Since the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Moscow waged an influence campaign targeting the 2016 U.S. elections, experts have asked: Will it do the same in the French and German elections? Both votes will have an enormous impact on the future of Europe and the liberal order, and much is weighing on whether these democracies are adequately shielded from outside manipulation.
In fact, Moscow has already interfered in French elections. In 1974, the KGB launched a covert propaganda campaign to discredit both François Mitterrand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Overtly, Moscow courted Giscard, to an extent that papers such as the right-wing L’Aurore condemned it as an “intolerable” insertion into French domestic politics. Correspondents interpreted the move as “open intervention in national politics.”
Today, Moscow is dusting off the KGB’s favored subversive toolbox — dubbed “active measures” — but with a technological upgrade for the internet era. The U.S. election showed cyberattacks have become the new weapon of choice in political influencing. When it became clear that the digital fingerprints of Fancy Bear — the perpetrator of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) hack that stymied Hillary Clinton’s campaign — were found on a cyberattack that paralyzed the French channel TV5 Monde back in 2015, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian insisted that France take seriously the possibility of similar efforts aimed at the French elections. Anything else would be “naïve,” he said.
The French Network and Information Security Agency (ANSSI), generally responsible for protecting government and key industries from cyberattacks, has since offered a cybersecurity awareness-raising seminar for political parties — all parties accepted, save for the far-right National Front. President François Hollande, as part of a renewed focus on cybersecurity, ordered a “mobilization of all the means necessary” to face down cyberattacks and cautioned Russia against its use of Soviet-inspired influencing measures.
In response to “fake news,” civil society has taken the lead, with prominent newspapers such as Le Monde launching platforms that verify the reliability of a piece of information’s source. Government bodies have also done their part. The French polling commission, for instance, issued a warning against polls deemed illegitimate under French law, after Kremlin-controlled news outlet Sputnik pushed out polls that showed François Fillon, a Russia-friendly candidate, to be in the lead.
The level of awareness — based on lessons learned from the U.S. elections — France has given the issue may be half the battle. But Moscow’s influence in France runs deeper than electoral politics. Unlike in the contentious U.S.-Russia relationship, a shared history has afforded Moscow allies across the French political spectrum, from the left — dating back to the decisive role the Communists played in the French resistance — to the right, where business interests and conservative values make for common cause with the Kremlin. Three out of the four candidates leading the polls promote friendly relations with Moscow. And Emmanuel Macron can hardly be considered a Russia hawk.
Nonetheless, France’s defenses seem to be holding — or perhaps the big bad wolf of Russian influence is not as strong as Putin would like his adversaries to think. Emmanuel Macron, the front-runner most vocally critical of Moscow, has faced the bulk of cyber and propaganda attacks. But claims the centrist candidate is a “U.S. agent” or funded by Saudi Arabia have not stuck. His campaign manager has denounced such reports as well as the “hundreds, if not thousands” of cyberattacks originating in Russia and targeting the campaign’s databases. But none of these have induced a meltdown comparable to the hacks that plagued Clinton’s campaign — a sign, perhaps, that it pays to take cybersecurity seriously.
The French vote will be a litmus test of whether political foresight and defensive measures can help shield elections from outside influence in a globalized, information-era world — an especially important lesson ahead of elections in Berlin this fall. As technologies make covert political influence and overt misinformation campaigns easier, democracies will have to adapt to a new way of doing business so they don’t find themselves, as they say in France, dans la merde.
Laura Daniels is a fellow at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales in Paris and the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.