SHAFAQNA – France’s far-right National Front has admitted receiving a big Russian loan amid growing evidence of a secret Kremlin campaign to buy influence in European politics.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist anti-EU party, confirmed after a media leak that it had borrowed €9 million (£7 million) in September from the Russian-owned First Czech-Russian Bank. She said that French and other western banks had refused finance for the National Front, which is France’s most popular party, according to the opinion polls.
“We signed with the First [bank] who agreed and we’re very happy about it,” she said. She insisted that it was “ridiculous to suggest that gaining a loan would determine our international position”.
“These insinuations are outrageous and offensive,” Ms Le Pen said. She added that her party had long held strong pro-Russian views.
Nevertheless, Wallerand de Saint Just, the National Front’s treasurer, hinted at embarrassment over the loan. “I would prefer a French bank. It would be more comfortable,” he said. The party said that it needed the money to prepare for the coming elections, leading up to the presidential campaign of 2017 in which Ms Le Pen is to run.
Ms Le Pen’s words drew a sceptical reception from politicians and experts who have been tracking President Putin’s charm offensive with the National Front and other populist, anti-EU parties of both hard right and left across the continent.
“You are always under obligation to your creditor,” said Bruno Le Maire, a former cabinet minister who is challenging Nicolas Sarkozy for the leadership of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement. The First Czech-Russian bank is owned by Roman Popov, a Russian who is close to power in Moscow and it is inconceivable that he had not received Kremlin approval to make the loan, diplomats said.
Reports have emerged of Kremlin support for Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Greece’s neofascist Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, Italy’s Northern League and the Freedom Party of Austria. All except Golden Dawn were invited, along with the National Front, to observe Crimea’s vote to join Russia last March and all approved the annexation.
Jobbik, one of Europe’s most right-wing and pro-Kremlin parties, has been under investigation in Hungary over allegations that it has received secret funding from Russia.
Germany’s anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was also reported yesterday to be in the Kremlin’s sights. The Moscow-based Centre for Strategic Communications, a think-tank, set out in a report for the Kremlin how it could finance the German anti-euro party via gold sales as part of a campaign to influence key EU member states, according to German media.
In France, Jean-Yves Camus, an academic expert on the National Front, said that Moscow was exercising a kind of blackmail. “This is a case of Russia or Putin trying to send a message to governments in EU countries to say, ‘Be careful with your position towards Russia because if you don’t support us, we will support parties who are a threat to you,’” Mr Camus said.
The National Front’s strong support for Moscow goes back to the 1980s. It has intensified over the past 18 months, with Ms Le Pen being fêted on visits to Moscow and the Kremlin supporting National Front ventures, including a pro-Russian French television channel. The contract worth several hundred thousand euros was recently halted ahead of next year’s launch of a Kremlin-run French-language television channel with a €20 million budget.
An investigation last month by Le Nouvel Observateur reported a close relationship between the Le Pen family and the Russian embassy in Paris. The alliance between the National Front and Russia “could change the face of the old continent”, the news weekly said. “For several months, the Kremlin has been betting on the National Front. It believes that it is capable of winning power in France and overturning the course of European history in favour of Moscow.”
The National Front, like its EU counterparts, admires Mr Putin as a strongman who stands up for his country. “He proposes a patriotic economic model, radically different from what the Americans are imposing on us,” Ms Le Pen said last month.
Mr Putin’s stand against homosexuality and in favour of religion and conservative moral values also goes down well with the National Front. Ms Le Pen wants a strategic alliance with Moscow and supports the idea of a “Pan-European union” that would include Russia.
Like much of the French political world, she is urging President Hollande to proceed with the delivery of two powerful warships to Russia after Mr Hollande suspended the handover pending developments in Ukraine.
Ms Le Pen’s fondness for Russia is partly shared by Nigel Farage and Ukip. He recently named Mr Putin as the world leader he most admired “as an operator but not as a human being”.
The Russian report on Germany highlights gold trading, one of the AfD’s financing methods, as a way for the Kremlin to buy influence. It suggested that the Russian government could sell gold to the party at a loss or use the Germans as middlemen for gold trading and pay commission to fill party coffers.
The AfD has sold gold worth €2.1 million since October. The party won seven of Germany’s 96 seats in the last European elections and is allied with the British Conservatives in the European parliament.