When Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party won an unexpected victory in the first round of French regional elections Sunday, there was a group of people besides her supporters in France who celebrated: Russian nationalists.
Many reveled in Le Pen’s victory on social media. “Congratulations to Marine Le Pen and National Front!” wrote a popular Russian nationalist blogger.
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Konstantin Rykov, an influential Russian politician and blogger who has been outspoken about his support for the National Front, asked his 198,000 followers on Twitter: “Would you like to see Marine Le Pen take up the post of President of France?” Some 80% of the 2,000 people who took his unscientific poll responded: “Yes.”
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Meanwhile, state-sponsored news agency RT, formerly Russia Today, published an op-ed saying the results made it “clear” that Le Pen’s party may one day rule the country.
In fact, observers say, Le Pen owes at least some of her victory to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, in particular, for giving vocal as well as significant financial support in a thinly-veiled effort to buy influence in European politics.
The Le Pen family ties to Moscow are strong. Le Pen, an open admirer of Putin, has made several trips to Moscow, visiting top officials, including Chairman of the State Duma Sergei Naryshkin, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and allegedly even Putin himself in secret.
Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and retired leader of the party, is also cozy with the Russians, including such divisive personalities as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist lawmaker known for his bizarre remarks and anti-immigrant stance.
As Russia’s relationship with Europe soured over Ukraine and Syria in recent years, the relationship between the Le Pens and Moscow seems only to have gotten better.
Le Pen admitted in September 2014 that her party received an $11.7 million loan from the Russian-owned First Czech-Russian Bank. The move irked critics, who claimed the loan was a reward for her party’s support of Russia’s position in the Ukrainian crisis, something Le Pen called “outrageous and offensive.”
It is “ridiculous to suggest that gaining a loan would determine our international position,” Le Pen said at the time.
A few months later, her father, Jean-Marie, reportedly took a separate $2.5 million loan from a Cypriot holding company belonging to a former KGB agent, according to a French report.
Le Pen, who went on trial for hate speech in October, said she took the loan after French and other Western banks had refused to finance National Front.
The party has long struggled to raise money. Many of its campaigns have ended millions of dollars in debt, wrote The New York Times, which said the National Front party was once forced to sell its headquarters to pay off what it owed. Since then, and because of its controversial political stances and corruption scandals, French banks stopped lending to the party.
That’s when Russia stepped in.
Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Europe’s far-right and far-left parties who has explored the links between National Front and Putin’s Russia, told Mashable on Monday that the scope of the cooperation between the two indicates that one of Moscow’s long-term strategic goals is to support anti-EU and anti-American groups in Europe in order to “undermine the unity of the West.”
There is some evidence target=”_blank” to suggest this is true, he said. Just follow the money: Russia has reportedly offered financial support to many right-wing and left-wing movements across Europe in recent years. National Front is merely one of many.
Moscow has allegedly helped with loans to Austria’s populist Freedom Party, Belgium’s nationalist Vlaams Belang, Germany’s hard-right AfD, Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn, Italy’s far-right Northern League, Hungary’s Jobbik and Sweden’ Nordic Resistance, according to The Times and other reports.
If some may find it contradictory that Russia, which has been so outspoken about the dangers of far-right nationalist groups and “fascists” in Ukraine, where it has backed pro-Russian separatists, is backing a political party with extremist views, Shekhovtsov offers an explanation.
“Moscow will support any political force that will be pro-Russian, no matter far-right or far-left,” said Shekhovtsov. “If you are for Moscow, then you are Moscow’s friend.”