From Russia with rubles

Madame Le Pen, when you talk to Russia, you are talking to your banker,” quipped Emmanuel Macron on April 20th, during the only debate between candidates for the French presidency. Macron’s statement caused shockwaves in international and French media. (Isn’t it illegal for a political party to receive foreign funding, you might ask? In France, it is not).

Yet the fact that Russia has funded Le Pen’s party―as well as other right-wing political parties in Europe―is hardly a secret. For years, feminist, human rights and LGBTQ rights groups have been documenting and pointing to the ties of money and influence that bind far-right actors in Europe to Russia, to little avail. What counts as news has changed since Russia’s horrific assault on Ukraine.

This was the second time Marine Le Pen had made it to the second round of the presidential election, and the third time her extreme right-wing party, the Rassemblement National (RN), formerly the Front National (FN), did. In the end, Macron won with 58.5% of the votes cast, but Le Pen’s score was the best showing by the far right, a troubling sign.

It was a choice between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

Macron disappointed many who had hoped he would govern from the center and uphold human rights and women’s rights. But electing Le Pen would have been catastrophic. Le Pen's campaign plan made clear that her government would have expelled (Black and brown) immigrants en masse and denied them public housing, healthcare and other benefits; allowed police to operate with impunity by granting them in law a “presumption of legitimate defense” for any action they took; rapidly packed courts with unqualified judges; surveilled school teachers to ensure they remained “neutral” in the classroom, i.e. did not mention LGBTQ persons or racism; enhanced the already high state surveillance of Muslim organizations, and forbade Muslim women from wearing scarves in public. (And yes, if much of this sounds very similar to what Republicans in the United States are doing or planning to do, it is from the same far-right playbook.)

What has Russia’s financial support of the FN/RN bought Vladimir Putin? In foreign affairs, Le Pen would once again have pulled France out of the integrated command of NATO (France was out from 1966 to 2009) and would have sought a strategic rapprochement between Russia and NATO. She would have limited France’s military support to Ukraine, and blocked further sanctions against Russia. Did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cause her to rethink her positions? Not in the least. The only sign the war caused her some political embarrassment was her recent claim that she has always favored “equidistance” between Russia and the United States. That, of course, is not the case.

Le Pen has openly described her feelings for Putin as a “form of admiration.” She has been a frequent guest of the Kremlin and its high-level entourage―visiting Russia in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. Her June 2013 trip, an official visit, even included a quick side trip to Crimea, a few months before Russia invaded and annexed it. During that trip, Le Pen proclaimed that she was “the only one in France who supports Russia,” and that she and Russia share common values, including opposition to same-sex marriage, and to “any intervention in Syria.”

Marine Le Pen visiting Crimea in June 2013, not long before it was annexed by Russia. The Soviet-era cap appears prophetic.

In March 2014, Le Pen publicly expressed her support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and for the illegal and irregular referendum organized by Russia to formalize its takeover of this region of Ukraine. (For context, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which oversees elections, did not send election monitors to watch this sham referendum, and the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to condemn it.)

Le Pen’s support was obviously important to Moscow, because the RN secured Russian loans totaling 11 million euros a few months later, in the fall of 2014. Le Pen’s close advisers visited the Donbas in 2015 and 2016, where they expressed support for Russia’s attempted military takeover of that region of Eastern Ukraine.

Le Pen was back in Russia in March 2017, just before those French presidential elections, this time for an official visit with Putin. During her trip, Le Pen stated that her “point of view on Ukraine aligned with that of Russia” and that EU sanctions against Russia were “blackmail” and “diplomacy by threats.” She stated that a “new world order” was coming, with Putin and Trump at the helm of their countries, and she on the verge of being elected. (In the January 2022 Famous Feminist Newsletter, Sonia Correa and I discussed how a “new world order” is how Russian neo-fascist writer Aleksander Dugin and Trump adviser Steve Bannon describe their authoritarian, racist, sexist and homophobic politics.)

Le Pen at her headquarters in France in 2017, admiring a portrait of herself between Putin and Trump; it was given to her by Russian right-wing nationalist Maria Katasonova.

Photos of her shaking hands with Putin were meant to enhance her national and international profile.

Le Pen with Putin in Moscow during her 2017 visit. This photo was used in her 2017 Presidential campaign materials.

In her allegiance to Putin, Le Pen is more fervent than even the most right-wing European parties. Earlier this year, in January 2022, Le Pen refused to sign on to a statement criticizing Russia’s ominous military maneuvers on the borders of Ukraine, a statement that other extreme right-wing European parties had drafted at a summit they held in Madrid.

The RN is not the only European far-right political party to benefit from Russia’s financial largesse. Italy’s Lega Party, Austria’s Freedom Party and several Slovak politicians have also been publicly implicated in shady funding deals with Russia. These deals have bought Russia support in the European Parliament at key moments, including over Crimea and Donbas, and has created turmoil and disunity within the EU, a key strategic objective for Putin.

Russian funding has also been a reward, as extensively documented by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, for these parties’ ideological alignment with the ultra-conservative thinking that is central to Putin’s agenda: “Statements from Moscow suggest Russia’s war with Ukraine is, at least in part, a war over rights. In early March [2022], Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close ally of Putin, claimed the invasion was necessary because of Ukraine’s acceptance of Western liberal values, including by holding gay pride parades.”

Russian billionaires close to the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church have been key players in the meetings of right-wing politicians and conservative religious and socially prominent figures that are held regularly in Europe. These meetings focus on so-called traditional values, such as the protection of the “Christian family,” and the denunciation of the “homosexual lobby.” One of these meetings, on the pro-natalist theme of “The Multi-Child Family and the Future of Humanity,” took place in September 2014 at the State Kremlin Palace and featured a prominent advisor to Le Pen, as well as leading members of the Austrian Freedom Party. Another one, held the same year in Vienna and entitled “Holy Alliance,” included Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal, as well as Aleksander Dugin.

In 2021, an exhaustive report by the European Parliamentary Forum found Russian actors donated a staggering $188 million to European “anti-gender” lobbyists between 2009 and 2018, more than twice what US Christian right-wing groups spent in Europe for similar aims over the same period. One of the main recipients of these funds is the Spanish group CitizenGo, whose noxious anti-abortion activities in Kenya I described in our March 2022 Famous Feminist Newsletter.

Follow the rubles…!

In feminist solidarity,