Putin’s Secret Friends in Paris
Efforts by Russian intelligence to purchase (or at least rent) friends in Western and Central Europe are not new, but in recent months they have increased markedly due to the Russo-Ukrainian War. As the crisis between Moscow and Kyiv has worsened, the Kremlin has redoubled its secret work to acquire helpers, what they term agents of influence, in NATO and European Union countries. While Moscow has friends on the Left lingering from the last Cold War, much of the Kremlin’s recent covert outreach has been to the Right, especially to Europe’s rising far Right. Hungary is a particular hotbed of activity by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and Military Intelligence (GRU), where, as I’ve recently reported, Kremlin ties to the far Right (indeed quasi-fascist) Jobbik party are important and barely concealed.
France is a source of particular concern, however, given that country’s size and prestige, as well as its nuclear weapons. The rise of the National Front is the major political story in Paris nowadays, and a certain overt Putinophilia is detectable in that party’s ranks and leadership too. Party boss Marine Le Pen blames the EU, not Russia, for the war in Ukraine, and admits to possessing a soft spot for Vladimir Putin: “I have a certain admiration for the man. He proposes a patriotic economic model, radically different than what the Americans are imposing on us,” she recently explained.
French counterintelligence is concerned that the National Front may be getting a bit too cozy with the Kremlin, as elaborated in an article in the Paris weekend paper Le Journal du Dimanche that looks into the Putin lobby in Paris. There are concerns about TV Libertés, a network established by a former National Front cadre that adheres to a decidedly pro-Moscow editorial line and features a suspicious number of Kremlin-linked guests, including Sergey Naryshkin, the Duma chairman who is banned from coming to France due to sanctions against him. Despite these sanctions, Naryshkin somehow came to Paris to meet with French politicians, mostly right-wing, as well as businesspeople involved in trade with Russia.
Many of those facilitating such meetings and getting Russia good press in France are tied to the National Front, a fact not missed by French counterintelligence which, as I’ve previously reported, is concerned about rapidly rising and aggressive SVR and GRU activities in the country. Parallels with KGB operations are not exact, yet as one Parisian analyst concluded, “The National Front doesn’t have the same social connections as the French Communist Party did during the Cold War, but Russia is investing a great deal on the National Front and the popular right-wing to get its ideas across.”
Front organizations play an important role, as they did in Soviet times, and Paris has made note of advocacy groups such as the Franco-Russian Dialog Association (Association Dialogue Franco-Russe), which is chaired by Thierry Mariani, France’s former transportation minister, and Vladimir Yakunin, a onetime KGB officer. Questions have also been raised about this summer’s visit to Moscow by the right-wing politico Philippe de Villiers, where he was warmly greeted by Putin — the French aristocrat also plans to build a theme park in Russian-occupied Crimea — not least because de Villiers’ brother Pierre just happens to be chief of the French General Staff.
Concerns about Russian money and influence on the French Right, particularly regarding the National Front, are spoken of in mostly hushed tones in Paris, but concerns are mounting in counterintelligence circles about Moscow’s covert influence on the party, particularly because the National Front is rising fast in opinion polls. Notwithstanding the presence of Kremlin agents of influence in the party’s ranks, Marine Le Pen may well be the next president of the republic, amid warnings that her party is “at the gates of power.” The National Front’s message of sovereignty, economic populism, and French patriotism has struck a chord with many alienated citizens. The extent to which the party has also struck a chord in Moscow is an important question that needs to be answered, preferably before Marine Le Pen becomes France’s first female president.