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4 May 2023

The French right can’t quit Russia

A former prime minister’s parliamentary testimony highlights persistent pro-Moscow sympathies among France’s elite.

By Ido Vock

“I’ll lead my professional life how I wish,” François Fillon said defiantly on 2 May. “If I want to sell potted meat on Red Square, I’ll sell potted meat on Red Square.”

In front of a parliamentary committee examining the “political, economic and financial influences of foreign powers” in French politics, the former prime minister was defiant about his close links to the Russian state and business worlds. During a grilling over more than two hours Fillon, who was prime minister from 2007 to 2012 when Nicolas Sarkozy was president, repeatedly denied any impropriety in his business ties to Russia, formed after he ran unsuccessfully in the 2017 presidential election as a candidate for the right-wing Republicans. In 2021, Fillon was named to the boards of two Russian businesses, the petrochemical company Sibur and the state-owned oil giant Zarubezhneft.

Sibur is owned by Gennady Timchenko, a Russian-Armenian-Finnish oligarch. Timchenko – one of Russia’s richest men – is believed to be a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin and was sanctioned by the US and UK in 2014 and 2022.

Fillon’s links to Russia have proved a persistent embarrassment to his party and the French elite. As late as 24 February 2022, the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he was publicly deploring “the refusal of Westerners to consider Russian concerns over Nato expansion”, adding that “the outline of an agreement will need to be found because we live on the same continent [as Russia]”. Facing mounting pressure from the public and his party, Fillon resigned from his positions on the boards of Sibur and Zarubezhneft a day later.

[See also: Is Emmanuel Macron running out of options?]

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In front of the parliamentary committee on 2 May, Fillon maintained that there was nothing improper about his business dealings. He insists that he became a private citizen in 2017 when he left public life after more than two decades in parliament and as a minister, and as such he is entitled to conduct his personal business dealings as he sees fit. “No trace of connections to foreign influence will be found [during this investigation],” he told the committee. “I did not receive one cent from Russia [during his private-sector activities], nor did a single euro of my campaign finances originate from these activities.”

If there is meddling from outside powers in France, it is not coming from Russia, Fillon insisted. “I did encounter foreign influences, yes. Most of the time, they were coming from a friendly and allied country named the United States,” he said. “Along with Sarkozy, I was spied on for over five years by the [US] National Security Agency.”

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Fillon added that Russia may be the victim of a “black and white” worldview casting it as exclusively evil in Western countries. Corruption in Russia is significant but “no higher than in other countries with equivalent regimes”, he said. (Transparency International ranks Russia the 137th most corrupt country in the world out of 180, with a score of 28/100 in 2022.)

The former prime minister frequently seemed to echo pro-Russian narratives. “The Chinese regime is far harsher… and represents a greater threat to the world economy and to our influence in the world than Russia,” Fillon said. For that matter, he argued, what of “immense American hypocrisy” and the West’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, surely not a “democratic country”?

[See also: What is happening to the French right?]

The parliamentary committee on “foreign powers” was established in 2022 by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN), which is keen to rid itself of longstanding associations with Russia, which notoriously offered the party a €9.4m loan in 2014. But embarrassingly for the far-right party, the commission has heard testimony from several figures highlighting its continued links to Russia. The RN MEPs Thierry Mariani and Jean-Luc Schaffhauser have both testified, with Mariani facing accusations of corruption linked to the Franco-Russian Dialogue lobby group and Schaffhauser being questioned over the 2014 loan. The hearings passed without major scandal, although they did underline Mariani’s persistent Russian sympathies, with his arguments frequently echoing Moscow’s talking points.

Most saliently, Jean-Maurice Ripert, the French ambassador to Russia between 2013 and 2017, told the committee in March that “representatives of the former National Front party [today the RN]” visited Moscow seeking financing for their party. In September 2022, Ripert said during a TV interview that “nobody was unaware that a certain number of men and women in French politics of a certain political persuasion” came to Moscow and “did not leave empty-handed”.

Constance Le Grip, the committee’s rapporteur from Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party, has highlighted that “the most salient point” remains “the strategy of influence and interference between Russia and the RN”. She accused the far-right party of using the commission as a “diversion” to distract from its own links to Russia.

The committee hearings are proving embarrassing for all of France’s right-wing parties, which had until the invasion of Ukraine cultivated varying degrees of proximity to Moscow. Even after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia was viewed by parts of the French right wing as a bulwark against excessive social liberalism and an American-dominated global order. While transparently meant to be self-serving for the RN, the committee on foreign influence has demonstrated that open sympathy for Russia remains a potent force in French politics, even after the invasion that is still reshaping Europe.

[See also: France pension reform: Emmanuel Macron has no regrets]

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