France's upcoming presidential election has turned into a de facto referendum on whether to halt or strengthen the nationalist fervor sweeping the west that propelled US President Donald Trump into the White House last year and spurred Britain's exit from the European Union.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been accused of meddling in both the US election to help elect Trump and the Brexit vote to help fracture the EU, has two horses in France's race — the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and the center-right Republicans candidate Francois Fillon.
Both candidates have touted policies that are at once Russia-friendly and hostile to two institutions Putin abhors: the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). They also oppose western sanctions on Russia and advocate a closer relationship between France and Moscow.
Le Pen has vowed to pull France out of both the EU and NATO, comparing Europe to a prison and calling NATO "obsolete." Fillon's view of the institutions is more nuanced, but he has indicated that he would like to see the EU's power diminished and has characterized NATO as an arm of "American imperalism."
Le Pen — who has said she admires Putin and thinks sanctions on Russia are "completely stupid" — traveled to Moscow in late March to meet with the Russian president. Fillon, who developed a close relationship with Putin between 2008-2012, is a tireless defender of Kremlin policies: He has sought to justify Russia's invasion of eastern Ukraine, demanded that the US lift its Crimea-related sanctions, and has advocated for France to realign with Russia, Iran, and Syrian president Bashar Assad to fight terrorism.
The stakes are high for Russia. Depending on who wins, the French election could set the tone for a broader European shift toward Moscow and away from Washington. It is no surprise, then, that both the French and English-language versions of Russia's state-sponsored news agencies, including Sputnik and Russia Today (RT), have been conspicuously bolstering the Kremlin's preferred candidates.
RT featured Le Pen's statement about Thursday's terror attack in Paris at the top of its site on Friday: "Restore France’s borders, expel foreign nations on watchlist – Le Pen to French govt," the headline read. The article made no mention of the statement released by her centrist opponent, Emmanuel Macron, in the wake of Thursday's attack: "Don’t give in to fear, divisions and intimidation."
A recent article in Russia's state-sponsored Sputnik News agency listed Fillon and Le Pen as the two most "pro-Putin" French candidates; Macron, meanwhile, could be both a secret "US agent" and a puppet of France's "rich gay lobby," according to a Sputnik article published in February.
Following Sputnik's cue, Russian television anchor Dmitry Kiselyov told his audience that month that there are "still rumors about [Macron's] nontraditional [sexual] orientation...He has also been connected with Hillary Clinton," the Washington Post reported at the time.
Shortly thereafter, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — who CIA director Mike Pompeo recently characterized as a foreign intelligence agent — told the Russian Izvestia broadsheet that his organization had "interesting information" about Macron that could be released imminently.
(Assange has said that his quote was taken out of context, and WikiLeaks has, so far, not leaked anything related to Macron. But RT quickly picked up on the claim.)
February continued to be a rough month for Macron: His campaign website was targeted by thousands of cyberstrikes and phishing attacks that his team claimed had originated in Russia. France's foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, quickly denounced the cyberattacks as "unacceptable."
"It's enough to see which candidates, Marine Le Pen or Francois Fillon, Russia expresses preference for in the French electoral campaign," Ayrault told the French Journal du Dimanche. "Whereas Emmanuel Macron, who is pro-Europe, is being targeted by cyberattacks."
"This form of interference in French democratic life is unacceptable and I denounce it," he added.
Facebook, meanwhile, has been indundated with fake accounts set up in France used to spread hoaxes and conspiracy theories overwhelmingly associated with the far-right. The site recently announced that it had shut down approximately 30,000 of these accounts in an attempt to stop the flood of disinformation ahead of France's first round of voting on Sunday.
Twitter is facing a similar problem: A recent study conducted by researchers at Oxford University found that as many as 25% of links shared by Twitter accounts in France represented "junk news" containing “ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial" political views.
Another study published by the Hungary-based private research group Bakamo concluded that several "alternative" news sources widely shared on Facebook and Twitter — whose stated aim is to "counter the narrative of the traditional media" — cite Russian sources to justify their narratives.
French newspaper Le Monde recently compiled a list of the most egregious examples of fake news, including one site, "Wikistrike," which deemed Marine Le Pen the winner before any voting had actually taken place. (These results, it said, were based on electronic ballots that had been "scanned in the USA, opposite the CIA headquarters.")
The impact of this "junk news" pushed by the far-right — much of it inspired or created by Russian disinformation — on the outcome of the French elections will be difficult to measure. In an encouraging sign, experts say that French citizens, on average, have shared far fewer fake stories in the run-up to their election than Americans did in the runup to theirs.
Russian bots and trolls, meanwhile, are already shifting their attention to another high-stakes European election.
"A contingent of the Trump campaign supporters we believe to be 'bots' and accounts from Russia have shifted to Germany,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent who testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month about Russia's use of bots and trolls to spread disinformation online.
"If I had to estimate," he added, "about one-third of previous Trump supporter accounts are now trying to influence the German election."
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