Allegations of Russian influence have dogged the recent US elections. With France gearing up for the first round of its presidential elections on 23 April, should we be prepared for similar accusations of interference? Or is such talk merely anti-Russian paranoia?
At the beginning of April, the French polling commission issued a warning over what is said was a misleading Russian news report claiming that the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, had regained the lead. French opinion polls are strictly regulated, and most mainstream polls put the centrist Emmanuel Macron in the lead. Macron’s campaign has accused the Kremlin, through state-controlled news outlets such as RT and Sputnik, of spreading “fake news” in an effort to swing public opinion against him.
Not everyone is convinced. We had a comment from Catherine, who is highly sceptical that the Kremlin is trying to swing the vote. She says she has yet to see any evidence.
To get a response, we spoke to Christophe Deloire, Director-General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Has he seen any evidence that Russia is trying to influence the French elections?
It’s undeniable that some Russian media outlets are clearly influenced by the Kremlin and are spreading information that is clearly biased – and probably more than biased. They clearly have preferences for some candidates versus others. And it’s also very clear that these Kremlin-run media outlets are spreading false or unverified claims about some candidates.
Finally, it’s very clear that they prefer somebody like François Fillon over Emmanuel Macron. They probably have no influence directly in the French mainstream media, but if you are looking at your Facebook wall you can notice a lot of content influenced by Russian media outlets.
Next up, we had a comment from Doughty, who believes that Marine Le Pen is a “puppet” of Vladimir Putin. A similar charge has been levelled against Donald Trump in the US. Is it a fair accusation? What Le Pen’s official position on Russia?
The question of France’s relationship with Russia has been at the heart of the election campaign, and all the candidates have been asked questions about what they would like to do with Russia. It’s very clear that Marine Le Pen wants to have very good relations with the Kremlin, as she was received officially for a meeting with Putin very recently. This was just a few hours before lots of opposition people were arrested during a demonstration, and ten journalists were arrested in Moscow during demonstrations the day after Le Pen met with Putin.
Other candidates have also been accused of having a pro-Russian bias. Some of them, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have made very clear statements that they consider the diplomatic approach could be changed, but it doesn’t mean that they approve of the way Putin runs Russia or what Russia does in the rest of the world.
Finally, we had a comment from Talis, who believes Russia is waging a “cyberwar” against France, just as it did in the US elections. So far, we haven’t seen the same kind of high-profile hacking as we did in the US, but there has been a flood of so-called “fake news” stories. So, how can French journalists fight back against this sort of false reporting?
Journalists have to do their jobs. That is to say: to verify information and to provide the public with concrete facts. And I think that French journalists do this work. The problem is how to really spread this factual information, and how to bypass the walls of convictions and opinions, and how to rebuild trust so that people believe the honest and verified information more than the false information they would like to believe. I think that’s the next challenge for journalists; it’s not only a challenge for French journalists, it’s not only about the campaign but how to rebuild trust. It’s now the key work that has to be done by the media industry and by journalists themselves.
Could Russia try to influence the French election? How can French journalists fight back against “fake news” stories? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!