French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has met with Russian President Vladimir and said that if elected, she will consider how to swiftly remove sanctions against Moscow.
At the unannounced meeting in the Kremlin on March 24, Putin said that Russia was not seeking to sway the upcoming vote in France and defended his decision to meet with Le Pen.
"We do not want to influence events in any way, but we reserve the right to talk to representatives of all the country's political forces, just as our partners in Europe and the United States do," Putin said.
Le Pen said that Russia and France should exchange intelligence concerning the fight against terrorism, adding that "only together can we overcome this scourge."
Addressing reporters after the talks, Le Pen said that if elected, she would consider what she had to do to swiftly remove the sanctions Western governments have imposed on Moscow over its interference in Ukraine.
The French National Front (FN) party leader has voiced admiration for Putin in the past and did so again after the meeting, which an aide to Le Pen said lasted about 90 minutes.
"He represents a sovereign nation," Le Pen told reporters. "I think he also represents a new vision."
"A new world has emerged in the past years. This is Vladimir Putin's world, Donald Trump's world in the United States, Mr. [Narendra] Modi's world in India," she said, referring to the U.S. president and the Indian prime minister.
"I think I am probably the one who shares with all these great nations a vision of cooperation and not one of subservience -- a hawkish vision that has too often been expressed by the European Union."
Those words echoed remarks by Putin and other Russian officials, who have accused Western governments of "Russophobia" and suggested that European Union members are subservient to both the United States and the EU leadership.
An aide to Le Pen, Ludovic de Danne, told the Reuters news agency that the meeting focused mostly on international affairs.
"He wished her good luck for the presidential election," said de Danne, who took part in the talks. "We felt they understood each other, they were on the same wavelength."
Opposed To Sanctions
Le Pen met with Putin after a visit to the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, during which she called for closer ties between the two countries and the removal of EU sanctions.
The European Union, the United States, and other countries have imposed sanctions on Russia over its seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and its support for separatists whose war against government forces has killed more than 9,900 people in eastern Ukraine.
"It is absolutely inconceivable that because of the sanctions, Russian and French lawmakers are not able even to meet to discuss issues that are of the great importance for protecting peace and lives of our citizens," Le Pen told the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee.
Le Pen called for "strategic and economic cooperation" between France and Russia, saying: "This new world taking shape right before our eyes now is already facing two gigantic, monumental challenges, namely globalism and Islamic fundamentalism."
Le Pen was visiting Russia at the invitation of Duma committee head Leonid Slutsky, who said that her trip was "courageous."
Le Pen has repeatedly called for closer ties with Putin and said she does not consider Moscow's annexation of Crimea illegal.
Her one-day visit comes a month before the April 23 first round of the French election, one of a series of votes in EU countries this year that are seen as a test of Russia's influence in the West at a time when many officials and analysts believe Putin is seeking to sow disunity and undermine institutions in the EU and the United States.
After U.S. intelligence agencies released a report in January saying they assessed that Putin ordered an "influence campaign" to interfere in the U.S. presidential election last year, there are fears that the Kremlin has been seeking to sway elections in France, Germany, and other countries.
Opinion polls ahead of the French election suggest that Le Pen is likely to reach a second-round runoff vote on May 7, but would probably lose to a centrist candidate.
Conservative presidential hopeful Francois Fillon has also called for better relations with Moscow. Front-runner Emmanuel Macron, an independent who backs the EU sanctions against Russia, has accused the Kremlin of being involved in cyberattacks.
Le Pen has made multiple trips to Russia in the past, receiving positive coverage in the Russian state media.
Her relationship with Russia has been in the spotlight during the election campaign, partly because of a $9.7 million loan the National Front took from a Russian bank in 2014. Her party said that French banks had refused to lend it any money.
National Front members have said they are seeking millions of euros to fund presidential and parliamentary elections this year, but both Le Pen and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the possible financing of the party's election campaign was not discussed during her meeting with Putin.
Russia has repeatedly denied reports that it is trying to influence the French election campaign.
On March 23, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said allegations that Russia was interfering in electoral processes in France and Germany as "absolutely fictional."
Lavrov said Le Pen was not a "populist" or "marginal" but a "realist or antiglobalist" figure.
The French presidential election is followed by parliamentary elections in June.
German voters will elect the members of the Bundestag in September, with Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a tough fight.
With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters, TASS, and Interfax