Russia looms large over France's presidential election, with candidates on the hard left, right and far right all promising
to improve ties with the Kremlin, accused by some of meddling in the vote.
As US authorities press their investigation into alleged Russian interference in favour of Donald Trump in America's election, officials on both sides of the Atlantic are warning of possible attempts by Russia to also sway the French vote.
This week, the chairman of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence outright accused Russia of an “overt effort” to disrupt France's April 27-May 7 vote.
“I think it's safe by everybody's judgement that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections,” Senator Richard Burr told reporters.
European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans also rounded on Russia, accusing President Vladimir Putin — who hosted French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen for a visit on March 24 — of trying to weaken an already ailing EU.
“There is a reason why Mr Putin supports the extreme right all across Europe,” Timmermans told lawmakers in Spain.
“Because he knows the extreme right makes us weak, he knows the extreme right divides us….And a divided Europe means that Putin is the boss.”
Moscow has denied any meddling in France's affairs but Putin's meeting with Le Pen — who is forecast to go head-to-head with pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron in the election run-off — has put Russia back in the campaign spotlight.
“There is undeniably a growing Russia syndrome in both our foreign and domestic policy,” former French diplomat Pierre Vimon, a researcher at the Carnegie Europe foundation, said.
Three of the five leading candidates — Le Pen, conservative nominee Francois Fillon and Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon — want to bring Russia back in from the cold by, among other things, lifting sanctions imposed over its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The three have also expressed varying degrees of support for Russia intervention against anti-regime rebels in Syria's civil war.
Macron and Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon take a more sceptical view of Putin.
The two back continued sanctions on Russia and have insisted that Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go.
Divided on sanctions
In February, a Macron aide accused Russian state media of a “smear campaign” against the 39-year-old defender of open borders and immigration, whom polls show ultimately beating Le Pen.
Macron's team also pointed a finger at Russia over a flurry of cyberattacks on his campaign website.
Le Pen, whose party in 2014 received a loan from a Russian bank, dismissed the claims, declaring there was “not the slightest proof.”
Russia had initially seemed keener on self-described Putin “friend” Fillon, who is alleged to have been paid to arrange a meeting between the Russian leader and a Lebanese billionaire in 2015.
In November, Putin hailed the Republicans nominee as “very principled” and a “great professional”.
But since January, when Fillon, 63, became embroiled in a damaging scandal over payments to his wife, the Russian leader appears to have shifted support to 48-year-old Le Pen.
The sight of a smiling Le Pen clasping hands with the Russian rankled France's Socialist government.
“It's not up to Russia to decide who will be the next president of France,” Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault declared on Friday.
Fillon counselled against giving into “fantasies”, while warning Le Pen that Russia was “dangerous”.
The candidates' pronouncements are being closely parsed for clues as to how they would tackle the Russian strongman.
Fillon believes the West “provoked” Russia by expanding NATO's presence into eastern Europe and has called for an alliance with Putin and Assad's regime against the Islamic State, which has claimed several attacks in France.
Le Pen, who has predicted that the EU “will die” if she wins, has hailed Putin's nationalist world view.
“A new world has emerged in the past years. This is Vladimir Putin's world, Donald Trump's world in the United States, Mr (Narendra) Modi's world in India,” she said.
Melenchon, by contrast, sees Russia chiefly as a bulwark against US “imperialism”.
by AFP's Cécile Feuillatre