The French presidential election is the main topic of discussions and one of the most important political events of the year 2017. Various public opinion polls and personal background information of the candidates are brought to light and presented on a daily basis. Automated bots, social media trolls and disinformation outlets focused their activities on France as well.
Marine Le Pen’s visit to Moscow, her meeting with President Putin in March, as well as her party’s loan from a Moscow-based bank dating back to 2014, clearly indicate who is Moscow’s favourite candidate and the first choice for the winner of the French presidential election. This is supported by Russian media coverage of the French election campaign, which underscores the Kremlin’s preferences. Similar preferential treatment is possible to observe in the disinformation outlets in Central Europe.
There is no doubt who is the favourite candidate of pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets in Central Europe. In the past months, from the three presidential candidates, Marine Le Pen dominated the media coverage of disinformation outlets. Not only did she outnumbered her opponents in the volume of articles she was mentioned, but disinformation outlets in Central Europe hardly ever portrayed Le Pen in a negative way. A great example of this favouritism coverage of Sputnik the Czech Republic. This website disseminating dismaying and distorted information published 68 articles with tags Le Pen while 29 articles were tagged in connection with François Fillon and only 4 articles with tag of Emmanuel Macron. Thus, Marine Le Pen was mentioned over twice as much as François Fillon and 17 times more than Emanuel Macron.
How disinformation outlets portray French presidential candidates?
Russia could benefit from victories from either François Fillon, the soft Eurosceptic ex-prime minister, or far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Both of them would veto EU sanctions against Russia and also disrupt the unity of the European Union, albeit to different degrees. On the other hand, Russian geopolitical goals would take one more hit if the centrist, pro-EU Emmanuel Macron became the French president, who vowed to take a tough stance on Russia. Therefore, the aim of pro-Russian propaganda is to discredit Macron and help Fillon and Le Pen get into the second round of the presidential election.
Marine Le Pen
Disinformation outlets predict and depict Marine Le Pen as a winner of both rounds of the French presidential elections. While all candidates have fair chances, pro-Kremlin websites are fairly certain of Le Pen’s victory. Furthermore, her leadership and ideas are not subjected to criticism from pro-Russian trolls and websites. The National Front’s candidate is praised in disinformation outlets in Central Europe for her plan on holding a referendum on France’s EU membership, ‘FR-exit’, after she is elected. Pro-Kremlin websites share and favour her ‘anti-West’ narratives of the EU being completely dead and rotten, as well as her populist ideas to dismantle the EU monster and resurrect the oppressed national states. Miss Le Pen is depicted as a charismatic leader attracting thousands of supporters creating passionate crowds, embracing the principles of a national state and supporting cooperation with Russia and common fight against globalism.
Disinformation outlets also featured and promoted Le Pen’s anti-terror plan – she would fight terrorism by closing the border and deportations. However, Marine Le Pen, was perhaps most importantly for pro-Kremlin websites, was proclaimed to be against the “Western anti-Russian propaganda”. When Le Pen was asked on BBC if France would protect Ukraine or the Baltics, if she was elected, she said Russia is not at war with anyone and it does not want war, why would we [the West and France] start World War III? She also added at the end of the interview that the EU is almost completely dead, even though popular support for the EU surged after the Brexit referendum. Marine Le Pen also claimed that the mainstream media is full of conspiracy theories, for example, about Russia trying to interfere in electoral campaigns. All these narratives – WWIII, the EU being at the brink of collapse or manipulated mainstream media – are same as those used by RT or Sputnik.
