The French far-right leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has been forced to defend her links to Vladimir Putin after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Le Pen, who polls suggest will face Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the vote in April, has faced criticism after a campaign leaflet featuring a photograph of her with the Russian leader was released.
Her Rassemblement National (RN) party, denied it had ordered local party offices to destroy the document after 1.2m copies were printed and distributed last month.
A section of the eight-page campaign pamphlet highlights Le Pen’s international status, featuring photographs of her with world leaders, including Putin. It is still available on Le Pen’s campaign website.
Le Pen traveled to Moscow where she met the Russian president in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election. In October 2014, the far-right party, then called the Front National, borrowed €9m from a Russian bank to finance its election campaigns.
Le Pen has criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the pamphlet does not appear to have damaged her popularity. One recent opinion poll, by Ifop-Fiducial for Paris Match, suggests she has gained one percentage point, taking her to 17%, her highest score for a fortnight. That is well behind Macron on 28% but ahead of her rightwing rivals, Eric Zemmour and the mainstream opposition Les Républicains candidate, Valérie Pécresse, on 13%
Libération reported that local party officers had been ordered to destroy the pamphlet, but the RN has denied giving any such order. “The document is still being distributed by our activists,” David Rachline, the RN vice-president, said.
A party official said the RN would not be back-pedaling. “We are not going to deny our position on international politics. In 2017, we had to work with Russia to combat Islamic state … no major issue can have a lasting solution without the cooperation of at least the security council,” the official told BFMTV.
He added the party had been asked whether local campaigners should destroy the pamphlet after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but had told them “non”.
However, Le Pen told French media the war had “partly changed” her view of the Russian president. “Yes, it’s an authoritarian regime, historically and in culture. Even if we are judging (it) by our western norms, which are not Russian norms,” she told BFMTV.
She added the invasion of Ukraine was “a clear violation straight of international law and absolutely indefensible”.
“We can try to explain what can explain it, but we cannot in any way excuse this behaviour,” Le Pen said, adding that it was for Europe, not the US, to manage the situation. “Russia is a great power, a great nuclear power, and it’s on our continent so it’s for us to find solutions to live with it,” she said.
Of meeting the Russian president in 2017, she replied: “The Vladimir Putin of five years ago is not exactly that of today,” adding that he had “crossed a red line” in attacking Ukraine.
Zemmour, who has condemned the Russian invasion but said “if Putin is guilty, the west is responsible”, and also that France should not welcome Ukrainians fleeing the conflict but that they should stay in Poland, lost 2.5 percentage points in two days, according to the Ifop-Fiducial poll.
Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst and far-right specialist, told Ouest France that sympathy with Russia was more damaging for Zemmour because Le Pen’s view of Putin was already well known to her supporters.
“Le Pen can argue that she was obliged to take a €9m loan with a Russian bank because no French bank would lend her the money,” camus said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism