The top intelligence agency in France has new fears that Russia could be attempting to sway the upcoming presidential elections in April in favour of Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate from the National Front.

  • Russia could affect election through classified leaks, misinformation and internet bots.
  • Le Pen has long history with Russia.
  • Wikileaks already claiming they have documents pertaining to her competitors.
  • Tensions are high after Russia allegedly interfered in U.S. election.

The weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné reported that France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) believes the Kremlin could be ready to co-ordinate a disinformation campaign, undermining the process.

Their report suggests that Russia will attempt to aid Le Pen by using bots to post millions of positive messages about the right-wing candidate online, and that the Russians may try to upend her opponents by publishing confidential emails. According to the report, these allegations are being addressed specifically at the next defence meeting at the Élysée Palace.

On Thursday, a poll was published projecting Le Pen to win the first round of voting but then ultimately losing to Emmanuel Macron, a centrist candidate, in the final runoff. Corruption allegations surround Francois Fillon, the previous favourite leaving him now in third place.

Déjà vu

Ever since the U.S. intelligence agencies declared Russia as a meddling force in the November elections, fears have spread that Putin’s cyber army would move its focus to elections in 2017 across Europe.

The Democrats believe Russia are in lockstep with WikiLeaks after they published embarrassing leaked emails from the DNC and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta. Julian Assange has of course frequently denied that the information came from Russia.

WikiLeaks has already shone a light on documents related to the French election involving Le Pen and Fillon. Assange told a Russian newspaper last week that he had also uncovered information about Macron amongst the rubble of the Hillary Clinton emails, although he refused to go into any further detail about the content of the emails.

How would the Russians go about an attack?

According to Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, any Russian campaign would have three elements:

  • Bots would be deployed to post millions of messages across the Internet raising the profile of Le Pen while damaging her opponents.
  • Hackers would breach candidates’ private emails and publish damaging information through WikiLeaks or anonymously through the press.
  • The Kremlin-run news agency, Sputnik, which in 2015 launched a French-language version of its website, would publish articles favourable to Le Pen and critical of her opponents.

Sputnik denies that it is trying to impact the election, and does periodically post balanced articles, but this is simply “an attempt at plausible deniability,” Nimmo said.

Could this work?

As first Brexit showed us, and then Trump, any slight bump to a campaign can have a major effect on the final outcome. The overall impact could come down to whether the opposing candidates have enough skeletons in their closet to affect public opinion negatively.

“Most of these attempts are likely to be of marginal impact, but what they do is give extra amplification to Le Pen,” Nimmo said. “In a tight race, that could be significant.”

Le Pen and Russia

There is a long history of Le Pen supporting Russian positions on international matters. Recently she was very critical of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the international community after Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. There are reports that Le Pen has promised to repeal the sanctions if she is elected president.

The National Front have been open about an $11.7 million load that it received from a Russian bank in 2014 for campaign finance after many French and European banks refused to help them.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, was given a separate $2.5 million loan at the same time from a holding company run by a former KGB agent.

Le Pen requested a $30 million loan to fund her campaign from a bank with close ties to Putin, just this December. U.S. Congressman Mike Turner called on the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to look into Le Pen’s Russian links.

What can France do?

Public awareness is the best weapon against this cyber propaganda wars.

Nimmo says, “The most important player in this is civil society, not the government. French media and civil society are very much aware of the problem and are looking at ways to counter it, and the most important thing is awareness. The more people realize that they have to think twice before they believe or share questionable news sources, the harder it’ll be for the disinformation to spread”.