Monday

22nd May 2017

Investigation

Le Pen-Putin friendship goes back a long way

  • Marine Le Pen says she met Vladimir Putin only once, while in fact she met him three times. (Photo: Marine Le Pen/Facebook)

There’s a curious painting on the wall in Marine Le Pen's headquarters in the chic 8th arrondissement in Paris.

It shows the far-right candidate in the French presidential election with the Russian and US presidents on either side. On a black background, in the style of the Soviet era, Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump gaze out to a common horizon.

  • In the European Parliament, the 22 FN MEPs vote as one man as soon as it is to defend Russian interests. (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

She got it as a gift from a Russian nationalist activist whom she met in Paris a few days after she met Putin in Moscow on 24 March.

Her meeting with Putin was a political masterstroke. It showcased her idea of putting France at the centre of a nationalist Washington-Paris-Moscow axis if she was elected.

Putin used it to send a political message to Europe.

The high-profile event at his Kremlin palace, held just one month before the first round of the French election on Sunday (23 April), was designed to show that he still backed her despite her party, the National Front’s (FN), failure to win anything in French regional elections in 2015.

Le Pen has also praised Trump, even if she had nothing nice to say about his missile strike in Syria on 6 April against Russia’s ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Her admiration of Putin goes back further and has been more constant, however.

The surprise meeting on 24 March was said by Le Pen and by several media to be first of its kind.

But in fact she already met him in 2014 and in 2015.

Three high-level sources in the FN told the authors of this article that the meetings took place amid the utmost secrecy.

The FN founder, and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, let the cat out of the bag in a recent BBC documentary.

"I've never met him [Putin], but he's met Marine," he said in an interview conducted prior to 24 March.

Her then-foreign affairs adviser and an FN MEP, Aymeric Chauprade, also told the French BFMTV channel in December 2014 that she had met Putin in what he described as "unofficial" and "friendly" talks.

She reacted to both her father and Chauprade’s words with immediate denials.

"She gave me the green light to speak about her meeting with Putin and then she disowned me," Chauprade, who left the FN in 2015 after falling out with Le Pen, later told the authors of this article.

Le Pen’s people also denied that she asked Putin for money on 24 March.

Ludovic de Danne, her foreign affairs adviser, told press that she "did not discuss any issue linked to any bank loan".

But the question is worth asking twice.

The FN is still looking for several millions of euros to fund its presidential campaign and to contest the subsequent parliamentary election in June.

Track record

It also has a track record of taking Russian money.

The Mediapart news website in France has revealed that the FN already benefited from Russian loans.

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s micro-party within the FN borrowed €2 million in April 2014 with the help of a Russian oligarch to fund its EU election campaign that year.

Marine Le Pen obtained a €9 million loan for the FN from the First Czech Russian Bank (FCRB) five months later.

In June 2016 she also approved a request for a €3 million loan from another Russian lender, the Strategy bank. According to the document, signed by Le Pen and published by Mediapart on 30 March, the purpose of this loan was “financing [of] the electoral campaign” for the French presidency.

The FN’s sponsors, the FCRB and Strategy, were obscure Russian banks who did not turn out to be reliable partners.

The FCRB lost its licence in July 2016 and its deputy director was arrested in January on suspicion of a massive embezzlement.

Strategy bank also lost its licence one month later and Wallerand de Saint Just, the FN treasurer, has said that the €3 million loan was just a “plan" that had "no follow-up".

The FCRB and Strategy deals were brokered by the same middleman, Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, an FN MEP.

Schaffhauser has a fat address book in the former USSR. He worked as consultant for Auchan, a French retail group, for Dassault, a business jet and military aircraft maker, and for the oil company Total before joining Le Pen in 2012.

He admitted to getting a €140,000 commission for "work done”, but, as with Le Pen and Putin, there is suspicion that there was more money involved.

Several sources said Schaffhauser’s fee was in fact €450,000. He denies that, but Tracfin, the French anti-money laundering bureau, is looking into the affair.

The US intelligence authorities are also digging deeper.

According to the French publication, Le Canard Enchaine, Mike Turner, a US senator, said in a letter to James Clapper, a US intelligence chief, that the FN asked to borrow €28.7 million from Russia in January 2016.

Le Pen and other party officials denied it.

But a declassified US intelligence report in January said Putin planned “future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes" after his meddling in the US vote last year.

Richard Burr, the head of the Senate intelligence committee, which is looking into US election rigging, also said in March that ”the Russians are actively involved in the French elections”.

Strings attached?

The National Front has always claimed that its Russian loans did not come with strings attached.

Schaffhauser told the BBC last April that the €9 million loan from FCRB was "not a political loan" but a "commercial loan".

Le Pen said "insinuations” that Russia had bought influence in her party were “outrageous and injurious".

"On the grounds that we obtain a loan, this would determinate our international position? We have been for a long time on that [pro-Russian] line," she told Le Monde, a French newspaper, at the time.

