With support from the right, and distrust of NATO and the US from the left, Tom Miles explains why Russian interference is not the issue in France it is in the UK
Russian President Vladimir Putin has become the bugbear of the Western alliance. Most politicians and other public figures in Britain and the United States are highly critical of the Kremlin, and the rest are obliged to deny that they owe any part of their success to Putin or his supporters.
Once viewed as a technocratic reformer, Putin is now widely viewed as a malign spymaster intent on a new Cold War, exploiting a populist toolkit that includes state corruption, assassination, hacking, troll farms, fake news, mercenaries, electoral interference, opportunistic warmongering, and war crimes.
In short, Putin’s brand is toxic.
For his critics, this view is well-founded. Britain has been awakened by a pair of high-profile hits against Putin’s enemies on its soil: the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the attempted poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal in 2018, which killed a local woman, Dawn Sturgess. In the United States, the row over Russian involvement in President Donald Trump’s 2016 election has done a similar job.
But there is another way of seeing President Putin: as a strong leader, the kind of man who gets things done, using force if necessary; a man who stands for order over chaos, and who has no truck with politically correct nonsense about gender politics or Islam; a patriot who restored Russian prestige after a decade of chaos, and who represents national strength in a world lost in liberal fantasies.
In France’s last presidential election, in 2017, the newspaper L’Express reported that seven of the 11 candidates were pro-Putin
And this second view still finds unabashed support in a major part of the NATO alliance: France.
Although French President Emmanuel Macron is a strong critic, recent studies of Russian influence in France reveal more than 200 people in French public life – including politicians, businessmen and journalists – are open supporters of the Russian president, an unthinkable situation in the United Kingdom or the United States.
In France’s last presidential election, in 2017, the newspaper L’Express reported that seven of the 11 candidates were pro-Putin. High profile friends of Russia include actor Gerard Depardieu, who says he cannot understand why Putin is demonised, and theme-park magnate Philippe de Villiers who met Putin in 2014 and sees him as a clear-sighted, patriotic visionary and a bulwark against the “Islamisation of Europe”.
Here are five reasons why Putin can still find friends in France:
One: Xenophobia on the Far Right of French Politics
Putin’s biggest support base in France is among the far right, especially the party of Marine Le Pen, who managed to get into the final round of the 2017 presidential election after a wave of immigration across Europe, a series of Islamic terrorism attacks in France, and a global surge in nationalist populism combined to boost her standing. Although she lost to Macron, Le Pen has been able to present herself as a leader and a real contender for the presidency in 2022.
Le Pen may have benefited from a fragmented electoral contest, and most French remain vehemently opposed to her views, but one-third supported her in 2017. Le Pen makes no secret of her admiration for Putin, their warm relationship cemented by a 2017 visit to the Kremlin where Putin called her a political partner.
A Le Pen presidency in 2022 remains unlikely, but if it happens, Putin would gain a valuable ally and a huge boost to his credibility.
Two: Anti-NATO Sentiment on the Far Left
The fragmented French political scene has space for parties on the far left too, and some of their members may be as appealing to Putin as Marine Le Pen since they detest American hegemony and NATO.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who took 19.6% of the vote in the first round of the 2017 election, has said he wants to leave NATO, sees no point in ratcheting up pressure on Russia, and vowed to negotiate with Putin to avoid conflict, just as iconic French President Charles de Gaulle did with Soviet and Chinese Communist leaders Stalin and Mao.
Three: A Determination not to be a Puppet of America
Call it Gallic pride, call it French exceptionalism. Perhaps it owes something to France’s illustrious philosophical tradition and its distrust of unfettered capitalism, but many of France’s elite are wary of being spoon-fed an Anglo-American version of events.
That self-reliance can lead to the moral high ground, such as France’s refusal to back the disastrous U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. But it also allows French politicians to act in ways that would be taboo in Washington or London.
In 2015 ten French parliamentarians, all but one from the centre-right party The Republicans, visited Crimea, a Ukrainian territory that Putin had illegally annexed. Such a visit, the first of several, would have been unthinkable for British or American politicians.
The French delegation handed Putin a huge propaganda victory, although they ostensibly went to canvass local opinion, and there seems little doubt of their intention to support Putin. The delegation’s leader Thierry Mariani praised Putin’s fight against Islamic terrorism, scolded a Ukrainian journalist for asking “shitty questions” and called for the lifting of Western sanctions on Russia.
Four: No Blood on the Carpet
Unlike Britain, France has not been forced to confront evidence of Putin’s assassination squads first-hand. And some French experts are hesitant to accept assertions of Russian guilt without seeing the evidence for themselves.
A month after the Skripal poisonings, and weeks after Britain, France and others had pointed the finger at Russia, a former top French intelligence official Alain Juillet was reluctant to take Britain’s word. He said it was still unclear what had happened, and although it looked like a classic Cold War-style operation, it might also be an attempt to trick the world into thinking Russia was behind the attack, noting that Britain had rapidly put huge pressure on its allies to blame Russia. Juillet has since signed up as a contributor to Kremlin-backed TV channel RT.
Britain is also the home of prominent anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder, the force behind the “Magnitsky” laws in America, Canada, Britain and the Baltic states that target foreign officials who violate human rights. France has not yet got its own version, although Macron’s party colleagues support the idea and the European Union is working on an EU-wide version. “If we get France to pass a Magnitsky Act it would be like hitting the jackpot in terms of hitting Putin’s cronies who all have properties on the Côte d’Azur,” Browder tweeted in May 2019.
Five: Russia’s Well-rooted Networks in France
The Russian revolution a century ago sent thousands of ‘White Russians’ into exile –those on the losing side of the civil war against the Red Bolsheviks, and hundreds of thousands of them fled to France.
After the Second World War, links between Moscow and French Communists helped make France the biggest base for KGB spies in Western Europe throughout the Cold War, according to the Mitrokhin archive, the best available account of KGB activities. The old KGB front organisations may have been swept away, but Russian spying continues unabated.
Pro-Putin influence continues to thrive thanks to a clutch of innocuous-sounding foundations and associations with close links to Moscow, ostensibly promoting international friendship, peace, cultural and religious values and language study, but also providing a network of contacts between individuals close to Putin and opinion-formers in France.
The French connection suggests that Putin still has avenues of influence in Western Europe, and despite deep suspicion of the Kremlin in London and Washington, he can still count on friends in Paris.
France’s 2022 presidential election will again boast a carnival of diverse political views, including those on the extremes who look at the Kremlin and see a glass-half-full, rather than a polonium-tainted teacup. Marine Le Pen is likely to have another strong run at the presidency, buoyed by fears of immigration and anti-Islamism and a desire for national strength.
Putin, holding sway over the Syrian conflict and a potential new tide of refugees into Europe, may look to France and sense an opportunity to rupture the Western alliance for good.
This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu (www.journalismfund.eu).