A report is due to be published this week detailing the findings of a six-month Parliamentary committee inquiry into foreign interference in French politics. But what it contains is already public knowledge after a draft was leaked to the press.
What does it say?
The 218-page report says that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement national (RN), has acted as a “communication channel” for Russia, and supported its annexation of Crimea in 2014 – the year it got a multi-million euro loan from a now-collapsed Russian bank.
Rapporteur Constance Le Grip, a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, wrote that RN’s support for Russia is “visibly appreciated in Moscow”, and noted that evidence Le Pen gave to the committee had plenty of coverage in the Russian press, which welcomed “with great satisfaction the assertion, in their view reaffirmed by Marine Le Pen, that Crimea is and always has been Russian”.
“All [Le Pen’s] comments on Crimea, reiterated during her inquiry hearing, repeat word for word the official language of Putin’s regime,” the report said.
Le Grip referenced a “long-standing” link between Russia and the French far-right party dating back to the period it was known as the Front Nationale and headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
She also said that the “strategy of political and ideological rapprochement” with Moscow had “accelerated” since Marine Le Pen became leader in 2011 – noting, particularly, the French politician’s well-publicised Moscow trip in 2017 that included an all-smiles photo-opportunity meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That image was intended to be used in campaign material for Le Pen’s presidential campaign in 2022, but the leaflets were quickly pulled following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Any mitigation or counter-evidence?
RN’s pro-Russian stance has “softened” in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the report concedes. Le Pen and her party had “unambiguously condemned” the invasion it noted, though it has so far steered clear of changing its position on Crimea.
And Le Pen herself emerged unscathed from a four-hour witness session in front of the committee last month.
A lot of questions revolved around a €9.4 million loan obtained from the First Czech-Russian Bank in 2014. Throughout, no firm evidence linking political backing in return for financial support was presented.
“If [the loan] had bound me to anything, I would not have signed. Is that clear?” Le Pen told the hearing.
Did anyone else give evidence?
Yes. The head of France’s internal security agency, the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure, told an earlier closed hearing that French MPs from all parties were legitimate targets for Russian spies.
Former Les Républicains Prime Minister and failed presidential candidate François Fillon, meanwhile, was questioned about his advisory work for two Russian oil companies after he left politics in 2017. He said he “never took a single cent of Russian money”.
Le Pen’s reaction
During the four hours of questioning, Le Pen branded the inquiry, “a sort of witch trial”.
And, when the report was leaked, she dismissed the whole investigation as a “dishonest” and a “political trial”.
“There is nothing, not a shred of evidence that would prove Russian influence over Rassemblement National,” she told reporters. “This report passes judgement on my political opinions, not on any foreign interference.”
Meanwhile, RN MP Jean-Philippe Tanguy promptly dismissed the entire process a “farce”. The problem is, he set up and chaired the inquiry.
The inquiry was set up and chaired by Tanguy, in an effort to shut down repeated accusations that Le Pen and her party are over-reliant on and beholden to the Kremlin – allegations that the RN brains trust believes were, in part at least, behind her failure to win the 2022 election.
Emmanuel Macron certainly used Le Pen’s links to Russia in a fiery TV debate during the 2022 Presidential elections.
“When you speak to Russia, you are not speaking to any foreign leader, you are talking to your banker,” he said, referring to a loan RN had taken with a Russian bank. He said Le Pen was “dependent on Vladimir Putin” and incapable of “defending French interests”.
She has repeatedly insisted that she was forced to seek financing from overseas because French banks refused to lend money to the RN.
Tanguy admitted he had been naive when he set up the committee, and insisted that he had been “betrayed” by Le Grip – though did not say why or how.
Despite the headlines, it doesn’t seem much has been unequivocally proven – the report has uncovered more smoke, rather than any gun. But that really wasn’t the point of the committee.
The line from Le Pen remains as it was prior to the report: No, she is not under the influence of Russia, or any other foreign power or person; Yes, she thinks that France should not alienate Russia, and the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 was legal, regardless of what everyone else in the the international community may think.
But, there’s little doubt that the exercise has backfired spectacularly. RN’s transparent attempts to further muddy unclear waters hasn’t worked. Despite repeated efforts to point a finger the other way – any other way – the focus kept returning to them. And now, they have to deal with the fallout.
“The inquiry’s immediate political consequence is to highlight, once again, Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russian stance – particularly on the annexation of Crimea,” Le Monde reported on Friday.
And Greens’ lawmaker Julien Bayou joked: “Rassemblement national launched this inquiry to clear its name, but ended up taking a boomerang in the face.”