PARIS - France's turbulent election suffered another upheaval a day before the polls open when leading presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron filed a complaint over a massive hacking attack that targeted his campaign and leaked tens of thousands of emails, documents and files.
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Opinion polls show independent centrist Macron is set to beat National Front candidate Le Pen in Sunday's second round of voting, in what is seen to be France's most important election in decades. The latest surveys show him winning with about 62 percent of the vote.
But the timing of the leak is crucial as French law forbids campaigning and media coverage that may sway voters' views 36 hours before the polls open – meaning that Macron's campaign cannot defend itself. The blackout is meant to prevent reports about candidates without allowing them sufficient time to make their case – but this is exactly what happened with the leak. Macron's campaign released its statement four minutes before midnight, an hour after the leak emerged. Since then, the campaign has been barred from addressing the attack.
Macron's campaign uses Microsoft's OneDrive system, which gives employees access to email, schedules, address books, reports, spreadsheets and internal messages. The leak contains thousands of private email messages that have no direct link to the campaign, but whose exposure is nevertheless damaging.
The election watchdog warned journalists, including foreign ones, on Saturday that publishing information from the leak is in violation of the law.
Le Pen's deputy, Florian Philippot, expressed hope that the leak "will expose information that investigative reporters refused to publish." On Friday, Philippot attempted to publish fake messages he said came from Macron's campaign purportedly calling for physical violence against Le Pen, evidently in an effort to explain the hostile reception she got during her last campaign stop.
It's hard to say if the massive leak – 9 gigabytes of data – will have any effect on the election's outcome. The documents have been shared in millions of social media posts targeting French voters, but these posts, coming from the U.S. and Russia, are as trustworthy as spam emails about hidden treasures in Nigeria. However, there is still time before the polls close, and the effort is certain to grow more sophisticated in the hours to come.
Added to the mix are the preemptive measures taken by Macron's campaign, including hiding hundreds of fake emails and spreadsheets within the hacked system. The measures were put in place after a previous hacking attempt last month, with the campaign blaming Russian interests in part.
On April 26, Macron's team said it had been the target of attempts to steal email credentials dating back to January, but that the perpetrators had failed to compromise any campaign data. The cybersecurity firm Trend Micro said at the time that digital fingerprints linked the Macron attack with those on the campaign of U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last year.
The Kremlin has denied it was behind any such attacks.
The French election commission may decide to postpone the vote in the last minute if it finds that illegal efforts were made to sway the outcome. But as of now there are no signs that such a decision is imminent. In fact, some analysts believe that it will be Le Pen who suffers the most damage as result of the leak, regardless of whether her allies are behind it.
With reporting from Reuters