Putin greets Le Pen of France’s far-right wing

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY'S TOP NEWS - By Vladimir Isachenkov

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin made his pref­er­ences in the French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion clear Fri­day by host­ing far-right can­di­date Ma­rine Le Pen at the Krem­lin, but an­a­lysts are skep­ti­cal about Russia’s abil­ity to sway the out­come of the vote.

Em­brac­ing Le Pen is part of Russia’s ef­forts to reach out to na­tion­al­ist and anti-glob­al­ist forces to build up its in­flu­ence in the West and help over­come the strains in re­la­tions with the U.S. and the Euro­pean Union.

Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory in the U.S. pres­i­den­tial vote has em­bold­ened the Krem­lin, even though the on­go­ing U.S. Con­gres­sional scru­tiny of his cam­paign ties with Russia has all but dashed Moscow’s hopes for a quick dé­tente. U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have ac­cused Moscow of hack­ing to in­ter­fere in the 2016 U.S. elec­tion.

Dur­ing Fri­day’s meet­ing with Na­tional Front leader Le Pen, Putin in­sisted that Russia has no in­ten­tion of med­dling in the French elec­tion and only wants to have a di­a­logue with a va­ri­ety of politi­cians. He praised Le Pen, say­ing she rep­re­sents part of a “quickly de­vel­op­ing spec­trum of Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal forces.”

Le Pen’s anti-im­mi­gra­tion and anti-EU plat­form ap­peals to the Krem­lin, which has pos­tured as a de­fender of con­ser­va­tive na­tional val­ues against Western glob­al­iza­tion. She also has called for strong se­cu­rity ties with Moscow to jointly com­bat rad­i­cal Is­lamic groups, promised to work to re­peal the EU sanc­tions on Moscow over its 2014 an­nex­a­tion of Ukraine’s Crimean Penin­sula and pledged to rec­og­nize Crimea as part of Russia if she’s elected.

“I long have spo­ken for Russia and France to re­store their cul­tural, eco­nomic and strate­gic ties, es­pe­cially now, when we face a se­ri­ous ter­ror threat,” Le Pen told Putin on Fri­day. The meet­ing was a sur­prise ad­di­tion to her meet­ing with Rus­sian law­mak­ers, which was an­nounced ear­lier this week.

A Russia-friendly ap­proach to geopol­i­tics runs in the Le Pen fam­ily. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Na­tional Front’s co-founder, his daugh­ter Ma­rine and her niece Mar­ion Marechal-Le Pen have all made nu­mer­ous vis­its to Moscow over the years.

Le Pen her­self has re­peat­edly vis­ited Russia, and her party bor­rowed 9 mil­lion euros in 2014 from the small First Czech Rus­sian Bank, but the bank’s li­cense was later re­voked.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dis­missed the prospect that Rus­sian banks could of­fer Le Pen more loans to help fund her cam­paign.

Polls show Le Pen as the likely win­ner of the first round of France’s pres­i­den­tial vote on April 23, but in­di­cate that she would lose pres­i­den­tial runoff on May 7 to cen­trist in­de­pen­dent can­di­date Em­manuel Macron.

Once con­sid­ered the front-run­ner in the French race, con­ser­va­tive can­di­date Fran­cois Fil­lon has fallen be­hind Le Pen and Macron af­ter fac­ing pre­lim­i­nary charges in a probe of tax­payer-funded jobs his wife and chil­dren re­ceived but al­legedly never per­formed.

Over the years, Putin has fre­quently met with Fil­lon, the French prime min­is­ter from 2007 to 2012. An un­con­firmed re­port this week said Fil­lon was paid $54,000 to ar­range a meet­ing be­tween Putin and a Le­banese mag­nate, a claim re­jected by the Krem­lin as “fake news.” Fil­lon also called it a “shame­ful lie.”

Rus­sian state-con­trolled tele­vi­sion sta­tions and other me­dia have of­fered ex­ten­sive, friendly cov­er­age of Le Pen and Fil­lon while cast­ing Macron in a more neg­a­tive light, pre­sent­ing him as a pup­pet of out­go­ing So­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV / SPUT­NIK

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin shakes hands with French far-right pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ma­rine Le Pen in the Krem­lin in Moscow on Fri­day. Le Pen has made mul­ti­ple vis­its to Russia.

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