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After French Vote, Kremlin Media Chorus Longs For Age Of De Gaulle, Mitterrand, Chirac

The latest French presidential election has had some Russian pundits harking back to the days of General Charles de Gaulle.
The latest French presidential election has had some Russian pundits harking back to the days of General Charles de Gaulle.

Russian state media and Kremlin-connected political pundits are hammering home a nearly identical talking point about France's presidential election -- French candidates and the Fifth Republic ain't what they used to be.

In the run-up to and aftermath of the April 23 first-round vote, Kremlin-loyal media outlets joined in remarkable unison to declare the candidates unworthy of comparison to former French leaders such as Charles de Gaulle, Francois Mitterrand, and Jacques Chirac.

In what resembles a coordinated messaging campaign, television personalities and political analysts have been delivering variants of the same thought and phrasing.

"France looks adrift," news anchor and state media executive Dmitry Kiselyov, famous for his colorful anti-West diatribes, declared on election day. "There is no one among the current politicians of the stature of de Gaulle, Mitterrand, or Chirac."

The first-round vote sent the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right rival Marine Le Pen into a May 7 runoff. Opinion polls show Macron, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's interference in Ukraine, is favored to defeat Le Pen.

Presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen. (composite photo)
Presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen. (composite photo)

Le Pen has spoken positively about Putin and backed lifting EU sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on April 24 that suggestions that the Kremlin wants Macron -- whose campaign has accused Russian media and hackers of trying to undermine his election chances -- to lose are "completely untrue" and "primitive."

"We will approach whomever the French choose with respect," Peskov was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying.

But Russians who stick exclusively to a Kremlin-friendly outlets might get the impression that France has no one worth voting for.

'New Page In History'

Echoing Kiselyov, Vyacheslav Prokofyev of the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote on April 24 that "the current candidates don't compare to the political figures of the not-so-distant past, like Presidents de Gaulle, Mitterrand, and Chirac."

A report by state-run Rossia-1 said the same day that Macron had "rejected many decades of French culture" and constituted "a new page in the history of the Fifth Republic."

"The golden age -- de Gaulle, [Georges] Pompidou, [Valery] Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand, Chirac -- has been relegated to the history books," the report said. "They have been replaced by politicians of a different stature -- Nicolas Sarkozy and [current French President] Francois Hollande."

Will Vernon, a senior producer with BBC News in Moscow, noted similar language delivered by journalist Vadim Glusker of the national NTV network and by the prominent Rossia-1 news anchor Ernest Matskyavichyus.

Meanwhile, Frants Klintsevich, a senior member of Russia's upper house of parliament, told Rossiiskaya Gazeta on election day that "the time of colossal figures like General Charles de Gaulle, it seems, is gone for good."

And political analyst Aleksei Martynov, who backed Putin's election in 2012, wrote in an op-ed for the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper that France was waiting for its "new de Gaulle."

"But he doesn't exist," Martynov wrote on April 24. "There is no such person, no such figure of that stature among the candidates."

One of the first examples of this talking point over the past week came from political analyst Timofei Bordachev, program director with the government-sponsored Valdai Discussion Club. He wrote on the website on April 21 that the French are disappointed there is "no clear figure on the horizon who could compare with the stature of the great presidents of the past -- de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand, and even Chirac," he wrote.

Bordachev, an associate professor with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment about whether he was working from a talking point prepared for him.

'Hands-On Approach'

The Kremlin has long denied that it dictates how state-owned media outlets should cover major stories, most recently when Putin's spokesman dismissed reports that it had ordered news outlets to tone down its positive coverage of U.S. President Donald Trump as "complete nonsense."

Numerous veterans of Russian state media outlets, however, have publicly described the Kremlin's hands-on approach to influencing news coverage, including at purported regular meetings with senior editors and media executives.

Vladimir Frolov, a well-connected political analyst in Moscow, told RFE/RL that this talking point is hitting the wrong notes and that the Kremlin would be wise to prepare for a potential Macron presidency.

"They need to open a back channel to Macron through the business lobby," Frolov said. "Perhaps they are shooting already for the parliamentary election in June in the hopes of creating a right-of-center-majority."

Frolov added, however, that he has "no idea" what the "actual thinking is" behind the messaging.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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