2017-04-18 18:37:06 UTC
By ANDREW HIGGINS, APRIL 17, 2017, NY Times
PARIS The flagging, scandal-plagued presidential campaign of
François Fillon a former prime minister of France much liked
by the Kremlin but not so much, it seems, by French voters
received a surprise lift late last month with a report that he
had staged a remarkable recovery in opinion polls and was now
leading the pack ahead of voting this Sunday.
The Return of Fillon to the Head of Opinion Polls, declared
the bold headline, contradicting other French polls suggesting
that the onetime favorite had fallen to third or even fourth
place as he battled corruption charges.
As it happens, Mr. Fillons lead in the polls existed only in
a world of alternative facts shared by the French-language
service of Sputnik, a state-funded Russian news operation with
the motto Telling the Untold.
For weeks, Sputnik and a second Russian outfit, the new French-
language arm of RT, a Kremlin-funded television station, have
published reports that critics characterized as Telling the
Untrue but that fans welcomed as a breath of contrarian fresh air.
The broader question as France charges toward the first round
of the presidential election on Sunday, however, is what exactly
lies behind what looks to many, particularly supporters of the
liberal front-runner, Emmanuel Macron, like a replay of Russias
interference in the presidential election in the United States
Is Moscow meddling covertly, as American intelligence agencies
say it did before Donald J. Trumps victory? Or is it just
benefiting from a network of politicians, journalists & others
in France who share the Kremlins views on politics there, and
much else besides?
Whatever the answer, squalls of fake news reports & a barrage
of hacking attacks on the computers of Mr. Macrons campaign
have left many in France and Washington with an unnerving
sense of familiarity.
It all looks so recognizable that Senator Richard M. Burr,
Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate
Intelligence Committee, recently said, I think its safe by
everybodys judgment that the Russians are actively involved in
the French elections.
Stung by criticism that its services turbocharged the spread of
fake news during the United States election campaign, Facebook
announced last week that a drive to purge inauthentic activity
had led it to take action against over 30,000 fake accounts
It is also clear, however, that Russia often does not so much
intrude as amplify existing voices with which it agrees,
notably on Syria, the perils of American power & the futility
of economic sanctions on Moscow.
Nataliya Novikova, who leads Sputnik in Paris, said that its
operations there, while eager to present Russias take on events,
did not serve Moscow but rather a French audience eager for a
Complaining that Mr. Macron and members of his staff had
repeatedly ignored interview requests, she said that Sputnik
tried to represent all points of view and had been unfairly
branded a Russian bullhorn. There are many different truths,
Ms. Novikova said. There has to be a pluralism of truth.
Cécile Vaissié, a professor of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet
studies at the Univ of Rennes 2, said the Kremlin, building on
methods & contacts developed in the Soviet Union, had assembled
a formidable machine of influence in France that works to
promote its interests as well as those of its preferred candidates.
Russia, or at least its state-controlled news media, has been
backing two horses in the French race. One is Mr. Fillon, who,
while prime minister from 2007 to 2012, struck up a friendship
with Vladimir V. Putin, who is said to have sent the French
politician a bottle of wine after the death of his mother.
Among the accusations of financial impropriety engulfing Mr.
Fillons campaign is that he received $50,000 from a Lebanese
businessman in return for arranging a meeting with Mr. Putin.
The Kremlin dismissed the report as fake news.
Lately, Mr. Fillon has seen a bump in real opinion polls. They
still put Mr. Macron in the lead, but the race is tight enough
now that the final result, like those of the British referendum
on leaving the European Union and the American presidential
election, may defy the forecasts of pollsters.
Russias other preferred candidate is Marine Le Pen, the leader
of the far-right National Front party who traveled to Moscow
last month for a meeting with Putin, whom she openly admires.
Her party, traditionally hostile to the United States and the
European Union, has received millions of dollars in loans from
Mr. Macron, on the other hand, is the most enthusiastically
pro-European Union candidate in the race, and Russia has been
seeking to undermine and divide the union.
Unlike in America, where attitudes toward Moscow formed during
the Cold War often continue to hobble Russian efforts at public
outreach, France has numerous individuals & organizations that
speak out for views that mirror Russias and its preferences
for the French election.
