European Affairs

Perspectives: Russia boosts its influence in France     Print Email

jacquelinegrapin2015cWho knew that the monumental Christmas tree glittering in front of Notre Dame of Paris last winter was funded by the Embassy of Russia? This allowed the leading public television channel in Russia to say: “This year, Parisians do not have enough money any more for their Christmas tree.” In spite of increasing Russian presence on the banks of the Seine, almost nobody in Paris heard about it.

France has become a special target for Russia to increase its influence in Europe. At a moment when Europe is composed of “moving pieces,” Paris is openly considered “a pivot” by Moscow. It offers a good relatively friendly base for Russian activities. The discrepancy between Russian means of influence and the ability of the French government to react is such that France is seen as an easy target for Russian operatives, particularly at a moment when French intelligence services are short on personnel and focused on counter-terrorist activities for which they need Russian information on Syria and on the important Chechen community in France.

Both countries have traditionally had historic and cultural relations. Paris was always a refuge for Russians of all opinions and talents, whatever the government in their country. Many value music, literature and art even more than money and power, sharing a commonality of perceptions beyond business and politics. Some refer to it as French “cultural Russophily.” This commonality of perceptions among the “French Russian” community provides a base for easy communication. Most recently, a systematic effort to influence this society has been put in place by the Russian government and its satellites, whether through businessmen close to Vladimir Putin, media people, academic researchers, and cultural activists.

A recent book by Nicolas Hénin, titled “La France Russe” offers a detailed description of what he calls “the Putin networks” in Paris.[1] It demonstrates that the Russian lobby in Paris is not Russian. It is French. This interesting research describes the recent effort to increase influence among leaders within French society. The spectacular results of this effort, judging from the evolution of the mentality among numerous members of the French elite, including members of the French Parliament, seem to confirm that such a “smart” strategy is more effective than previous tools of the USSR during the Cold War. It does not rely as much on old means of governmental influence, and rather emphasizes private soft penetration of political, cultural, academic circles and all sorts of NGOs which are numerous in Paris. Medias are given special attention in a separate program. It is also worth noting that the Embassy of Russia is headed by a remarkable ambassador, familiar with French culture and respected by all parties. His first posting in Paris was in 1985. His courtesy goes as far as never failing to recognize the titles of former Russian aristocratic families when their descendants visit his Embassy.

Soft penetration

Among the new vehicles of Russian influence, the Institut de la Démocratie et de la Cooperation (IDC), a think tank located not far from the French Prime Minister’s office, was created by Russia in 2008 with the goal of countering Western NGO’s arguments. Another important association, Dialogue Franco-Russe, is co-chaired by a member of the French parliament, Thierry Mariani (whose wife is Russian). He is also Vice-Chair of the Franco-Russian Group in the National Assembly with Vladimir Iakounine, ex-CEO of the Russian railways company, friend of Vladimir Putin and former member of the Russian government. This association hosts a new “Cercle Pouchkine,” mostly attended by younger members of the French establishment.

The talk of the town is about the new Russian Cathedral in Paris, funded by the Russian government, appropriately close to the Quai d’Orsay, next door to the apartment of the Secretary General of Defense (SDGDN) and to the mail service of the Elysée. It is viewed as an easy place for intelligence operatives to poach communications from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other governmental administrations close by. By adding cultural services inside the building, the Russian Embassy has been able to convert the site to a diplomatic location, thus legally preventing any French investigation of its activities. There is a lot to learn on French, EU and transatlantic political, economic and military-industrial activities as well as on discussions held in the headquarters of UNESCO and OECD. Similar concerns have been raised about the Russian Orthodox Church of All Saints in Strasbourg, which is conveniently located very close to the European Parliament.

The Russian World Foundation “Rousskii Mir,” is a cultural project initiated by Vladimir Putin in 2007. Representatives of Dialogue Franco-Russe and IDC serve on the Board. It proposes grants and other financial resources to French academic circles. In addition, the Russian Center for Science and Culture (CRSC) offers free courses in Russian to binational families living in France. Any person with Russian blood is considered “binational.” These families are considered natural relays for Russian influence. Some are descendants of “Russes blancs” who left Russia after the communist revolution and later. In cases where their associations do not accept pro-Putin views, the Russian embassy creates parallel organizations with the same goal and a different approach. For instance, as the Association professionnelle des Russes de France was not amenable, the Russian embassy created another one to do the same thing, but more favorable to its views. With a coordinating role, the Conseil de coordination du Forum des Russes de France (CCFRF) also offers trips to Russia to young French people.

