The online dump of 9 gigabytes of emails and other data stolen from the computers of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, most likely by a hackers collective that has links to Russian intelligence, and quickly trumpeted online by American "alt-right" Twitter accounts, along with an army of pro-Kremlin bots, was hardly surprising. The Macron campaign detected months ago Russian attempts to break in to its computer systems, and the pattern of using Kremlin-friendly hackers and online groups to harm western candidates seen by Russia’s leadership as hostile, is already well-established from last year’s American elections and elsewhere.
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It is impossible to predict at this stage what effect, if any, the “MacronLeaks” will have on the results of the second round of the presidential election between Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen, who has known ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and received funding from the Kremlin. But the timing, hours before the media and parties in France enter the period in which they are prevented from saying or publishing anything that could influence the voting, is very interesting.
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The almost certainly Russian hackers who invaded the computers of Macron’s En Marche! Party know whatever they purloined. If there was any incriminating information there, an email or report, that could have seriously damaged Macron’s campaign, they would have found a way to highlight it. Initial assessments of the data dump have been that there is nothing there beyond the normal management of an election campaign. This is probably the reason for this timing, a moment before the French media and politicians enter the embargo period until the voting is over. If they had leaked the stuff a few weeks earlier, the French media would have quickly gone over it, and pronounced Macron “clean,” boosting his image among skeptical voters. The best time to wave an empty revolver is when your enemy can’t fire back anyway.
There may be nothing that can harm Macron directly in the material but the timing was chosen to shake the voters’ trust in the democratic process. The fact that there is information out there on one of the candidates and the French public is not allowed to know what exactly it is, and the little information coming through now is from Facebook and Twitter accounts, not reliable sources, creates the feeling that “someone is hiding something” and no-one is to be trusted. The concern in the west that these sort of leaks are becoming the norm during election campaigns lead to the rare public warning from the head of Germany’s security service Hans-Georg Massen, on Thursday, that Russia should think twice before interfering in Germany’s election campaigns. German intelligence already knows of attempts by Russian hackers to break in to local parties’ computers. But this is not just about trying to pervert the course of democracy and affect the results of one or two elections.
The democratic structure of western society is based largely on trust. Politicians, even if the most crooked ones, know they cannot be caught in a blatant lie, as their rivals and the media will pounce and denounce. Journalists, even if they’re not objective, fair or balanced, are committed to reporting the truth, from fear of their colleagues and rivals and the politicians themselves. The crucial accuracy of official statistics, economic data, public health and the safety of buildings and transport infrastructure, all depend on the commitment of politicians and journalists to minimal standards of truthfulness. What happens when large parts of the public lose that trust? When daily new websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts appear whose ownership is unclear and the veracity of their information even less certain?
An atmosphere of mistrust towards mainstream politicians and media is what allowed an American president who doesn't even bother to try and connect his statements with actual facts to take the White House. The openness, transparency and trust of western society become its weakest link when non-democratic regimes use technological tools, developed by the west, to break that trust.
The Macron leaks may not help Ms. Le Pen gain more than a couple more percentage points, insufficient to close the gap by Sunday night. It may even harm her, as many French voters will certainly be shocked by the blatant interference in their democratic process. Some of them may have been intending to stay at home, abstain, or even vote for Le Pen, and could change their mind as a result. But Le Pen is expendable, as is Donald Trump and all the Kremlin's other useful idiots and fellow travelers. The grand-prize in Vladimir Putin’s hybrid warfare is making up for Russia’s economic and military weakness against those he perceives as his rivals, by weakening the trust which is the most crucial element in the west’s success and prosperity.