Sunday

25th Feb 2018

Pro-Russia lobby divided on French vote

  • Thierry Mariani, co-president of the French-Russian Dialogue association, runs what former prime minister Manuel Valls described as "an unacceptable parallel diplomacy". (Photo: International Transport Forum)

Marine Le Pen's visit to the Kremlin in March, or a fake news campaign against her opponent Emmanuel Macron, are just the tip of Russia's effort to extend its influence in French politics through a network of contacts.

At the center of the Russian effort is the French-Russian Dialogue, a lobby association established in 2004 to "contribute to deepen strategic relations and the special partnership between France and Russia".

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  • Dhuicq: Franco-Russian relations are victim to "the weight of the administrative techno-structure and the dominant ideology of the [French] foreign affairs ministry". (Photo: UMP)

It is chaired by Vladimir Iakounine, the former head of Russian Railways, who is close to Russia's president Vladimir Putin, and Thierry Mariani, a member of the French National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, for the Republicans - the party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and of Francois Fillon, who was eliminated in the first round of the on 23 April.

On 22 March, the Franco-Russian Dialogue held a hearing of several presidential candidates, or their representatives, in a room at the National Assembly. Macron did not participate or send a representative.

Two questions were asked by the association: "If you are elected, what will be your policy on relations with Russia?" and "What will be your attitude towards sanctions that turned out to be in most cases counter-productive, especially for France and Europe?"

Whatever came out of that hearing, the association's main figures, often from the center-right, are still divided over who to vote for on Sunday.

While the Republicans, on Sunday, have called on its supporters to help defeat Le Pen, Mariani will not disclose who he will be voting for. He told EUobserver from Hong Kong, where he was travelling, that it would "inappropriate" to talk before the vote.

But on Thursday, Mariani told Sputnik, a Russian state news agency, that former US president Barack Obama's support for Macron was a sort of "neocolonialism".

"Establishment candidate"

"The fact that a former head of a foreign state has endorsed one of the candidates is unexpected. Imagine for a second that Vladimir Putin endorsed Marine Le Pen – everyone would’ve screamed bloody murder," he said.

In March, the Russian president received Le Pen, whose National Front party is funded by Russian banks through contacts close to him, but he said he did "not want to influence events in any way".

Mariani told Sputnik that Obama's endorsement showed that Macron is a "establishment candidate", an argument also used by Le Pen.

Mariani who is married to a Russian woman who obtained French citizenship, has been engaged in recent years in what former prime minister Manuel Valls described as "an unacceptable parallel diplomacy".

He regularly goes to Russia, where he has made high level contacts. In July 2015, he went to Crimea, the Ukraine peninsula that was annexed by Russia in 2014. As a consequence, he was banned from Ukraine, along with 10 other parliamentarians.

In 2015 and in January this year, he also went to Syria and met Russia-backed leader Bashar el-Assad.

Another member of Dialogue Franco-Russe, is Nicolas Dhuicq, also a Republicans MP.

Dhuicq is the person who launched the rumour in February that Macron was gay, during an interview with Sputnik.

"He is supported by a very rich gay lobby. That tells all," he said, adding that Macron's alleged homosexuality was "starting to get known".

He also said that Macron was "an agent of the big American banking system".

Dhuicq told EUobserver that he would cast a blank vote, or vote Le Pen, on Sunday. He explained that it would not mean that he rallied behind the National Front, but that he thought France's best interests were not defended by Macron.

'French disease'

Dhuicq, who also visited Russia and Syria with Mariani, support Crimea's annexation by Russia and the lifting of EU sanctions against it over the war in eastern Ukraine.

For him, relations with Russia are essential to Europe's future.

"What is at stake is the demographic challenge, the economic development with Siberia's raw materials, the fight against Islamism, our common enemy," he told EUobserver.

Dhuicq, also a practicing psychiatrist, also said that Europe and Russia shared the same ideas about "humanity's challenge of transhumanism, of immortality", contrary to the US and its "research on basmati rice or human genome".

He added that the Franco-Russian relations was victim to "the weight of the administrative techno-structure and the dominant ideology of the [French] foreign affairs ministry," which he said was aligned with Washington DC.

Being aligned with the US, for Dhuicq, was "a French disease", which has infected Macron and his own Republicans party.

The party's "new generation lacks historical culture and doesn't perceive the vital importance of our links with Russia," he said, pointing out that Russia was not only Putin.

He said that he usually tells voters that "France's destiny can also depend on what happens in Damas or Moscow and that it is important to maintain contact, to talk with everyone".

Dhuicq also said he felt closer to the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is an advocate of dialogue with Assad and also defends Putin's positions on Ukraine.

Le Pen 'not serious'

A third influential member of the Franco-Russian Dialogue is Yves Pozzo di Borgo, a centrist senator, who also took part in Mariani's delegation to Crimea.

Last year, he tabled a Senate resolution calling for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia.

He said that because of sanctions, trade between the EU and Russia "crashed, from €400 billion to €215 billion".

Pozzo di Borgo, a member of the Senate's foreign affairs committee, is currently preparing a report about Franco-Russian relationships, that will be submitted in the coming weeks to the new president who will be elected on Sunday.

In a previous report to president Sarkozy in 2007, he had stressed the importance of keeping good relations with Russia.

"Our foreign affairs ministry follows Angela Merkel's steps when it comes to Russia," he told EUobserver.

He also hinted that the hacking of Macron's campaign, which experts have attributed to a group linked to Russian secret services, was actually done by the US.

However, Pozzo di Borgo indicated that Le Pen's candidacy was "simply not serious" and that he hoped that Macron will be "pragmatic and convinced that Europe should not isolate itself from Russia".

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