Russia, like the rest of Europe, has been closely watching the French elections. Unlike with the rest of Europe, there have been concerns that Russia may forgo the role of mere spectator and attempt to actually influence the results as the US intelligence community says it did in the US elections. While analysis of the Russian media’s coverage of the French elections does not shed light on any covert cyber action that the Russian Federation may take, it is a helpful tool for revealing Russia’s biases. Further, media coverage could in some cases been seen as influence in and of itself, as propaganda. For the past several months, the Russian-EU relations cohort of EUChicago has been following seven prominent Russian media sites to try to decode the “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill famously called Russia. Unsurprisingly, the Russian media largely covers populist, anti-EU candidates with softer positions towards Russia more favorably than pro-EU candidates. However, the Russian media has also shown a surprising reluctance to wholeheartedly, unilaterally endorse individual candidates; even Russian favorites are not immune to occasional scrutiny by state-owned media sites.
The French elections occur in two rounds. The first round on April 23 eliminated all but two candidates, with Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen emerging victorious. With the endorsement of close third-place finisher François Fillon, Macron looks strong, and all current polling shows Macron to be heavily favored in the runoff. However, it’s hard to count Le Pen out in a year of unexpected election results that have gone in favor of populist, Russian-backed, far-right candidates. While he garnered an endorsement from fifth-place finisher Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party, Macron has not been endorsed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who finished in fourth place. The runoff is set to occur on May 7.
There is no doubt that Russia favors the far-right Le Pen more than any other candidate. The National Front candidate’s disdain for NATO and the EU, as well as her denouncement of the antagonization of Russia, directly aligns with Russia’s interests in destabilizing Western institutions. However, Russia’s enthusiasm for Le Pen did not reach its peak until Le Pen paid a visit to Moscow and met with Russian legislators in late March, becoming the only candidate to do so in this election.
In the beginning of 2017, Russian media coverage of Le Pen was relatively minimal. Le Pen was making statements that aligned with Russian interests, and there were articles from Russian media outlets in support of her. However, the majority of articles covering Le Pen prior to her trip to Russia were relatively objective and brisk. They matter-of-factly stated her desire to leave the EU and NATO. Often times, her views were simply quoted without any mention of her strengths as a political candidate. The far-right candidate was often simply a gateway to promoting Russian positions. For example, Le Pen’s recognition of Crimea as Russian territory in January was simply used by Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s most-read newspaper, as an introduction for journalists to explain why Crimea is indeed Russian territory, rather than to praise Le Pen for her views. After mentioning her statement, the article quickly shifted to discussing the Crimea issue from a Russian standpoint and left Le Pen behind. In another article, Le Pen’s statement that Russia is an important ally of France was reported by Komsomolskaya Pravda with an objective and almost blasé tone. This article quickly changed the focus of reporting to Russia itself, rather than Le Pen as a candidate. The article simply notes times when Le Pen mentioned Russia’s international contributions, including: “In the time of the last global conflict [World War II], Russia paid an enormous price: the 25 million Russians that perished … contributed to our freedom.” Le Pen’s fraud scandal and protests against her were reported by Russia Today with no attempt to deflect blame from Le Pen. These articles did not mention Le Pen or her views, but rather focused on the chaos of the protests. Denouncement of Le Pen by other French politicians was reported without any attempt to discredit the speaker or defend Le Pen. However, this pattern of reporting changed after Le Pen visited Russia.
Le Pen’s visit to Moscow on March 24 resulted in an almost immediate tonal shift in her media coverage: opinion pieces idolizing Le Pen became more frequent, and in a majority of media coverage she is now celebrated and exempt from criticism, with her views reported as daring and bold. The most representative article of the Russian media’s endorsement is “Marine Le Pen: Black Swan” from Russian news site Izvestia. According to the article, “It’s not without cause that they call Marine Le Pen a modern Joan of Arc. Just as her predecessor fought desperately with the English, Marine Le Pen today fights the Anglo-Saxon mainstream.” While previously Le Pen’s support of Russia was reported on only briefly, her visit to Moscow prompted interviews with Russian political experts about her daring choice to visit Russia. Questions asked in one interview include: “If she ends up winning, how drastically will the political situation in Europe change? Will the breakup of the EU continue, will anti-Russian sanctions be lifted?” Now, Russian sources like Komsomolskaya Pravda flock to her defense in the wake of protests, saying that “the path is not easy for French politicians trying to go against the notorious European liberalism.”
Perhaps in an attempt to make this path easier, the Russian media has a propensity to view candidates that “go against the notorious European liberalism” as successful, as demonstrated by coverage of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Even before his elimination during the first round, Mélenchon was not considered not one of the candidates with a “real сhance to become the president of France,” according to state-owned media outlet Rossiskaya Gazeta. However, the media nevertheless started to publicize his small victories once it became clear that he was against the EU. Most major Russian media outlets published articles putting him ahead of the other candidates after the April 5 presidential debate, which 25 percent of respondents in one survey said Mélenchon won. Even though Rossiskaya Gazeta used a different survey, which put Mélenchon in fourth place behind Macron, Le Pen and Fillon, a post-debate article still devoted two out of four paragraphs to Mélenchon’s rise and claimed that “the only politician who could give him [Macron] a run for his money in the second round of elections, experts more and more often name as Mélenchon, who in the televised debates extremely sharply expressed his views on the question of the future membership of France in the EU.” The increased positive outlook for Mélenchon was implicitly connected to his anti-EU stances, as is evident from this juxtaposition of articles from Russian news outlets. However, Komsomolskaya Pravda, generally a more unabashedly pro-Russian newspaper, drew the connection explicitly, claiming that Mélenchon won the debates because of these anti-EU views.
