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French election: What exactly is Marine Le Pen's stance on Russia and Vladimir Putin?

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By Alasdair Sandford
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 24, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 24, 2017.   -   Copyright  Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Marine Le Pen's comments in an interview in early February this year were particularly forthright: "I do not believe AT ALL that Russia wishes to invade Ukraine," she said.

The remarks were also rather unfortunate, given that barely a fortnight later Vladimir Putin sent thousands of troops, amassed on Ukraine's border, into the country.

Russian bombardments have since flattened towns and cities, and there have been multiple reports of Russian soldiers murdering, torturing and raping civilians.

The challenger to Emmanuel Macron in next Sunday's French presidential run-off said recently that she finds critics' accusations that she is too close to Moscow tantamount to a "particularly unfair trial", insisting she has only ever "defended France's interests".

However, the candidate from the far-right has openly expressed her admiration for the Russian leader in the past and has consistently defended Moscow's foreign policy.

2017: 'I support Putin's policies'

In an unprecedented move, in March 2017 the Russian president met with a candidate for the French presidency in Moscow in the run-up to the race for the Elysée that spring.

The meeting between Vladimir Putin and Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin reignited fears of Russian support for far-right groups in Europe.

The then "Front National" candidate had already sought party financing from a Russian bank — the loan is still being paid off — and repeated her intention to lift quickly EU sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea.

In an interview with the BBC, Le Pen tied her political colours firmly to the mast, citing as her inspirations the newly elected US president as well as the Russian leader.

"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," she said.

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 24, 2017.Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File

Le Pen also blamed tensions with the West firmly on the US and NATO, which she accused of arming countries on Russia's border.

"Ukraine is part of Russia's sphere of influence, it's a fact," she said. "If you're trying to say that Russia poses a military danger to European countries, I think you're mistaken in your analysis."

France should leave NATO's allied command, she argued. "NATO was created precisely to fight the USSR. Today there is no USSR."

Russia, Le Pen went on, didn't "deserve to be treated with prejudice", as it "hasn't led any campaigns against European countries, or against the US".

US intelligence and an official investigation concluded that Russia interfered with the 2016 US presidential election with the aim of boosting Trump's candidacy. For several years Moscow has also been accused of interference and spreading disinformation in European elections.

"Russia is going broadly in the right direction," Le Pen replied in the 2017 interview when asked whether Putin had done more harm than good, citing his intervention in Syria which was "positive for the security of the world".

"What I notice is that Vladimir Putin's government must at least please the Russians enough to be re-elected regularly in the country's elections," she said.

Elections in Russia since Putin came to power have regularly been criticised by human rights groups and international organisations as being neither free nor fair, while prominent opponents of the president have been barred from standing.

'There was no invasion of Crimea!'

The previous month, in February 2017, Marine Le Pen was asked about her admiration and respect for Vladimir Putin.

"The Russian nation is a great nation, it has made its choice whether we like it or not. Is Russia a danger to France? Reply: no. Should Russia be an ally for France? Reply: yes. Same thing for the United States," she told CNN.

Le Pen clashed with interviewer Christiane Amanpour over Ukraine's "Maidan Revolution" and Russia's subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014.

"There was a coup d'état in Ukraine," she said. "There was an agreement between different nations, and the next day, this agreement was broken, and a certain number of people took power."

The Maidan protests followed President Yanukovych's sudden decision to ditch a political and free trade agreement with the European Union approved by Ukraine's parliament, under pressure from Moscow. After deadly protests in February 2014, the president fled the country and was formally removed from office by the parliament.

Russia responded by sending forces to annex Crimea, and backing separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"But there was no invasion of Crimea! Listen, you have to stop talking nonsense!" Le Pen told CNN in the 2017 interview.

"Crimea was Russian. Ok? Crimea has always been Russian... It was given by the Soviet Union... The population feels Russian. The population is Russian. The population decided by a crushing majority to return to Russia's bosom."