“Smart” Weapons

Nicolas Hénin devotes a full chapter of his book to describing how this system is supplemented by a strong action plan focused on the media. It uses Russian and French journalists as sources, and also funds and operates special operations for public information, disinformation, and information gathering, particularly on the internet. This organization also provides “experts on Russia” to radios and television channels for their discussions.

Several candidates in the primaries of the Republican party for the French presidential election of 2017 apparently have been convinced by a number of the arguments developed by Russian groups. There is even a new small party arguing in favor of “the triple exit”: out of the EU, out of NATO, and out of the euro.” Even Hervé Mariton, vice-chairman of the Groupe d’Amitié Franco-Russe at the French Assembly, who speaks Russian, and leads a number of joint Franco-Russian initiatives, sounded alarmed in an editorial published recently in the newspaper Le Monde: ”Propagandists in the Kremlin must not believe what they are seeing when they observe how rapidly their arguments are absorbed by many European political figures, particularly by a large portion of the French right.”[2]The Socialist party, whose success developed in opposition to the communist partly in the seventies and eighties, is less open to the same themes.

It is interesting to observe how intellectual and political support of Russian arguments has shifted. It used to be strong on the left of the political spectrum when the communist party and communist unions were partly financed by Moscow. Except for the radical left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose arguments are often based on the notion that contemporary American influence usually turns to be to the detriment of French interests, the bulk of French political support to Russia’s arguments has now shifted to the right of the political spectrum.

It is public knowledge that Russian banks and wealthy individuals fund the Front National, as they do fund most populist parties in Europe. But moderate socio-democrats in the Parti Républicain and centrist parties also praise Vladimir Putin for ensuring stability and vision in his country, compared to the weaknesses of leadership in the West. Distinguished officers of the French military establishment openly support Russian arguments regarding American and NATO provocation in Georgia and Ukraine after the end of the Cold War. They highlight serious mistakes in letting radical Islam penetrate Bosnia and Kosovo, not to speak about the destabilization of the Middle East by wrongly attacking Iraq, supporting opposition forces in Syria, and searching for a Pyrrhic victory in Libya. They increasingly promote basic opposition to a world centered on the Transatlantic relationship, criticizing American bullying and the decline of traditional values in the U.S.

In most cases, the Russian discourse is presented as independent thinking opposed to American propaganda. There is a kind of inversion of norms by which American influence, deemed too powerful, seems predatory, whereas Russian views are supposed to be liberating, especially for French intellectuals who hate politically correct conformism.

Meanwhile the new discourse mostly praises national sovereignty to counter trends toward European integration; criticizing the Franco-German alliance; emphasizing threats from migrations; deploring serious negative effects on France of Western economic sanctions on Russia. An obvious immediate goal of Russian activities in Paris has been to obtain France’s support for lifting EU economic sanctions on Russia related to its role in Ukraine.

While the context evolves, the strategic objective of the former USSR remains: decouple the old continent from the U.S. and weaken free democratic societies from the inside by playing on forces favorable to Moscow. Some wonder if the new Russian soft approach will succeed in doing what the USSR could not achieve during the Cold War: neutralize Europe to the point of introducing continental solidarity and confirming the Euro-Asian vision affirming the centrality of Russia.

But public opinion resisting

There was a fairly good representation of French business in June 2016 at the Economic Forum of St. Petersburg, chaired Vladimir Putin. Some businessmen are fully invested in the relationship, such as Henri Proglio, former CEO of the French national electricity company, EDF, who has become a kind of ambassador abroad for Rosatom, the Russian nuclear company. And there is a lot of symmetry between the Russian and the French systems of nationally controlled companies. And since most large French companies are more or less doing business in Russia, they end up lobbying one way or another for Russia in Paris. But in spite of a growing commonality of views among French and Russian elites, there are not many Russian investments in France and French investments in Russia are not impressive. Some companies like Carrefour still do good business there, but trust is still lacking.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the new Russian tropism of “friendly” members of the French parliament and other members of the establishment does not seem to represent the views of the overall population. Polls by the Pew Research Center (an American organization) show that 85% of French people do not trust Mr. Putin. It is one of the highest rates of mistrust in the world, immediately behind that of the Spaniards and the Poles. President Putin’s indiscreet comment that Brexit was a gift made by Britain to Russia will probably not change their minds.

[1]Nicolas Hénin, La France Russe - Enquête sur les réseaux Poutine Fayard Paris (19 euros)
[2] L’aveuglement de la droite face à la politique de Poutine en Syrie, Le Monde 28 février 2016


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