It is true that the FN’s admiration of Russia has an ideological dimension.

It goes back to the fall of the Soviet Union and Jean-Marie Le Pen has cultivated ties with Russian ultra-nationalists for a long time.

His daughter’s relationship with the Kremlin is more recent and could be more transactional, however.

She became close to Putin’s circles after she took over the FN leadership in January 2011.

She has also claimed ideological allegiance.

She said she "admired" Putin in an interview with Russian daily Kommersant in 2011 and that the economic and financial crisis in Europe at the time was “an opportunity to turn our back to the US and turn towards Russia".

She returned to Russia in June 2013 for a 10-day trip, during which she visited Crimea in Ukraine.

She went back to Russia three more times - in April 2014, May 2015, and in March 2017.

According to her official agenda, she also met two men who were key to obtaining the Russian loans.

She met Alexander Babakov in February 2014.

Babakov, a senator from Putin’s United Russia party who advises him on cooperation with Russian organisations abroad, was the man behind the €9 million loan granted to the FN that year. He is on an EU sanctions list and is believed to own hidden assets in France worth €11 million.

Le Pen met Konstantin Malofeev a few months later.

Malofeev is an oligarch who is close to the Kremlin and who helped arrange the €2 million loan. Le Pen’s former adviser, Chauprade, who was present at the discussion, later said it was “a thank-you meeting for the loan, which was used to fund the EU elections campaign”.

Motives

Whether for ideological or financial motives, the FN leader and her party have engaged in energetic pro-Russian lobbying in recent years.

Gilbert Collard and Marion Marechal-Le Pen, its two MPs in the French parliament, have called for lifting EU sanctions on Russia.

The 22 FN MEPs in the European Parliament vote as one man when it comes to defending Russia's interests.

They all opposed the EU-Ukraine association treaty in September 2014, for instance, as well as a report on Russian anti-EU propaganda in November 2016.

The FN has also acted as a cheerleader for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Schaffhauser, the Russia-loans middleman, went twice to Donbass, the Russian-occupied region in eastern Ukraine, in October 2014 and May 2015.

The first visit took place just two months after he got the €9 million loan. Officially, the MEP went alone and on his own initiative, but in fact he travelled with Le Pen's head of cabinet, Nicolas Lesage, and with a team from Nations Presse Info, an FN propaganda website.

The trip was designed to give legitimacy to elections in the self-proclaimed and Russia-controlled Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR).

The FN has taken a special interest in Crimea.

The EU, the US, and the UN said that the referendum in Crimea in March 2014, when the Russia-occupied region voted to join Russia, was illegitimate, but Le Pen said the outcome was “indisputable". 



The same day a Kremlin official wondered "how to thank" her in an SMS that was obtained by Russian hackers.

Le Pen in January this year again said that the annexation of Crimea was "not illegal" and that the region "was never Ukrainian".

The friendship also gave Russian politicians access to Europe.

A Russian delegation was guest of honour at an FN congress in Lyon in November 2014, two months after the €9 million loan was signed. It included two men from Putin’s United Russia party: Andrey Isayev, the then deputy-chairman of Duma, the Russian lower chamber, and Andrey Klimov, the deputy chair of the Russian Senate’s committee on international affairs.

Isayev began his speech by calling the FN delegates his “dear comrades”. He said, to applause, that the Maidan revolution in Ukraine was an “anti-constitutional coup” and denounced “US puppets” in Europe.

Making fog

It is not easy to keep track of what Le Pen does when she goes abroad.

She maintains deliberate confusion on whether the trips are official or private and whether they are being made for political or for fundraising purposes.

Her trips to Russia were just part of wider travels to beat the FN drum.

Over the past two years, she has also been to Canada, Chad, Egypt, Lebanon, and the US, while the FN’s secretary general, Nicolas Bay, has been to Israel.

The trips were kept secret until the last minute, formal talks were cancelled and replaced by "press points" or by behind-closed-doors “working meetings" and “lunches".

Some of them had clearly financial motives.

When Le Pen went to Trump Tower in New York in January, Guido Lombardi, a Trump friend, threw her a fundraising event.

Other meetings also had FN finances in mind.

Le Pen secretly met a representative from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in July 2014.

According to Chauprade, who was there, "the emirate representative explained that his country wanted to help France to fight against radical islamists" and mentioned the possibility of a trip to Egypt, a UAE ally.

“He wanted to bring money to fund the presidential campaign," Chauprade told the authors of this article.

"We will help you to win," the emirate official reportedly told Le Pen, but it is hard to know what her sponsors get in return.

Marine Turchi is a journalist at the French news website Mediapart. Mathias Destal is journalist at the French weekly Marianne. They recently published Marine est au courant de tout… ('Marine knows everything...').

A French translation of this article may be found here.

A German translation of this article may be found here.

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