But despite Macron’s strident tone in public, France has failed to address an issue that is of concern to all Western democracies: Alleged Russian interference in its presidential election last year. Twelve months on, claims that the Kremlin tried to influence the outcome of the vote have not been investigated publicly. The country has moved on — too quickly.
The facts are worth recalling. At the end of 2016, like most political observers, Putin saw the French election as a contest between two ardent Russophiles, the right-winger François Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Both had links to Moscow: Former prime minister Fillon was on friendly terms with the Kremlin, while Le Pen’s National Front party had been funded by a Russian bank since 2014. She was the only candidate to meet Putin during campaigning.
The French presidential race was transformed by the emergence of pro-European centrist Macron in November 2016. Almost immediately, his staffers noticed a spike in cyberattacks on his political movement’s website and email servers. The Russian state media also turned openly hostile. One egregious report by news agency Sputnik claimed Macron could be a “US agent” who was backed by “very wealthy gay lobby.”
The head of Macron’s En Marche movement, Richard Ferrand, went public in February, warning about “the interference of a foreign state” and drawing parallels between the targeting of Macron and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The French government issued a warning, too. “The Kremlin has picked its candidates, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen,” top Macron aide Benjamin Griveaux, now the government’s spokesman, said at the time.
During a final debate between Macron and Le Pen, he accused her of being “subject to the diktats of Mr. Putin,” while she warned darkly that revelations could be coming “in the next days and weeks.”
On May 5, around 36 hours before voting started, hackers dumped 9GB of data on the Internet plundered from Macron’s campaign. The stolen emails, which were spread by far-right Twitter users in the United States and amplified by WikiLeaks, included crude and obvious fakes.
The playbook looked eerily familiar to the one used in the U.S. election in 2016: hacking, disinformation and — perhaps — political influence. In the United States, congressional and special counsel inquiries are at work to try to establish the facts. In Britain, amid fears about Russian influence on the Brexit vote in 2016, the Electoral Commission and MPs are conducting smaller investigations into campaign financing and fake news.
Yet in France, the only probe available to the French public is one conducted last year by private Japanese cybersecurity firm Trend Micro into the hacking. It pointed the finger at a Russian group linked in the past to military intelligence, known as “Pawn Storm” or “Fancy Bears.”
Macron’s approach was to confront Putin in private during a first testy call between the two men, aides told me. He followed up by condemning state channel RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik as “organs … of lying propaganda” at his joint news conference with the Russian leader in May.
Macron considers the issue dealt with. Coming into office, like all new Western leaders, the former investment banker was hoping for a “reset” with the Kremlin, knowing he needed Moscow to resolve crises in Syria, Ukraine and Iran. But wiping the slate clean with such haste was a mistake for four reasons.
First of all, allegations of meddling continue to poison relations between Russia and the West. Only a thorough cross-party legislative or judicial investigation can help sift fact from rumor, evidence from conjecture. If Russian denials are true, then the Kremlin can look forward to being cleared.
Second, French voters have a right to know whether their democratic system is vulnerable. Democracies depend on trust and faith in politicians and the results. France will return to the polls in 2019 and 2020 for European and local elections ahead of presidential and parliamentary votes in 2022
Third, France has a responsibility to its fellow democracies. Thanks to U.S. congressional and special counsel investigations, our understanding of troll farms, social media manipulation, covert political influencing has increased immeasurably. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, after initially dismissing “as crazy” suggestions that his platform helped spread misinformation, is being forced to act.
Fourth, if there was interference, then the costs must be raised on Putin as a deterrent, which includes shining an embarrassing light on any grubby methods employed by the Kremlin. As former U.S. intelligence chief James R. Clapper Jr. said last year: “They have been emboldened and they will continue to do this.”
Macron, who meets Putin in St. Petersburg this week, seems to agree with Clapper. “He intervenes everywhere … to fragilize our democracies,” he told “Fox News Sunday” last month. But in fighting back against those efforts, American voters have been much better served by their institutions. Macron should take note.