The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a US think tank, reported last month that Russian and Chinese efforts to influence France’s information space ahead of the April presidential election are now in full swing. According to their report:
February 16, 2022 As France gears up for a presidential election in April, several foreign officials and state-sponsored media are promoting narratives in France’s public debate that are conducive to their foreign interests, sometimes to the detriment of French democracy. Since October 2021, the Alliance for Securing Democracy has monitored the French-language social media accounts of media outlets run by authoritarian states like Russia and China, as well as other foreign state-backed media. Five main findings came out of this monitoring exercise. […]
Over the past two months, the overwhelming majority of the most viewed, shared, and engaged-with content produced by Russia’s French-language state media outlets has focused on anti-vaccine and anti-public health messages. […] Russia’s French language state media have provided more coverage of Ukraine than French domestic media outlets. […] RT France’s influence in France is significant vis-à-vis other foreign state-funded outlets, yet it pales in comparison to RT Deutsch’s influence in Germany. […] For all the fears that China is emulating the Kremlin’s information manipulation playbook, Beijing’s efforts in France show that it still lags far behind Moscow in this domain. Whereas Russian state media seek to build an all-encompassing alternative worldview for its viewers, Chinese diplomats and state media mainly seek to shape French perceptions on relatively narrow issues like Xinjiang, Taiwan, and pandas.
Read the full report here.
The report concludes that Russia and China, along with a disparate group of other interested countries, have embedded their state media in the French landscape with varying levels of success and are using those outlets to promote their interests and worldview. While these efforts won’t determine the outcome, they do play a role in shaping voters’ perceptions.
This is not the first time foreign powers have tried to influence French presidential elections. During the 2017 elections, there was a coordinated attempt to undermine Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy, with a Russia-linked disinformation campaign of fake news spread by fake accounts and hacking and leaking of gigabytes of stolen data. There are no indications that Russia has conducted a similar disinformation campaign directed against Macron (or in support of any other politician) in this year’s presidential election. However, the French approach toward Russia has always been a large part of the presidential campaign, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced all candidates to clarify their positions on Russia. According to a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, the presidential candidates most supportive of Russia are far-right figures Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, whose granddaughter participated in a recent National Conservatism conference, the subject of a recent Global Influence Operations Report (GIOR) report on Russian influence. However, given the closures and other actions directed against Russian-backed media outlets in the west, how Russian influence strategies will develop in the future remains to be seen.
The GIOR has extensively covered French efforts to counter foreign influence operations. In November, we reported that the French government set up an office to counter foreign media manipulation ahead of the 2022 Presidential elections. We have also highlighted the role of lobby groups such as the France China Foundation used by China to foster elites sympathetic to the CCP and the role of far-right French politicians acting as pro-Russian political forces in France.