The golden domes of one of Vladimir Putin’s foreign projects, the recently built Russian Holy Trinity cathedral in the heart of Paris, rise up not far from the Elysée palace, the seat of the French presidency. Dubbed “Putin’s cathedral” or “Saint-Vladimir”, it stands out as a symbol of the many connections the French elite has long nurtured with Russia, and which the Kremlin is actively seeking to capitalise on in the run-up to the French presidential election. France is an important target for Russia’s soft power and networks of influence. The country is a key pillar of the European Union, an important Nato member and home to Europe’s largest far-right party, the Front National, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is expected to reach the 7 May run-off in the presidential vote and has benefited from Russian financing.
Le Pen took the extraordinary step of travelling to Moscow to meet Putin in March, just a month before the French vote, to boost her international profile and showcase her closeness to the Russian president’s worldview – including his virulent hostility towards the EU and his vision of a “civilisational” clash with radical Islam. Yet she is far from being the only presidential candidate to favour warmer relations with Russia, nor to reflect a certain French fascination with the Kremlin strongman.
Alongside Le Pen, two of the three other main contenders in the highly unpredictable French contest have toed a more or less pro-Kremlin line. They have criticised western sanctions policies over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and have shown understanding, if not outright support, for Moscow’s involvement in Syria. These are: François Fillon, the mainstream rightwing candidate, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a hard-left populist who has recently been making strides in polls.
As a result, Kremlin-controlled media and trolls have concentrated their attacks on the only candidate who has criticised Putin’s regime and his foreign policies while having a serious chance of reaching the run-off and perhaps the Elysée: Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old centrist and former economy minister. His platform notably includes a strengthening of the EU through further integration alongside Germany, the country whose leader, Angela Merkel, has been an important obstacle to Putin’s ambitions on the continent.