The Russian media seems to make every effort to point out cases when the French are euroskeptics or pro-Russian, not limiting itself to only the most extreme candidates. Despite the fact that François Fillon of Les Républicains, France’s center-right party, was not as explicit or profuse in his praise of Russia during this election cycle as Le Pen, Russia’s state-run media had been championing his cause until his defeat to Le Pen and Macron in the first round last week. Fillon, whose campaign was rocked by scandal in March, was by no means one of the favorites to emerge from the first-round vote, but international Russian state-sponsored news source Sputnik continued to publish a variety of articles which reflected favorably on Fillon’s experience and position in the race. For example, on April 18, Sputnik published excerpts from a speech given by former President Nicolas Sarkozy in endorsement of Fillon and quoted Fillon’s claim that a Le Pen victory in the first round would bode ill for the country’s future.
This is a continuation of a pattern in Russian state-sponsored media in which news outlets, while often showing enthusiasm for Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-EU position and Mélenchon’s populist appeal, are still willing, even at their expense, to exhibit more tempered support for Fillon’s more moderate position and, in particular, for his attitude towards relations with Russia.
Unlike Le Pen and Mélenchon, Fillon, despite his evident skepticism about the current effectiveness of the EU, maintained throughout his campaign that France should not seek a referendum on existing the union. However, the Russian news media registered Fillon’s position on the necessity of improving French-Russian relations and on the situation in Crimea. Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid targeted towards a younger demographic, quoted him comparing Russian intervention in Crimea to Western support of Kosovo’s independence and claimed that he was the only candidate able to clearly articulate a clear vision for France’s foreign policy during the first debate; the same article criticized Le Pen for her silence on Russia. News sources such as Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Russia Today have reported on his criticism of sanctions against Russia.
Capitalizing on Fillon’s scandals, Macron ended up getting the most votes in the first round. Despite worries about the influence of propaganda, it’s not clear whether Russia’s support for Le Pen, Fillon, and Mélenchon helped or harmed those candidates. Macron has used Russian support of his opponents to say that he is the only one who is not indebted to the Russians, and has lambasted Russian media for propagating fake stories such as a poll that showed Fillon in the lead and a misleading story accusing Macron of “influence peddling.” However, according to a recent study conducted at Oxford University, Russian media doesn’t appear to dominate the conversation on social media websites like Twitter, since the study’s findings show that the number of tweets from “known Russian sources” pales in comparison to tweets from other professional news sources.
The Russians have a clear and transparent motivation to oppose Macron: he has the toughest stance on Russia of any of the major candidates. The other serious contenders were open to negotiations on lifting the sanctions, and Le Pen has gone so far as to accept Russian foreign policy with respect to Crimea and Syria. Macron, on the other hand, has criticized Russia heavily. He has stated that Russia does not share French values, casts Moscow as an adversary allied with Iran and Syria, and would refuse to lift sanctions. It’s not hard to conclude from this why Russia might run a media campaign against Macron, but it simultaneously allows Macron to use the narrative of foreign interference in the French election to his advantage.
Since the first round of voting occurred, confrontations between Russian media and Macron have only increased, likely to Macron’s benefit. Macron’s campaign, probably sensing the utility of positioning Macron in opposition to Russia, has banned Russia Today and Sputnik from its events on the grounds that they are propaganda arms of the Russian state that disseminate fake news. This was met with outcries of suppression of free speech by the Russian outlets, and so the battle continues. Only the results of the runoff election will show whether the Russian media’s support of candidates worked to its advantage. At the very least, it has the potential to backfire.
The Russian media clearly has preferences in this election. However, it remains to be seen if these preferences will influence the results. Further, the Russian media’s occasional pushback against even favorable candidates may be a sign that no matter the results, Russia is prepared to defend its interests and would approach a victorious Le Pen with caution. In this it seems that Russia has learned from its experience with Trump, whose pro-Russian stances during the campaign have failed to translate into policy as Russia would have liked. Through these articles, most of which are targeted at a Russian audience, the Russian government seems to be preparing its populace for any outcome. At once, the media highlights positive European views on Russia, a feel-good moment for a long spurned but still proud nation, while also cautiously reminding the people of the reality that Russia may nevertheless have to face off against any winner. While these factors may seem contradictory to a Western onlooker, both have the net effect of building up nationalist sentiment in Russia—a goal that is often overlooked in the flood of speculations about Russian interference in elections.
Research cohort members: Katrina Keegan, Lucy Johnson, Teni Odugbesan, Raghav Bikhchandani, and Samuel Leiter
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