For the first time this week Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team openly accused forces in Russia of trying operating a smear campaign to scupper the chances of their man being elected the next President of France.
As well as pointing the finger at Russian state media sites for spreading fake news about their French presidential candidate, Macron’s team also believe Russian-based hackers are responsible for the thousands of cyber-attacks against his campaign website. The latest attack on Tuesday morning left the En Marche! website down for nine minutes.
“We are in the presence of an orchestrated attempt to destabilize a candidate in the presidential election by a foreign power,” said Richard Ferrand, secretary-general of Macron’s En Marche! (On The Move) movement.
“This serious allegation would make you laugh if the corroborating evidence were not so obvious,” Farrand said.
It was the first direct accusation from a French political party that warned of the danger posed by a meddling Kremlin, and echoed allegations that Russia meddled in the US election to undermine Hillary Clinton and boost Donald Trump.
The anger for those with En Marche! centred around two state-funded Russian media sites, Sputnik and Russia Today, which published reports on the French language sites that featured rumours about Macron’s private life, as well as accusations he was an “agent for American banks”.
The reports were based on statements from centre-right Les Républicains MP Nicolas Dhuicq, known for his pro-Russian stances.
Conservative MP Dhuicq, who staunchly opposed same-sex marriage in 2013's parliamentary vote, insinuated that Macron was backed by a wealthy “gay lobby” and that rumours about his sexuality – namely that he was cheating on his wife and having a gay affair with France radio chief Mathieu Gallet – would soon be revealed.
In the reports, Dhuicq also accused Macron, a former investment banker, of being an agent of “the big American banking system.”
'Moscow has never interfered in electoral process'
Then there was the report in Izvestia newspaper that featured quotes from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange saying he had got hold of some “interesting information” about Macron via email correspondence with Hillary Clinton. All would soon be revealed Assange suggested.
The Russian news sites strongly deny accusations of meddling in the election using fake news and on Tuesday the Kremlin itself also issued a similar robust denial that it would “interfere in the electoral process” in France.
The motivation for Moscow to derail Macron’s campaign is simple.
They would far rather see the anti-EU Marine Le Pen or François Fillon, both of whom are open admirers of Vladimir Putin, unlike Macron, who is openly pro-Europe, elected the next President of France.
“They do not want a strong Europe, they want a weak Europe,” Macron's spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said on Tuesday.
The problem for Moscow is that ever since Fillon was struck down by fake job claims surrounding his wife, Macron has emerged as the favourite to win the election, beating Le Pen in the second round runoff vote.
'This is Putin's plan to break up the EU'
Macron's team believe the increase in hostile reports and cyber attacks (most of which have been launched by IP addresses in Ukraine, according to En Marche!) and the rise of the candidate in the polls is no coincidence. Moscow is getting jittery it seems.
But so is Emmanuel Macron.
His campaign chief Ferrand issued an appeal in French newspaper Le Monde on Tuesday.
“We cannot let Russia de-stabilise the French presidential election,” read the title.
“If these attacks succeed then the organisation of the En Marche campaign would become very difficult, if not impossible,” said Ferrand.
The European parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt is equally concerned.
“This is part of Vladimir Putin's plan to break up the EU. Will we just stand by and let them undermine our democracies – as they did in the US?” the Belgian MP tweeted.
“Putin is trying to undermine democracy in France – by promoting lies about Emmanuel Macron. Shame on them”, Verhofstadt said.
(François FIllon and Vladimir Putin. AFP)
'Russian interference mixes the legal, the illegal and the borderline'
And for those who might find it hard to believe that Russian meddling could really alter the outcome of a French election there was a warning from journalist and author Nicolas Henin, who wrote the book “La France Russe” (Russian France).
“Russian interference in France mixes all levels including the legal, the illegal and the borderline, but they all complement each other,” Henin told France’s Huffington Post.
“The information that Russian hackers obtain on a candidate illegally is published legally by Russian media sites, even if they are biased, after having been passed by Wikileaks, which is borderline,” said Henin,summing up the situation Emmanuel Macron and his team are now facing.
Hélène Blanc, a Russia specialist and author of “Goodbye Putin told Le Parisien: “If Macron is not to Vladimir Putin's liking, if he does not think that this candidate will support his poliies, his ambitions, his strategy, then Putin will do whatever it takes to weaken him.”
France's centre-right Le Figaro newspaper, which has been backing François Fillon suggested Macron's complaints against Russia may be just a ploy to portray himself as the victim and to ensure all the focus is on him.
However the French government are taking the threat seriously and are due to hold a defence council meeting dedicated to the subject of Russian involvement in the French election.
Macron's hopes of election may hinge on the outcome of that council.
“What we want is for authorities at the highest level to take the matter in hand to guarantee that there is no foreign meddling in our democracy,” Ferrand said