By Andrew Higgins
New York Times News Service
PARIS — The flagging, scandal-plagued presidential campaign of François Fillon — a former prime minister of France much liked by the Kremlin but not so much, it seems, by French voters — received a surprise lift late last month with a report that he had staged a remarkable recovery in opinion polls and was now leading the pack before voting this Sunday.
“The Return of Fillon to the Head of Opinion Polls,” declared the bold headline, contradicting other French polls suggesting that the onetime favorite had fallen to third or even fourth place as he battled corruption charges.
As it happens, Fillon’s lead in the polls existed only in a world of alternative facts shared by the French-language service of Sputnik, a state-funded Russian news operation with the motto “Telling the Untold.”
For weeks, Sputnik and a second Russian outfit, the new French-language arm of RT, a Kremlin-funded television station, have published reports that critics characterized as “Telling the Untrue” but that fans welcomed as a breath of contrarian fresh air.
The broader question as France charges toward the first round of the presidential election Sunday, however, is what exactly lies behind what looks to many, particularly supporters of the liberal front-runner, Emmanuel Macron, like a replay of Russia’s interference in the presidential election in the United States last year.
Is Moscow meddling covertly, as U.S. intelligence agencies say it did before Donald Trump’s victory? Or is it just benefiting from a network of politicians, journalists and others in France who share the Kremlin’s views on politics there, and much else besides?
Whatever the answer, squalls of fake news reports and a barrage of hacking attacks on the computers of Macron’s campaign have left many in France — and Washington — with an unnerving sense of familiarity.
It all looks so recognizable that Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently said, “I think it’s safe by everybody’s judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections.”
Stung by criticism that its services turbocharged the spread of fake news during the U.S. election campaign, Facebook announced last week that a drive to purge “inauthentic activity” had led it to “take action against over 30,000 fake accounts” in France.
It is also clear, however, that Russia often does not so much intrude as amplify existing voices with which it agrees, notably on Syria, the perils of U.S. power and the futility of economic sanctions on Moscow.
Nataliya Novikova, who leads Sputnik in Paris, said its operations there, while eager to present Russia’s take on events, did not serve Moscow but rather a French audience eager for a “different angle.”
Complaining that Macron and members of his staff had repeatedly ignored interview requests, she said Sputnik tried to represent all points of view and had been unfairly branded a Russian bullhorn.
“There are many different truths,” Novikova said. “There has to be a pluralism of truth.”
Cécile Vaissié, a professor of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet studies at the University of Rennes 2, said the Kremlin, building on methods and contacts developed in the Soviet Union, had assembled a “formidable machine of influence” in France that works to promote its interests as well as those of its preferred candidates.
Russia, or at least its state-controlled news media, has been backing two horses in the French race. One is Fillon, who, while prime minister from 2007 to 2012, struck up a friendship with Vladimir Putin, who is said to have sent the French politician a bottle of wine after the death of his mother.
Among the accusations of financial impropriety engulfing Fillon’s campaign is that he received $50,000 from a Lebanese businessman in return for arranging a meeting with Putin.
The Kremlin dismissed the report as “fake news.”
Lately, Fillon has seen a bump in real opinion polls. They still put Macron in the lead, but the race is tight enough now that the final result, like those of the British referendum on leaving the European Union and the U.S. presidential election, may defy the forecasts of pollsters.
Russia’s other preferred candidate is Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party who traveled to Moscow last month for a meeting with Putin, whom she openly admires. Her party, traditionally hostile to the United States and the European Union, has received millions of dollars in loans from Russian banks.