Russias influence machine, said Ms. Vaissié, the Rennes
professor, has been fueled in large part by the paradox at the
heart of our political discourse: a fascination with the U.S. &
a permanent rejection of it that provides absolutely fertile
ground for the Russians.
Anti-Americanism in France has seeped deep into the ctr-right,
encouraging an infatuation among some politicians with Russia
and Mr. Putin that has provided Russian news outlets in France
with some of their most bombastic pro-Russia & anti-Macron voices.
One of those is Nicolas Dhuicq, a member of Parliament, sec'y of
the legislatures France-Russia Friendship Group and a member
of the board of the French-Russian Dialogue Association, an
organization stacked with pillars of the French establishment &
led by an old political ally of Mr. Putins.
It was Mr. Dhuicq who told Sputnik in February that Mr. Macron
was a closet homosexual supported by a very rich gay lobby.
The claim, which set off a firestorm on social media, put Mr.
Macron briefly on the defensive.
The furor quickly fizzled, however, after the allegation was
ridiculed by the candidate and the mainstream news media as a
transparent exercise in the dark Russian art of kompromat, or
using compromising information to embarrass or hinder.
Mr. Dhuicq also contributed to a Sputnik article that derided
Mr. Macron, a former investment banker, as a US agent lobbying
In an interview, Mr. Dhuicq stood by his claim that Mr. Macron
had a secret double life and scoffed at allegations of Russian
meddling as fantasy driven by paranoia imported from America.
I trained as a psychiatrist & know what paranoia looks like,
he said. The Russians are clever enough to know their influence
is close to zero on French voters, he added. Most people dont
even know what Sputnik is.
It is true that very few people read or watch Russian news
coverage in French, but what those outlets say gets recycled on
social media. Once there, the Russian source often gets stripped
away, allowing raw kompromat to churn through blogs, on Twitter
and on what Mr. Macrons supporters call the fascisphere of
anti-establishment and often extreme-right websites.
The American phenomenon is being repeated here in France,
said Pierre Haski, a founder of the liberal news site Rue89.
A large section of the population has broken w/the mainstream
media and gets its information from parallel sources. This is
the world in which RT and Sputnik have found their place.
Sputniks report about Mr. Fillons surge in opinion polls,
based on research by a company based in Moscow that studies
social media, got some traction online but never really took
off in part because of a swift rebuke from a French watchdog
that monitors polling claims.
Using info from the same Moscow company, Sputnik again declared
Fillon the favorite in the presidential race on Friday, but
this time it made clear the assertion was not based on polling
Mounir Mahjoubi, digital director of the Macron campaign, said
the principal goals of the state-funded Russian media outlets
were to spread chaos & uncertainty & to undermine Mr. Macron
while diverting attention from Mr. Fillons legal troubles.
In one striking example, Sputnik and RT reported in February
citing what they said was an interview by the WikiLeaks founder,
Julian Assange, with the newspaper Izvestia that WikiLeaks
had interesting information about Mr. Macron & was preparing
to release it. Assange will pour oil on the fire of the
French election campaign, RT reported.
But a spokesman for WikiLeaks said that Mr. Assange had never
given such an interview and had merely sent a short email
responding to a question from an Izvestia reporter.
Murkier still are the thousands of cyberstrikes against the
Macron campaigns website & hundreds of attempts to gain access
to its email accounts through so-called phishing attacks. The
same tactic was used to gain entry to the Democratic National
Committees servers last year.
Yet Damien Bancal, a French journalist who founded & runs the
website Zataz, which focuses on digital security, said that
attributing such activities to Russia was wild conjecture. The
Macron campaigns computer system is like a Swiss cheese, he
said, open to attack not only by Russia but also by any 15-
year-old with a computer.
The government has nonetheless taken the danger seriously, with
Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warning Moscow that this
kind of interference in French political life is unacceptable,
and the countrys equivalent of the National Security Council
in Washington holding a special meeting to discuss cyberthreats.
François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in
Paris said he doubted that any Russian efforts, whatever their
nature, would have much impact on the election. While at times
highly skilled at planting false information and creating
confusion, they often burn themselves while trying to burn
down the house, he said.