Relations between the Kremlin and the European Union have been steady worsening: Russian officials are increasingly resorting to anti-Western rhetoric, while EU leaders are becoming bolder in their criticism of human rights abuses in Russia. Yet, according to Paris-based author and analyst Elena Servettaz, the Kremlin has found new allies in Europe’s growing far-right movements.
While the popularity of French President François Hollande continues to fall, despite a decline in unemployment and news of his alleged affair (which would ordinarily be an asset for a French politician), Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, continues to steadily gain ground. France is preparing for municipal elections in March. In Paris, polls show Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the candidate for the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, with a strong lead, but in Toulouse, France’s third-largest city, the National Front candidate seems certain to reach the runoff. So, little by little, Marine Le Pen is planning her conquest of the entire country by the next presidential elections in 2017.
In the meantime, the daughter of France’s most controversial politician is enlisting supporters abroad—and not just anywhere abroad, but in Russia. During his career, Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father and founder of the National Front, received words of encouragement from Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Marine Le Pen is aiming higher: she recently met with State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, and gave a speech to students at the diplomatic school of the Russian Foreign Ministry. She also made her most important statement for export: “Russia saved Syria.” It is not hard to guess to whom this statement was addressed.
Marine Le Pen believes that Russia is unfairly “demonized.” She has claimed that the campaign against the Russian leadership is being conducted at the highest levels of the European Union with support from the United States.
“As Vladimir Putin correctly stated, 20 years from now, France will have become a colony of its former colonies,” noted the National Front leader with glee in an interview with the main Kremlin television channel, Rossia 1. Marine Le Pen thinks that France is not coping well with the influx of immigration, and so, of course, the words of the Russian president could only make her happy. Meanwhile, Russian state TV channels make sure to remind their audience that in the last election, “20 percent of French citizens voted for Marine Le Pen and, therefore, against immigration.”
In France itself, Le Pen’s third place in the 2012 presidential elections is not explained only by public resentment against immigrants. The electorate of the National Front voted for her party because they were equally fed up with the left and the right. For her supporters, Marine Le Pen chose the right rhetoric, one that was much softer than that of her father. For Jean-Marie Le Pen, for instance, the Nazi gas chambers were “just a detail in the history of the Second World War.” France is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world—around 600,000 people. Marine Le Pen is trying to prove that her generation is different from her father’s. For instance, even during a recent scandal when Dieudonné, a controversial standup comedian, was accused of stirring up anti-Semitic sentiments, Marine Le Pen did not rush to the entertainer’s defense.
But has the National Front really changed? “Yes and no,” says Jean-Yves Camus, a French political analyst and researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). “Marine Le Pen still raises all the same fundamental themes: the condemnation of the current political class, opposition to immigration and to the European Union—only now, the party expresses its ideas differently. It makes fewer references to World War II or to colonial wars, and anti-Semitism is no longer a topic for discussion. Since January 2011, Marine Le Pen has been trying to modernize the image of the party. And the main difference to me is that the National Front is now really seeking power. Jean-Marie Le Pen did not work so hard to make the National Front a ‘normal’ party and to be in a position to be in a coalition government. Marine Le Pen is going exactly in this direction.”
While President Hollande said Paris would be ready to intervene in the Syrian conflict, Marine Le Pen supported Vladimir Putin’s position on Syria. Her ally, Frédéric Chatillon, not only openly supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but also blames Syria’s problems on the “Zionist lobby.” In 2006, Chatillon went to visit Assad with the abovementioned actor Dieudonné, whose shows have recently been prohibited by the French government. Chatillon heads Riwal, a PR agency that works closely with the National Front. This firm has a branch in Syria, and at the start of the civil war, Chatillon created a new “information” website, InfoSyrie. The far right is interested in “informing” not only the Syrians, but also the Russians: the recently launched website ProRussia.tv has hired “journalists” linked to the National Front. With Putin’s photos and the emblem of the United Russia Party as the site’s background, ProRussia.tv tells its Russian audience that “we will be there, so that in this new year refund is possible that it is necessary” (sic—original wording from Pro Russia TV).
While the Russian-language website is experiencing difficulties (which is why, presumably, they needed help from Google Translate), French-language propaganda is doing just fine. Marine Le Pen believes that France is not a democracy and that Russia is unfairly “demonized.” She has claimed that the campaign against the Russian leadership is being conducted at the highest levels of the European Union with support from the United States. It seems that the Kremlin and the French National Front have common enemies, which gives them something to talk about.
