, rather than in person, ‘due to a lack of time’. Where are your offices in Paris? I ask. ‘In the seventeenth arrondissement,’ replies a journalist. ‘But where? Which street?’ An embarrassed silence follows. ‘I cannot tell you … I recommend you write to our press service.’ I will learn eventually, that the office is a building that once housed the headquarters of the former news agency Ria Novosti and belongs to the Russian state: 17 Place du Général-Catroux. Why all this secrecy?

The Cold War of today is a struggle for influence and information that has its own arsenal: the media. For Putin, these companies are part of what the Kremlin calls ‘strategic enterprises’. Thus, as Julien Nocetti points out, ‘they benefit from additional protective measures and are protected from any reduction in their budget, in the same way as ballistic missiles or pipeline networks.’

Putin had already docked his flagship in Paris: the vast Orthodox cathedral with its three ‘bulbs’ and its cultural centre – also highly strategic – built on the Quai Branly. Sputnik and RT do the rest: they are as important as missile silos: stronger than an institution, they are a tool of influence.

During the election, Sputnik and RT have had the task of relaying the enthusiasm or disapproval of the Kremlin towards the various candidates. To the delight of Moscow, the darling Fillon took the lead in the first round of the centre right primary last autumn.

Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, saw in it a ‘sensational event’. In a series of Twitter messages, he expressed Putin’s vision: ‘Atlantacist republicans like Juppe are almost defeated. What is most important is not Sarkozy’s defeat, but Fillon’s sensational victory.’ ‘If Fillon becomes president,’ he added, ‘that will break the Paris-Berlin partnership over Russia. Merkel will be left almost alone with Warsaw and the Baltic countries.’ Fillon’s opponent in the primary, Alain Juppé, was surprised. ‘It’s the first time in a French election that the Russian head of state has choosen his candidate,’ he quipped in a debate before his defeat.

Conversely, Emmanuel Macron is the enemy to be defeated. Pro-European, a social democrat, liberal, globalist in outlook, a defender of free trade and open societies, supportive of a strong alliance with Germany … everything to frustrate Putin’s objectives. The source of computer attacks on Macron’s En Marche! movement website are impossible to trace. Mounir Mahjoubi, from Macron’s digital team, has traced the hackers back to Ukraine but cannot be certain that this is not a false trail. On the other hand, it is certainly a remarkable coincidence that the two ‘strategic enterprises’, RT and Sputnik, have spread unsubstantiated rumours about Macron, at the very moment when he began to trouble Fillon in the polls.

The sourcing and circulation of the stories are revealing: Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and objective ally of Trump, tells the Russian newspaper Izveztia that Hillary Clinton’s emails contained ‘interesting information’ about Macron. RT and Sputnik take up the rumours.

Richard Ferrand, general secretary of En Marche!, denounces these rumours, telling Le Monde: ‘One day, (Macron) is financed by the rich gay lobby, another day he is a US agent serving the bank lobby.’

The two sites also grant airtime to those who give free rein to all the lurid claims that circulate around the candidate, from his funding to his private life.

Spunik, for instance, chose the right person to interview: Nicolas Dhuicq, an MP and member of the National Assembly’s Franco-Russian Friendship Group and also of a small group of deputies who visited President Bashar al-Assad in January. Asked by Sputnik about Macron, he responded with allusions to his alleged homosexuality, to explain his popularity with the media. ‘There is a very rich gay lobby that supports him. It counts for a lot.’ He also talked about the candidate’s ties with US banks.

In the Le Pen family, admiration for Putin is unanimous. The death of the EU has always been the Front National’s dream and Frexit, the prerequisite and an essential part of its program: These are two very good reasons to see Putin as an ally.

Marion Maréchal Le Pen, a member of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee, often visits Moscow. ‘Putin is a strong statesman who is attached to the sovereignty and independence of his country,’ she told me. ‘Donald Trump can also be honoured. Both share a respect and interest in their country, unlike a certain political class.’

Trump, Putin … Marine Le Pen tried to catch up with both. With the US president, her efforts ended in a cafeteria on the ground floor of Trump Tower in New York, where he did not join her. With the Russian, she got the invitation to the Kremlin she had dreamed of. Hence her March 24 visit.

She told him all the good things she thought about him and what he wanted to hear about the EU – its ‘diplomacy of threats, sanctions, blackmail.. that it is increasingly applying to the Russian Federation and its own members’.

Putin showed that he had chosen his candidate for France. ‘I know you represent a political spectre that is rapidly developing across Europe,’ he told her, in an echo of the opening of Karl Marx’s Communist Party Manifesto – ‘a spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of Communism.’

Putin and she vied with their ‘I-totally-agree-with-yous’, testifying that they shared the same values. Two days later, their shared vision of the world and freedom was illustrated by Moscow street demonstration against corruption, which resulted in hundreds of arrests.

Marine Le Pen and her party have long cultivated relations in Moscow. The Mediapart website has shown how these links had their use in party financing and resulted in a loan of 9 million euros by a Russian bank. But money is not enough for power. ‘I am amazed at the number of Russians in economic and political circles who have not only professional but friendly ties with personalities of the National Front,’ says Pavel Chinsky, president of the Franco-Russian Chamber. Marine Le Pen is notably close to the former speaker of the Duma, Sergey Naryshkin, who is grateful to her for strongly condemning the sanctions against Russia – since he himself is on the list of those targeted by the EU.

In October 2016, Naryshkin became director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the country’s external intelligence agency. In the war of influence that the National Front leads, in concert with the Kremlin, these are useful friends.

Marion Van Renterghem is reporter-at-large for Vanity Fair France and this article is adapted from a piece in the current issue of the French edition of the magazine. You can read it in French here.

© Marion Van Renterghem / Vanity Fair Franc

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