Russia’s President Putin has met with French National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the Kremlin in Moscow, in what I believe is the first ever meeting between Le Pen and Putin (Le Pen has previously met with other Russian officials including Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin).
The meeting comes in the middle of an increasingly fraught French Presidential election campaign and shortly after the candidates held their first television debate.
At this point I will record my own view about this debate, which is that Marine Le Pen dominated it, that Francois Fillon came over as the seasoned professional that he is, and that Emmanuel Macron looked out of his depth.
I appreciate that this is not the typical media view, which is that Macron ‘won’ the debate. I put that down to the extraordinary favouritism the establishment media is showing Macron. As to the question of my own bias, I would merely say that one important establishment media voice – Martin Sandbu for the Financial Times, who is scarcely likely to be unsympathetic to Macron – formed the same view of the debate that I did.
As it was, it was not Mr Macron’s day. His two main ways to distinguish himself — his embrace of Europe and his non-party candidacy — both fell flat. TF1, the channel that moderated the debate, unfortunately relegated the Europe question to the hurried end of a three-hour session. And, unlike Ms Le Pen, who presents the image of the anti-elitist outsider to perfection, Mr Macron could not make his independence work for him. This was, in part, because he is fully of the establishment, even if his political career has been short, but mostly it was because his inexperience showed. Testy and defensive, he too easily let himself be goaded and provoked. And he let others steal his thunder: Ms Le Pen put herself across as the defender of entrepreneurs, and Mr Fillon took the mantle of the responsible adult by lashing out at the Front National leader’s proposal to leave the euro.
Marine Le Pen was in Moscow at the invitation of the State Duma. Her decision to travel to Moscow during the election and to meet with Putin there is however an extraordinarily brave one, since it is bound to open her up to more charges that she is Putin’s stooge. As it is Le Pen – like Donald Trump during the US election, but far more trenchantly and far more consistently – has repeatedly made known her support for good relations between France and Russia, has repeatedly spoken of Crimea as part of Russia, and has made crystal clear her opposition to the sanctions the EU has imposed on Russia.
Marine Le Pen’s statements are undoubtedly based on conviction, but there is likely also to be an element of political calculation. One of the reasons Fillon won the poll against Alain Juppé to be the candidate for the Presidency of the centre right is that he too supports good relations with Russia and the cancellation of the EU sanctions. This is a popular policy with French rural voters, who have been badly affected by the Russian counter-sanctions against food imports from the EU, and whose heavy backing for Fillon enabled him to win the centre-right’s nomination against Juppé in the primary
With Fillon now trailing in third place behind Le Pen and Macron following the charges which have been brought against him, Marine Le Pen by emphasising her willingness to forge good relations with Moscow may be hoping to attract Fillon’s supporters in the second round. If so then it is a high risk strategy, but with Marine Le Pen battling against heavy electoral odds, it is clearly one she is prepared to risk.
As for Putin, the Kremlin’s summary of his conversation with Le Pen shows that he pointedly made the following comment
I am, of course, aware of the ongoing election campaign in France. In no case do we want to influence the events as they unfold, but we reserve the right to communicate with all representatives of all political forces in France, just like our partners in Europe and the United States are doing.
(bold italics added)
It is impossible to read this comment as anything other than a pointed reference to the ‘Russiagate’ scandal in the US, where members of the Trump campaign are being hauled over the coals and investigated for having entirely appropriate contacts with the Russians during and immediately after the election, as has been the case with General Flynn and Attorney General Sessions because of their entirely innocent conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Putin is using Le Pen’s visit to make the point that such contacts during an election are proper and normal, that Russia has a right to undertake them, and that other Western countries including the US do them as well.