Amid accusations – and denials -- of Russian meddling in France’s presidential election, one thing appears likely: At least one and possibly two pro-Kremlin candidates will head into a runoff vote.
Though Moscow has constantly denied accusations of interfering in the campaign, a wave of fake news reports and computer hacking attacks on independent Emmanuel Macron, the only major candidate to distance himself from Russia, have brought about a sense of déjà vu with last year’s U.S. elections.
French voters head to the ballot boxes on April 23 in the first round of voting with four candidates -- three of whom are pro-Russia -- within a range of 4 percentage points in opinion polls.
Macron, a centrist, and nationalist firebrand Marine Le Pen are in the top two spots, but both have lost ground in recent weeks, allowing conservative Republican Francois Fillon and Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, who also both advocate closer ties with Russia, to make the race too close to call.
With countries across Europe holding elections this year, concerns of possible meddling by Russia have grown amid claims that Moscow systematically undermined the U.S. presidential election in November, leading to the surprise victory of Donald Trump, the Kremlin’s supposed preferred candidate.
"We’re on the brink of potentially having two European countries where Russia is the balance disruptor of their leadership," U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (Republican-North Carolina) said at a news conference on March 29. "A very overt effort, as well as covert in Germany and France, [has] already been tried in Montenegro and the Netherlands."
According to an April 19 poll by Cevipof for the newspaper Le Monde, Macron has 23 percent support, followed by Le Pen at 22 percent, Fillon at 19.5 percent, and Melenchon at 19 percent. Adding to the tight race is the fact that an estimated one-quarter of the electorate is undecided.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will face each other in a runoff on May 7.
France would no doubt be seen as an important target in any outside efforts to influence the direction of European politics. It’s a pillar of the European Union and a key member of the NATO security alliance, both of which President Vladimir Putin perceives as impediments to Russia’s influence.
Far-right leader Le Pen, the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, is seen by many as the Kremlin’s first choice in the race.
The 48-year-old has campaigned on an anti-immigration, antiglobalization platform that jibes well with Putin’s drive to weaken the EU and NATO.
Le Pen’s campaign, which has stressed the need for closer ties to Moscow, has been financed in part by Russian sources and she visited with Putin in the Russian capital on March 24 during the height of the campaign.
"[Russia] has provided direct open support for Marine Le Pen in France in the hope that that support would boost her standing in France. It supported forces in Greece and Italy," said David Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute in Washington.
"So Russian interference in other countries’ politics and elections is not a new phenomenon and it has moved beyond just Russia’s immediate borders."
A former prime minister who struck up a friendship with Putin while he was in power, Fillon also wants to put curbs on immigration and has called for an alliance with Russia to battle "Islamic totalitarianism." He also has said he believes the West “provoked” Russia by expanding NATO so close to its borders and that it is futile for the West to try to convince Russia to leave Crimea, which it illegally annexed in 2014.
Once the front-runner, the 63-year-old’s campaign has been hurt by reports that he received 50,000 euros ($53,600) for setting up a meeting between a Lebanese billionaire, a French oil executive, and Putin in 2015.
Fillon’s aides have acknowledged the payment but have denied any wrongdoing.
Melenchon, a veteran Socialist who has used fiery rhetoric to make a late surge in opinion polls, has advocated a $106 billion tax-and-spend economic program, while also stumping for France to pull out of NATO and renegotiate France’s EU membership terms.
He has also supported Russia’s military operations in Syria and Ukraine.
The French government has said it is taking the threat of Russian meddling in the vote seriously, with Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warning Moscow in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche that "this kind of interference in French political life is unacceptable."
For its part, Moscow has consistently denied any interference. It characterized accusations that it was behind a flurry of cyberattacks in February on the campaign website and e-mail servers of the 39-year-old Macron as "absurd."
Russia also denies it interfered in the U.S. presidential campaign in order to help Trump defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. But a U.S. intelligence report concluded the Kremlin had, indeed, attempted to influence the outcome of the November 8 vote, and the U.S. Congress is currently conducting its own investigations.
While saying after meeting Le Pen that he wished the candidate luck, Putin was quick to add, “We by no means want to influence the current events, but we reserve the right to communicate with all representatives of all political forces of the country, as do our partners in Europe and the United States, for example.”
Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute for International Relations in Prague, said that while Le Pen may be the closest candidate to wear the pro-Russia tag, none of the candidates should be seen as a Kremlin proxy.
And while Russia would naturally seek to influence the campaign, including through slanted media coverage by French-language Russian news outlets in France such as Sputnik and Russia Today, he doesn’t think the meddling has been "especially extensive."
"There's also a serious question as to the effect of Russian disinformation. Does it really change many people's minds, or is it essentially recycled by people already disillusioned with mainstream politics?" he said.