The flagging, scandal-plagued presidential campaign (photo) 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.We gotta figure out how to stop this...
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, Fillon’s 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 Russia’s interference in the presidential election in the United States last year.
Is Moscow meddling covertly, as American intelligence agencies say it did before Donald J. Trump’s victory? Or is it just benefiting from a network of politicians, journalists and others in France who share the Kremlin’s views on politics there, and much else besides?
Whatever the answer, squalls of fake news reports and a barrage of hacking attacks on the computers of Macron’s campaign have left many in Paris and Washington with an unnerving sense of familiarity.
It all looks so recognizable that Senator Richard M. Burr, a Republican from North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently said that “I think it’s safe by everybody’s 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 thirty thousand fake accounts” in France.
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, and the futility of economic sanctions on Moscow.
Nataliya Novikova, who leads Sputnik in Paris, said that its operations there, while eager to present Russia’s take on events, did not serve Moscow, but rather a French audience eager for a “different angle.”
Complaining that 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,” Novikova said. “There has to be a pluralism of truth.”
Cécile Vaissié, a professor of Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet studies at the University of Rennes 2, said the Kremlin, building on methods and 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 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 Fillon’s campaign is that he received fifty thousand dollars from a Lebanese businessman in return for arranging a meeting with Putin. The Kremlin dismissed the report as “fake news.”
Lately, Fillon has seen a bump in real opinion polls. They still put 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.
Russia’s 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 Russian banks.
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 and organizations that speak out for views that mirror Russia’s and its preferences for the French election.
Russia’s 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 United States and a permanent rejection of it that provides absolutely fertile ground for the Russians.”
Anti-Americanism in France has seeped deep into the center-right, encouraging an infatuation among some politicians with Russia and Putin that has provided Russian news outlets in France with some of their most bombastic pro-Russian and anti-Macron voices.
One of those is Nicolas Dhuicq, a member of Parliament, secretary of the legislature’s 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 and led by an old political ally of Putin’s.
It was Dhuicq who told Sputnik in February that Macron was a closet homosexual supported by a “very rich gay lobby.” The claim, which set off a firestorm on social media, put 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.
Dhuicq also contributed to a Sputnik article that derided Macron, a former investment banker, as an “American agent lobbying banks’ interests.”
In an interview, Dhuicq stood by his claim that 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 and 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 don’t 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 Macron’s 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 with the mainstream media and gets its information from parallel sources. This is the world in which RT and Sputnik have found their place.”
Sputnik’s report about Fillon’s 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 information 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 data.
Mounir Mahjoubi, digital director of the Macron campaign, said the principal goals of the state-funded Russian media outlets were to spread chaos and uncertainty and to undermine Macron while diverting attention from Fillon’s legal troubles.
In one striking example, Sputnik and RT reported in February, citing what they said was an interview by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with the newspaper Izvestia, that WikiLeaks had “interesting information” about Macron and 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 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 campaign’s website and 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 Committee’s servers last year.
Yet Damien Bancal, a French journalist who founded and runs the website Zataz, which focuses on digital security, said that attributing such activities to Russia was wild conjecture. The Macron campaign’s computer system “is like a Swiss cheese,” he said, open to attack not only by Russia but also by “any fifteen-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 country’s equivalent of the National Security Council in Washington was 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.
18 April 2017
From The New York Times, an article by Andrew Higgins about more Russian meddling in elections (which they don't have):
Posted by Rico at 14:50