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France Warns Russia To Stay Out Of Its Presidential Election


OK, so when it comes to allegations of Russian meddling in politics, the United States might have something in common with France. French police yesterday raided the offices of ultranationalist leader Marine Le Pen over alleged misuse of European Union funds. Le Pen is pro-Russian and that raid at her offices came as another rising French presidential candidate says his campaign is being targeted by Kremlin-supported media and hackers. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, France is warning Russia not to interfere in its election, which is just three months away.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Until a few weeks ago, the two front-runners in the French presidential race were both pro-Russian. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has made no secret of her admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her rival, mainstream conservative Francois Fillon, has said Western sanctions against Russia are pointless. But now Fillon's campaign is tanking over a fake job scandal. And young, independent outsider Emmanuel Macron is surging and now in second place just behind Le Pen. Macron's campaign headquarters in Paris is buzzing with volunteers manning the phones and computers.

Mounir Mahjoubi heads up the digital campaign. He says the hacking began as Macron's fortunes began to rise.

MOUNIR MAHJOUBI: We are talking about thousands of attempted attacks to our servers, tens of thousands of computers trying to access our computer at the same time.

BEARDSLEY: Mahjoubi says they can protect themselves from the hackers. It's the accompanying disinformation campaign that worries him.

MAHJOUBI: We cannot be protected from the spread of a rumor. And when we saw what happened in the U.S. during the campaign about rumors, fake news and how they can propagate through the social media, we see this beginning a phenomenon to happen right now in France.


COLIN BRAY: Hello, it's midnight in Moscow. My name's Colin Bray and this is RT International.

BEARDSLEY: Mahjoubi alleges Russian-funded media Sputnik and Russia Today are behind the rumors, which are then picked up by right-wing French outlets. Marie Mendras, a Russian scholar at Sciences Po University, says Putin has the perfect toolbox to influence the election.

MARIE MENDRAS: Russia Today and Sputnik are working closely with French networks that are sympathetic to Putin's regime.

BEARDSLEY: For example, Macron's past as an investment banker has led to allegations that he's an agent for American banks. His unconventional private life has also spawned rumors. Macron married his high school drama teacher who was 24 years his senior. There've been reports that he is secretly gay and financed by the gay lobby. Russia denies any interference in Macron's campaign. NPR asked the candidate about it as he took a high-speed train to a campaign rally.

Why does Russia, the Kremlin, want to interfere in your campaign?

EMMANUEL MACRON: Look, definitely I'm not the more pro-Russian candidate, as Mr. Fillon or Mrs. Le Pen decided to be extremely pro-Russian. I think we have to discuss with Russia because they are part of the solution in Syria and in other parts of the world.

BEARDSLEY: But Macron says he will defend values and a world view completely different from Russia's. National Front leader Marine Le Pen says accusations of hacking are just more anti-Russian hysteria. Many in France agree. Pierre Lorrain is a journalist and Russia specialist.

PIERRE LORRAIN: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "Every country has preferences in elections," he says. "Didn't President Obama and France try to dissuade Britain from voting for Brexit?" Former Soviet and Russian diplomat Alexander Melnik is now a geopolitics professor at a French business school. He says the cyber and information war is all part of Putin's multi-strategy attack against Western democracy.

ALEXANDRE MELNIK: So Russia Today, this is a kind of revenge - revenge after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the fall of the Soviet system, after this humiliation.

BEARDSLEY: Melnik says Putin's goal is nothing short of taking geopolitical and moral control of the world in the 21st century. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.