The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russian media leap on French presidential candidate with rumors and innuendo

French conservative François Fillon, right, arrives for a news conference at his campaign headquarters in Paris on Feb. 6. Fillon is trying to save his presidential bid as prosecutors investigate the political jobs he gave to his wife, son and daughter. (Christophe Ena/AP)

As seen through a Russian television set, the upcoming French elections are the dirtiest in history, a shameful public display of the cronyism and liberal decay that the Kremlin says are tearing Europe apart.

“The stakes [of the election] are high, so they’re digging up kompromat on just about everyone,” said Dmitry Kiselyov, the firebrand state television anchor who headlines the country’s premier Sunday night news show. All the main candidates are tainted, he said.

At first glance, his assertion makes at least some sense: Financial shenanigans abound.

For starters, there is the obvious example of François Fillon, a conservative who had once been the front-runner and is now embroiled in an embarrassing nepotism scandal. His wife and two of his five children are accused of receiving roughly 900,000 euros ($986,000) in public funds for work they did not do.

On Monday in Paris, a defiant Fillon — who nearly 70 percent of voters wish would step down, according to a recent poll — denied any wrongdoing and blamed the media for his troubles.

And Marine Le Pen, the outspoken leader of the far-right National Front party, has been accused
by the European Parliament of ­spending around 300,000 euros ($322,000) in E.U. funds on her staff instead of on authorized legislative expenses.

Like Fillon, Le Pen has denied any responsibility. “I will not submit to the persecution, a unilateral decision taken by political opponents,” she told Reuters last Tuesday.

All grist for Kiselyov, presumably, but neither of these two right-wing contenders were really who he had in mind.

His target was Emmanuel Macron, the centrist independent candidate and predicted front-runner ahead of Le Pen, who is seen as the Kremlin’s favorite.

As Macron has unexpectedly surged in the polls in the wake of the Fillon scandal, Russia’s state media have begun to eviscerate the former finance minister, employing a grab-bag of media reports, rumor and innuendo that could keep a fact-checker busy for days.

“Macron is married to his French teacher from school who is 24 years his senior,” the report on Kiselyov’s show said. “But there are still rumors about his nontraditional [sexual] orientation and how he took 120,000 euro from the budget to finance his movement and election campaign. He has also been connected with Hillary Clinton. So far it has not turned into a large scandal.”

None of these latter claims has any substantiation.

With concerns over hacking leaks, fake news and the influence of Russia on the European political process at fever pitch, online platforms are looking for new ways to vet news ahead of the highly anticipated presidential election.

On Monday, Facebook, Google and other Internet companies launched a new initiative to combat fake and poorly sourced news content ahead of France’s two-round presidential election slated for April and May.

Called “Cross Check,” the online social-media and search platforms are working with well-established French news organizations to flag fake stories. Facebook unveiled a similar initiative last week in Germany, which has parliamentary elections set for September. False Russian state news reports of the rape of a girl of Russian heritage by migrants last year set off minor demonstrations and criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal migrant policy.

The new initiative is a response to the proliferation of fake and highly partisan news reports during the U.S. presidential election.

Scandal and kompromat, the Russian term for politically damaging information, have already played more of a role in the French election than in the United States this past November.

Le Pen has alleged that Macron is "under the influence" of Patrick Drahi, a Franco-Israeli telecom magnate, and also of "international finance." Various Twitter accounts in support of the National Front have repeated these rumors, obvious anti-Semitic dog whistles.

But other insinuations have come directly from Moscow — or at least through Moscow.

Reports of Macron’s ties to Clinton arise from remarks by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the hawkish Russian broadsheet Izvestia last week.

“We have interesting information about another presidential candidate in France, Emmanuel Macron,” Assange told the newspaper.

Assange, who has been accused of having ties to the Russian government, which he denies, nonetheless joins Moscow in a desire to see the current European order upended.

Russian state news agencies regularly amplify voices pushing that end. On Saturday, the state-funded English-language news agency Sputnik published an article headlined “Ex-French Economy Minister Macron Could Be ‘U.S. Agent’ Lobbying Banks’ Interests.”

The article, citing French Republican Party lawmaker Nicolas Dhuicq, repeated rumors that Macron may have traveled to the United States and had correspondence with Clinton, that he was a front for U.S. banking interests and also that he was gay.

“There is a very wealthy gay lobby behind him,” the French lawmaker told Sputnik.

Macron hasn’t responded directly to the Russian accusations, but he has previously denied rumors of a “double life.”

McAuley reported from Paris.

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