It was a crucial moment of Wednesday night’s debate. Incumbent Emmanuel Macron, scrambling to ward off a historic defeat in France’s presidential election, hit out at challenger Marine Le Pen.
“You depend on Russia and you depend on Mr. Putin. ... When you speak to Russia, you’re not speaking to a foreign leader, you’re talking to your banker,” Macron said.
Le Pen clenched her jaw and responded nervously that she was an independent woman who had been forced to seek a foreign loan because no French bank would lend to her.
Such parries by Macron seem to be working. Despite Le Pen’s strong second-place showing in the election’s first round a week and a half ago, bookmakers are now saying he should win Sunday’s runoff easily.
Macron was referring to a loan that Le Pen’s party received in 2014 from the First Czech-Russian Bank, suspected to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Whether or not the loan was indispensable, Le Pen’s family ties with Russia go way back.
The relationship dates back to Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, founder of the far-right National Front, rebranded by Marine in 2018 as the National Rally.
Jean-Marie – a man who has been convicted for antisemitic remarks – befriended ultranationalist leader and Putin ally Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the ‘90s and made a number of official visits to the Kremlin, meeting with a raft of government officials. He even took a 2-million-euro loan in 2014 from a former KGB officer and former director of VEB Capital, a state-owned Russian bank, French investigative news site Mediapart reported.
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Despite Marine Le Pen’s efforts to distance herself from her father – in 2015 she had him fired from the party he founded – she has pursued a close relationship with Russia and its leader. In a 2011 article in Russian newspaper Kommersant, she expressed admiration for Putin and called on Europe to turn away from the United States and form closer ties with Moscow.
In 2014 she defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea, calling the Russian government's referendum for the peninsula “legitimate.” She also described Brussels’ sanctions on Russia as “stupid” and said Ukraine’s newly elected government came into office via a “coup d’état.”
Le Pen’s first official meeting with Putin occurred in March 2017 when she traveled to Moscow just ahead of France’s last presidential election; she would lose the runoff to Macron with only 34 percent of the vote. Le Pen sat down with Putin for a chat – in those days the table was small – and they were photographed shaking hands and smiling.
Despite Le Pen’s attempts to distance herself from Moscow in recent weeks, condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supporting most EU sanctions on Moscow, she has said she would push for closer ties between Russia and NATO once the war is over.
She says her views on Putin have changed, but she fears that a ban on Russian oil and gas imports would “throw Russia into China’s arms.”
Le Pen’s ties with Russia have further implications than economics. Their shared ideology is partly based on anti-American sentiment and a belief that France should distance itself from NATO. And both believe that radical Islamists can only be countered by curbing immigration and limiting religious freedom.
According to Galia Ackerman, a French-Russian journalist and a researcher specializing in Ukraine and the other post-Soviet states, Le Pen’s ideas have resonated with former and current leaders including Donald Trump, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša. Her campaign slogan “Give the French back their country” echoes Trump’s “Make America great again,” with Le Pen doing her part in decrying “elites” and “globalists.”
Her financial links aren’t limited to Russia; she also received a 10.7-million-euro loan for her presidential campaign from Hungary’s state-backed MKB Bank, whose largest shareholder is a close associate of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Though more moderate on the EU in recent weeks, dropping a pledge to take France out of the union, Le Pen still believes in cultivating ties with Orbán and Putin to form an alternative bloc. She has called for the abolishment of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, and wants France, a founding member of the EU and its second-biggest economy, to exit the Schengen Area and reinstall its border controls.
Throughout her political career, Le Pen has tried to rebrand her image and soften her father’s most extreme positions. But her core political beliefs seem little changed. Like Russia, she defends reactionary values, calls for the restriction of LGBTQ rights, and scoffs at liberal values shared by most Western powers, Ackerman says, adding that the EU’s survival will be at risk if Le Pen becomes France’s president.
Though the bookmakers are now pointing to an easy win for Macron, the slog has been tougher this time around. And in the first round, 57 percent of French voters chose candidates of the extreme left or right, suggesting that an elected French president from the fringes in the next few years may not be so unrealistic.