However, for the West such ideas are unacceptable and Marine Le Pen must be stopped – this is what the disinformation outlets report. The Western elites and mainstream media are supposedly trying to libel the candidate of National Front and take her out of the race for the Élysée Palace. Disinformation outlets claim “the criminalization of Marine Le Pen started” with the European Parliament waiving her immunity for spreading gruesome images of Islamic State violence and is being investigated for ‘alleged fraud’. According to pro-Kremlin outlets Facebook and Google are spreading distorting and fake information about Le Pen and the EU and French institution are conducting a discrediting campaign against the leader of the National Front. Marine Le Pen is supposedly a real threat to the “dysfunctional and despotic European Union” and thus must be taken out of the presidential race. Referring to the West’s anti- Len Pen campaign, the one Czech outlet even stated in its headline: “French pre-election farce: How to make the Le Pen a jihadist?”, other proclaimed “discrimination” of the only female presidential candidate.
The French elite is scared of Le Pen’s victory, as the election approaches more and more start to see in the French elite that Le Pen’s got a shot at victory. The elite is afraid that the populist candidate would win and the “failed president” François Hollande says it is his “utmost duty” to stop this from happening. Although everyone claims it is unlikely Le Pen would win the second round of the election, pro-Russian outlets found an expert from Goldman Sachs who said it is a possibility.
François Fillon is the second most favourable candidate of disinformation outlets. The pro-Russian stance of this ex-minister was the topic of many articles. Fillon’s declarations that Europe must cooperate with Russia in the fight against terrorism, and that the European Union must change its approach to Russia from its currently confrontational stance to one that aims at building trust between them were taken over by pro-Kremlin outlets in Central Europe. Both Marine Le Pen and François Fillon would most likely veto EU sanctions against Russia once elected, and thus disrupt the unity of the European Union, albeit to different degrees. However, 6 out of 10 most recent articles published by Sputnik Czech Republic had headlines of Fillon calling for better cooperation with Russia or the withdrawal of EU sanctions against Russia. According to Sputnik, Fillon even declared that “Crimea is a historical territory of Russia”. This information was also published by Russophile and Rusreality.com.
Therefore, Fillon’s scandal concerning the employment of his wife and consequent drop of his public preferences, was reported by disinformation websites as “an attack on his character” – a smear campaign and as a “political assassination” conducted by the globalists, the same unspecific people who are supposedly trying to hurt Le Pen’s chances of victory. The West was accused of being horrified by the option that somebody else except Macron might win the elections and hurt the European Union, and thus stop the plan of importing refugees into Europe. The disinformation websites in Central Europe largely speculated that the scandal titled “Penelopegate” might have been made up. Hungarian outlet Hidfő also reported that Fillon is still being supported by most MPs from the Les Republicans party. This Hungarian article also proclaimed that Le Pen and Fillon are the two most likely candidates to win and pointed out that both Le Pen and Fillon are under intense attacks from mainstream media.
Out of the three presidential candidates, Emmanuel Macron, is the candidate Moscow would rather not see in the Élysée Palace. This is represented also by the lack of coverage by pro-Kremlin disinformation media. Articles mentioning him focused primarily on Marine Le Pen. Out of disinformation outlets in Central Europe, it was Sputnik who wrote the most about Macron due to his statements about the Kremlin and Russian media. Macron warned that RT and Sputnik are spreading fake news about him and prodlaimed that he would have a firm stance towards Russia concerning the fulfilment of Minsk agreements. According to Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of RT and Sputnik agency, “Macron’s team based his presidential campaign exclusively on lies about RT and Sputnik.” From the view of pro-Kremlin outlets, Macron is actively involved in the global plan for France – once the elites would manage to get rid of Marine Le Pen and François Fillon, Macron would become the leader who would get France in line and who would obey the European dictators. Therefore, Emmanuel Macron was labelled as “French Hillary” and “Rothschild candidate” by pro-Kremlin outlets.
Edited by Katarína Klingová, research fellow at GLOBSEC Policy Institute; Veronika Víchová, analyst of Kremlin Watch Program, European Values Think-Tank; Lóránt Györi, Political Capital Institute; Patrik Szicherle, Political Capital Institute. This document was published in the framework of projects run by the GLOBSEC Policy Institute and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.
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The opinions stated in this report do not necessarily represent the position or views of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute or the National Endowment for Democracy. Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the authors.