The 2014 referendum in Crimea, when people voted to rejoin Russia, was not recognised by most countries. A UN General Assembly resolution was passed by a large majority declaring the vote invalid and affirming Ukraine's territorial integrity.

2022: 'Russia has no desire to invade Ukraine'

In February this year, Marine Le Pen was interviewed again by the BBC, at a time when Russia had spent months building up troops on Ukraine's borders. US intelligence and President Joe Biden had warned months earlier that Putin intended to invade.

But the presidential candidate, once again running for the Elysée under the "Rassemblement National" ("National Rally") banner, repeated that she wanted to see Russia as an ally of France.

As in 2017, she blamed NATO military pressure for the tensions between Moscow and the West.

"Today the United States is pushing Ukraine to join NATO with the aim of deploying armed forces on Russia's border, so the Russians are retaliating, putting forces at their borders with Ukraine," she said.

"I defend the sovereignty of all countries, therefore I defend the sovereignty of Ukraine. But... I do not believe AT ALL that Russia wishes to invade Ukraine," Le Pen said, when pushed on how she would respond if Moscow did send in the troops.

She would not be drawn on whether sanctions should be imposed in the event of an invasion. "I don't think Russia has the least desire to invade Ukraine. But if it did so, naturally I would defend Ukraine's sovereignty, just as I defend the sovereignty of France," she repeated.

'An alliance with Russia'

Russia is barely mentioned in the 13-page section on defence that forms part of Marine Le Pen's presidential manifesto.

The candidate confirms that taking France out of NATO's military command structure would be a priority. A new relationship would be sought with the United States which "does not always behave like an ally of France". Her government would end joint weapons programmes with Germany.

In contrast, Moscow is once more considered an important future partner.

"An alliance will be sought with Russia on some essential topics: European security which can't exist without her, the struggle against terrorism which she has assured with more consistency than all other powers, the convergence of the treatment of big regional dossiers affecting France (eastern Mediterranean, North and central Africa, the Gulf/Middle East and Asia in particular)," the manifesto says.

"Le Pen does not specify what military threats France faces, and barely mentions Russia. This perhaps reflects the ambiguity of her relationship with Vladimir Putin," says a report for the think-tank the Centre for European Reform (CER) on what a Le Pen presidency would mean for Europe.

What has Le Pen said since Russia invaded Ukraine?

There is little doubt that Marine Le Pen was somewhat wrong-footed by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

This month she has modified some of her remarks on Vladimir Putin, renouncing any military "entente" with Moscow.

On April 4 she talked of "war crimes" in Ukraine after the discovery of the bodies of hundreds of civilians in the Kyiv region. But at the end of March, Le Pen refused to class Putin as a "war criminal" because "you don't negotiate peace by insulting one of the two parties".

The far-right candidate remains opposed to an energy embargo against Moscow, because of the probable impact on French people's consumer spending power.

Speaking on France's Europe 1 radio a few days before the first round of the election, she criticised EU sanctions — which included a ban on Russian coal imports — as being designed to "protect the interests of the financial markets and the real profiteers from the war". "All these sanctions have the result of hitting our companies and private individuals," she added.

The presidential challenger has said she is ready to deliver "elements of defence" to Ukraine — understood to mean non-lethal arms — but not heavy weapons which she argues would make France a "co-belligerent" on the side of Ukraine against Russia.

Outlining her diplomatic strategy on April 13, she called for a "strategic rapprochement" between NATO and Russia, once the war in Ukraine was "resolved by a peace treaty".

"Le Pen and her party colleagues in the European Parliament have consistently opposed sanctions on Russia. During this year’s campaign, even though she has criticised the invasion of Ukraine, she has also said that Putin could become an ally of France again if the war ended," says the CER report.

"If Le Pen were elected, there is a risk that she would veto sanctions or only apply them weakly, and France’s relations with most of its allies and partners would be shaken."

Additional sources • AFP