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French election: Alexei Navalny says Le Pen too close to Putin and calls on voters to back Macron

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By Alasdair Sandford  with AFP
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks at photographers standing in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks at photographers standing in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP PhotoAP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File

The imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny has called on French voters to opt for Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the French presidential election, accusing his rival Marine Le Pen of being too close to Vladimir Putin.

"It is without any hesitation that I call on the French to vote for Emmanuel Macron on April 24, but I would like to address those who do not rule out voting for Marine Le Pen," the activist said in a series of tweets.

Navalny said he was "shocked" by the €9 million loan the former National Front party (now "National Rally") took out from a Russian bank.

"It's corruption. And it's a sale of political influence to Putin," said the high-profile opponent of the Kremlin, who has been imprisoned in Russia since January 2021.

Le Pen's party is still paying off the loan, initially taken out in 2014 with a Russian bank, the First Czech-Russian Bank (FCBR), which was subsequently closed in 2016.

The debt was transferred to a Russian car rental company, Conti, then resold to Aviazaptchast, a firm run by former Russian soldiers.

"This bank (FCBR) is a well-known money laundering agency which was created at the instigation of Putin. Would you like it if a French politician obtained a loan from Cosa Nostra?" said Navalny, whose notoriety stemmed from his investigations into the corruption networks of Russia's elites.

"I don't doubt for a minute that negotiations with these people and deals with them included a shady political element. This is corruption. And this is selling political influence to Putin," he added.

The far-right presidential challenger -- who qualified for next Sunday's run-off along with Macron after the first round on April 10 -- has justified seeking financing from Russia by citing the refusal of French banks to provide loans for her party.

Le Pen has openly expressed her admiration for the Russian leader in the past and has consistently defended Moscow's foreign policy.

She famously met Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in the run-up to the 2017 French election. The unprecedented move by the Russian leader, receiving a foreign election challenger rather than head of government, came a couple of months after Donald Trump had taken power in the United States.

"The big political lines that I stand up for are the big lines which Mr Trump stands up for, which Mr Putin stands up for," Le Pen said in an interview the same year.

She has also defended Russia's annexation of Crimea, opposing Western sanctions at the time, and praised Putin for "going broadly in the right direction" when questioned about her support for his policies.

Le Pen blamed NATO and the West for stoking tensions with Russia as Moscow amassed troops on the Ukrainian border, although she has criticised the invasion.

However, her manifesto advocates a security "rapprochement" with Russia, as well as a French withdrawal from NATO's allied command.

Considered to be Vladimir Putin's principal opponent, Alexei Navalny holds the Kremlin responsible for the serious poisoning he suffered in Russia in 2020. Moscow denies it but has never opened an investigation.

Alexei Navalny was imprisoned upon his return to Russia from Germany where he had received treatment. Last March, he was sentenced to nine years for "fraud". His organisations were banned for "extremism" in 2021.

As well as Le Pen's party, he also criticised what he called the "European right" who sympathise with the Russian president.

"Putin and his political elite are completely immoral, they despise family values: having second and even third families, mistresses and yachts is the norm for them," he wrote.

"I will root for France, the French and Emmanuel Macron," Navalny concluded in his Twitter thread.