Russia’s Not-So-Hot Euro-Election Subversion Strategy Is Failing in France

The French press are delivering an excruciating lesson for their American counterparts: If you ignore the WikiLeaks-Moscow-Assange interventions, Russia can’t subvert your democracy.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

PARIS — If Vladimir Putin’s keyboard commandos are hoping to hack up French presidential elections the way they did America’s, they are, well, a little off their game. And their more-than-willing tool, Julian Assange, the Australian anarchist who brought us WikiLeaks, appears to be getting a little antsy.

It’s been a week or so since Assange announced he had pirated cables and emails about the three most prominent candidates, but nobody in France paid much—or any—attention. The cables were old, had been well sifted in the past, and there were other much bigger, fresher, and sexier scandals emerging from more conventional sources.

So Russia’s state-subsidized news sites tried to give Assange a boost. Sputnik, straining to write something entertaining about such a non-story, cobbled together a piece on Feb. 2 from various Twitter feeds mocking those who suggested the latest WikiLeaks announcement was part of a Russian democracy-disrupting conspiracy like the alleged one that made U.S. President Donald Trump’s election resemble a bad serialized version of The Manchurian Candidate.“WikiLeaks vs. French Presidential Hopefuls: Who is the real ‘Kremlin Agent’?” read the headline. The conclusion, of course, none of the above.

But in the days since, it’s begun to look more and more as if Assange, at least, wants rather desperately to sway the elections, which are now three months away, and he’s doing his best to focus his leaks on the candidates most likely to face far-right-wing populist nationalist Marine Le Pen in the final showdown for the French presidency.

Assange’s most recent foray was an interview with Izvestia claiming he had “very interesting” material about independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, which he found in … wait for it, Hillary Clinton emails. Again, the Russian press was all over that vague threat, with the French-language RT and Sputnik feeds playing it big. But the actual French press? Not so much, or not at all.

The whole thing was more a squib than a supernova, but it’s still worth examining.

Why would Assange and his Russian friends be so keen on helping Le Pen, even when they don’t have much to show? Because, like Trump—or, more accurately, like his adviser Steve Bannon—Le Pen wants to bring the old political system crashing down and replace it with little more than nostalgia, her cronies, the police, and Putin.

In 2014, she not only got loans from a bank controlled by the Russian state when French institutions refused to lend to her, but she and members of her party went out of their way to countenance Putin’s forced annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. In fact, Le Pen hardly knows when to stop gushing about Russia, even insisting it was the United States that started the Cold War, and forever portraying poor Putin as the victim of all kinds of Western aggressions.

(To be fair, we know about the Russian loan because somebody not connected with WikiLeaks hacked the accounts of Le Pen’s associates back in 2014. Dirty tricks in cyberspace come from all directions.)

If the populist wave represented by Brexit and Trump continues, then Le Pen and other candidates in this year’s European elections—notably in the Netherlands and Germany—could wind up benefitting from Putin/Assange support while working with the Trump administration to disrupt or destroy the European Union as we know it, and fatally weaken NATO.

All that would tickle Putin pink, and it’s not an implausible scenario. In an orgy of moral equivalence, we’ve heard the man Trump’s sending to Brussels as ambassador to the European Union making a glib comparison to the Soviet Union and its demise. And, of course, we heard Trump himself in his pre-Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News defending Putin’s record as, in O’Reilly’s words, “a killer.”

“There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think, our country’s so innocent?” was Trump’s now-infamous quote, suggesting that a man whose military carries out scorched-earth campaigns against civilians in his own country and in Syria, and whose opponents keep winding up poisoned or shot, has a lot in common with previous U.S. administrations.

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Nicolas Hénin, author of La France Russe, predicted this sort of argument from Kremlin cronies. It’s 1984typical Putin newspeak, to borrow a word from 1984 . As Hénin told The Daily Beast bluntly, “He will do shit and try to make people believe ‘the shit we do is because you do shit, too.’”

After the United States, France is key to the Kremlin’s hopes to break the unity and discredit the ideals of the West. Le Pen wants to weaken the EU dramatically, or pull out of it altogether. And Le Pen is the key to France.

Conventional wisdom and opinion polls (for whatever they’re worth) have predicted consistently that Le Pen will take first place in the first round of voting on April 23, and the rest of the field—four candidates at least—will be fighting over the crumbs. Whoever takes second place, even by a fraction of a percentage point, will then enter the run-off on May 7.

When Assange first started trying to play up his old cables, he talked about 3,630 that “mentioned” conservative candidate François Fillon, but that was hardly surprising since Fillon was prime minister for five years and heads of government tend to get mentioned a lot. Until recently, Fillon was considered the front-runner with the highest likelihood of making it into the sudden-death second round. And as it happens, Fillon’s public posture strongly supports close relations between Paris and Moscow. But nothing like as strongly as Le Pen’s.

Assange also noted that he had some emails from former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, among others, talking about the Le Pen family’s political dynasty with its anti-immigrant stance and in the case of Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, thinly veiled anti-Semitic rhetoric. But in the current French political context, that will do her no harm. And Sputnik couldn’t resist quoting one of the emails that she probably finds flattering: “The Le Pen are very close relatives of Trump, although they are much better educated.”

By the time Assange gave his interview to Izvestia this week, the political landscape had changed. A series of reports in the venerable satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchainé revealed that Fillon had put his wife, Penelope, and two of his sons on the public payroll as parliamentary assistants, allowing them to earn about $1 million over the years without doing any clearly defined jobs. Note that this is not illegal in France, but the staunchly Catholic Fillon had campaigned as a paragon of integrity while promising to do away with the jobs of 500,000 public employees, so his candidacy is now in very deep trouble.

In a lengthy press conference Monday, Fillon apologized for his actions, saying that times have changed and what once was acceptable no longer is. But he vowed to stay in the race unless he’s actually indicted by the court that’s looking into what’s now known, inevitably, as Penelopegate.

Le Pen has some similar troubles. The European Parliament, where she is a member, has demanded she give back some $400,000 it paid to two of her associates who allegedly were not working for the parliament, but for her political party. She has simply refused, and, as with Trump, seems virtually immune to corruption charges, at least for the moment.

Meanwhile, wildly unpopular Socialist President François Hollande is not running for reelection, but his party is in sad shape and despite some momentum for its newly named candidate, the far-left and bright green candidate Benoît Hamon, it seems to have no prayer. Meanwhile on the far far left, the Socialists’ faint first-round dreams are being eroded by independent Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Which now leaves the field open for 39-year-old independent center-of-center candidate Emmanuel Macron, the wunderkind investment banker at Rothschild and former economy minister under Hollande who is gaining support from both disillusioned center-left Socialists and uncomfortable former Fillon backers.

Macron has now edged ahead in the polls, which show him grabbing second place in the first round, and potentially crushing Le Pen in the second. Already she is defining her campaign as one of “patriots” versus “globalists” and says she believes Macron—whom she calls “a convinced globalist,” and who is also a Europeanist, and generally friendly to the United States but not Trump—is her most likely opponent.

In this election year, anything is possible, and eventually Macron’s youth and enthusiasm (some call it “exaltation”) on the public stage may not be to the taste of most French voters. Fillon, hanging tough, could make a comeback.

But it’s a fair guess that Le Pen will remain the Putin favorite, and Moscow and its useful tools like Assange will do whatever they can to get her elected.