France’s internal political landscape is ripe for the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation. From the yellow vest protests to divisive electoral politics before the recent European elections, the Kremlin targets the country’s ongoing political struggles to exacerbate social divides and shift public opinion against the EU and in favor of the Kremlin. Given France’s outsized role in both European and global affairs, the potential effects of the success of Moscow’s disinformation and propaganda strategy are considerable.
France is an ideal target for the Kremlin’s propaganda for three reasons. Firstly, parties on both extremes of the political spectrum lend their support to Vladimir Putin. Far-right parties such as Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France, and François Asselineau’s Union Populaire et Républicaine (UPR) express support for Moscow. Endorsements for Putin from the radical left come from such figures as Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Additionally, the Kremlin receives backing from the traditional right, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy, former prime minister and presidential candidate François Fillon, and former leader of the conservative Party Les Républicains Laurent Wauquiez.
Secondly, the yellow vest protests have presented the Kremlin with a golden opportunity to fuel discontent and magnify some of the movement’s key figures through its official and less official channels. Many of the demonstrators have praised Russia Today (RT) on social networks such as Facebook for the outlet’s extensive and favorable coverage of the protest movement. Subsequently, reports surfaced that accounts linked to Russia had penetrated the movement’s online network. Beyond the more well-known of the Kremlin’s propaganda outlets, there are many self-proclaimed “re-information” media (TV channels, websites, blogs) and right-wing magazines, many with clear pro-Putin and pro-Assad stances, that have given a voice to purported yellow vest leaders.
Thirdly, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a guarantor of the Minsk Agreements, and key pillar of the EU, a Moscow-friendly France could be a strong asset for Putin’s regime if its leaders fail to address the threat posed by the Kremlin’s disinformation.
In order to understand how Russia’s propaganda is working in France and in the EU, one needs to comprehend the propaganda’s multifold nature. The Kremlin’s strategy combines soft and hard propaganda. On the one hand, the disinformation’s aim is to destabilize democratic institutions and the public mindset toward those institutions. On the other, it spreads disinformation on Russia-related issues and narratives. These two aims must be clearly distinguished. Additionally, sometimes the objectives of a particular propaganda campaign are two-fold. For example, propaganda and disinformation pedaled by media outlets around the yellow vest protests both denounced repression of the demonstrators and the government’s “dictatorship” while relativizing the crackdown on freedom of speech and civil liberties in Russia. Whatever the reasons for the protesters’ anger, the movement uses very common techniques to discredit the government. Many of these techniques take their inspiration from the “agit-prop” (agitation-propaganda) of the former Soviet Communist Party, which combined classical ideological influence with attempts to foment upheaval and discontent.
While the Kremlin did not create the discontent motivating the protests, Moscow has deployed a sizeable array of arguments and supporters, including useful idiots, to call into question the legitimacy of the elected government. Its strategy has also helped to undermine France’s pro-EU parties. A majority of the protesters voted for Marine Le Pen’s party in the recent European parliamentary elections. Moreover, many within the movement are Euro-Skeptics who embrace the notion that an “ultra-liberal” and market-oriented Europe is to blame for social issues on the continent.
This anti-globalization mantra has both a left- and right-wing component, the nuances of which were often glossed over by the movement’s spokespersons. Elements on either end of the political spectrum varied in their usage of the narrative, from using it to target the finance industry and the “banksters,” often with an anti-Semitic resonance, or against migrants to depict them as “invaders” and as a threat to “Christian values” as described by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Even some mainstream parties coopted this narrative and expressed strong positions against further enlargement of the EU, thereby legitimizing those more extreme stances. While the Kremlin did not invent the anti-globalization narrative, its resurgence in France has allowed Moscow to foment intolerance and closed-mindedness.
This misinformation is difficult to combat. It promotes a negative image of France, a technique used in domestic politics by opposition parties around the world. While manipulated or presented in a biased manner, it may express the feelings of certain groups who oppose the ruling government. Even if it gives voice to persons who are also propagating “fake news,” the issue is more about opinions freely expressed in a democracy than about the fakes. Observers and watchdogs certainly must debunk the outright lies and rectify the facts, but doing so will not fundamentally address the manipulation of information. To effectively handle the issue, activists must expose the meddling of a foreign power in the domestic political arena and ensure that political parties or entities disclose the foreign support they have received. Unfortunately, finding the necessary evidence can be a difficult task.
Beyond the yellow vests and internal political struggles, the Kremlin actively attempts to whitewash its war in Ukraine and Syria and distort perceptions of Moscow’s culpability. Its wars in Ukraine and Syria have lapsed out of major news headlines and most French citizens no longer follow them. Neither war played a significant role during the European elections campaign. Kremlin propaganda channels continue to propagate Moscow’s favored narratives surrounding the wars, including the fight against “terrorists” in Idlib; the “legitimate” annexation of Crimea; the lack of Russia’s responsibility for downing the MH17 flight; and the “protection” of the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas. France’s communication regulation body blamed RT France for distorting information coming from Syria. Kremlin-linked outlets regularly launch smear campaigns against the White Helmets rescuers in Syria or accuse rebel forces, and even sometimes their allies France and Belgium, of planning chemical weapons attacks.
Most worryingly, many opinion leaders and mainstream media outlets in the West further Kremlin narratives about these topics. These narratives include assertions that “we have to pass over Crimea (or Syria) by losses and gains,” “we must understand how Russia has been humiliated” (and “we must not humiliate Russia”), and “we have to reach out to Russia” (or “to reconcile with Russia”), and so on. Those who advocate for appeasement of Moscow, often doing so through admonitions of the risks of a conflict with Russia, frequently depict these narratives as “realistic.” Conversely, those who advocate for a strong stance and increased sanctions on Russia, such as a European Magnitsky Act, are labeled as “warmongers” who endanger peace.
The dissemination and normalization of these soft propaganda themes may be a more important source of concern than lobbying for Russia by French far-right Members of European Parliament (MEPs). The issue is that France simultaneously blames Russia for meddling in the elections and for its deeds in Ukraine and Syria while conceding to Russia on the world stage, for instance by re-admitting Moscow’s MPs to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) or by hesitating to impose a second round of sanctions on Russia related to Ukraine and Syria. These contradictory positions could make France appear inconsistent in its policy toward the Kremlin.
There are, therefore, two discernible aims of the Kremlin’s propaganda in France. The first is mostly domestic, though it could have ominous international consequences: undermining democracy in Europe and fueling discontent with the aim of bringing pro-Kremlin governments into power. The second, potentially subtler and more invasive, is to make Western leaders reluctant to act against Putin’s violation of international law and his destabilization of Ukraine and Syria. Conciliatory stances toward Moscow signal the West’s hesitation to stand tough against the Kremlin’s provocations.
The potential consequences of the widespread infiltration of France’s internal political discourse by these disinformation narratives are far-reaching. Some of those who spread them may have access to government circles and mainstream political parties. Thus, it is crucial for observers and activists to recognize that while the Kremlin did not create the animosity and discontent at the heart of France’s political troubles, whether concerning the European elections or the yellow vests protests, the inflammation of antagonistic political sentiments and the polarization of the debate are the Kremlin’s self-serving designs.
Nicolas Tenzer is a guest professor at Sciences-Po Paris, author of three official reports to the government, including two on international strategy, and of 22 books, including When France Disappears From the World.