“For the National Front, the goal has always been an independent policy for France, independent from the U.S. and from NATO,” explains Camus. “The Front was looking for allies in southern countries with which France has strong historical and linguistic ties. As for Vladimir Putin, it seems to me that Marine Le Pen likes some of the constants of Russian history: the desire for power and also this feeling that we cannot quite understand in France—Russia is different from [Western] Europe, not only because of its location and its history, but also because of the values that have been passed through Russian history, beginning with the pre-communist period and which survived it and resurfaced again at the time of the Soviet collapse. Marine Le Pen likes Vladimir Putin because he puts an emphasis on the idea of an ‘Eternal Russia’ and on conservative values and mores, which, according to Le Pen, are on the path to extinction in France and in Europe.”
Why the Kremlin needs Marine Le Pen is also understandable. She does not talk about human rights in Russia. “When I solve all these problems in France, I will deal with improving the situation with democracy in Russia,” Le Pen says. According to Camus, it is very important that “someone from the outside is saying that there is at least as much freedom in Russia as in Western European countries, if not more.” After this, independent international election observers may talk all they want about massive fraud in Russian elections—the Russian people have already heard the voice of the National Front on state TV channels.
Marine Le Pen is not the only far-right European leader who is praising “democracy” and “fair elections” in Russia. In 2011, British National Party leader and member of the European Parliament Nick Griffin, known for Holocaust denial and for having received a suspended prison sentence on charges of inciting racial hatred, said that parliamentary elections in Russia were “much fairer than Britain’s.” Griffin visited three Russian polling stations and affirmed that he saw no violations. Mateusz Piskorski, a former member of the Polish Sejm for the far-right Samoobrona (“Self-Defense”) party, who has in the past engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric, was an observer of the 2007 Russian parliamentary elections and also did not find any violations: in his view, Russia’s electoral law is more democratic than that of the United States.
The Kremlin and the French National Front share many ideas—to begin with, a dislike of the European Union: while the Euromaidan is raging in Kiev, Marine Le Pen affirms that the European Union—“the world’s anomaly”—is about to collapse like the Soviet Union. Le Pen is planning to join forces with far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders to withdraw France and the Netherlands from the European Union after the European Parliament elections in May. Wilders has described the European Union as “a Nazi state” and compared the Koran to Mein Kampf. Marine Le Pen, unlike her father, has made more measured statements about Islam: “The problem is not Islam, but the fact that it is too visible,” she says.
Kremlin officials realize that the traditional liberal and conservative parties in Europe are gradually losing ground and that now is the time to cautiously align themselves with new forces—the far-right nationalists.
The National Front and the Kremlin also hold a common position on Syria. Both Putin and Le Pen opposed military intervention, recalling the Libyan scenario. “The interests of France are not affected, therefore we should not intervene,” said the leader of the French far right. She believes that Paris should build a relationship not with Washington, but with Moscow, because they have a lot in common in terms of their “civilized and strategic plan.” Another common enemy the two share is NATO. Marine Le Pen wants her country to withdraw from the North Atlantic alliance. Vladimir Putin often talks about the danger of having the alliance too close to the Russian border.
While French government officials have expressed concern about the situation in Ukraine and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said he is ready to meet with opposition leaders, Marine Le Pen has advised the Euromaidan demonstrators not to turn toward Brussels. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has loaned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych $15 billion and offered him a sweet deal on gas prices. Who would talk about joining the European Union after that?
Kremlin officials realize that the traditional liberal and conservative parties in Europe are gradually losing ground and that now is the time to cautiously align themselves with new forces—the far-right nationalists. “Some people in political circles in Moscow know that in Europe, and particularly in France, as the new family of far-right parties is gaining momentum, they must get to know them better and test the waters,” says Jean-Yves Camus.
As for Marine Le Pen, she has not only tested the waters, but has immersed herself in them deeply. To her, Vladimir Putin is “a very powerful man in the geopolitical arena.” On this point, to be sure, even Forbes magazine agrees: it has declared the Russian leader its “most powerful man” of 2013. French President François Hollande has been ranked eighteenth on this list, while the leader of the National Front is absent from it. At least for now.