On April 24, French voters re-elected Emmanuel Macron for a second term as president of France. With the presidential election firmly in the rear-view mirror and with the French parliamentary elections still several weeks away, this piece assesses the extent to which foreign messengers influenced the presidential election and what it means for the prospect of foreign influence in the upcoming elections.
Since October 2021, the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s French Election Dashboard has collected data on French-language social media accounts of diplomats, government entities, and media outlets run by authoritarian states like Russia and China, other foreign state-backed media, and accounts connected to the main presidential candidates. Monitoring of the dashboard, coupled with analysis of the broader election campaign, contributed to five key findings:
1. Foreign autocratic interference harmed those it was meant to help.
During the post-first round debate between Macron and his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, the incumbent president used Russia’s interference in the 2017 French presidential race to attack his rival. In a show watched by millions of French voters, Macron highlighted the €4 million loan Le Pen received from a Russian bank with links to the Kremlin and accused her of being beholden to Russian interests. Throughout the campaign, the close ties between the far-right candidate and the Russian state were highlighted in the media and, despite her best efforts to distance herself from some of her previous pro-Kremlin positions, Le Pen was clearly weighed down rather than propped up by past Russian support.
2. EU sanctions debilitated Russian state media.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, RT France and Sputnik France were popular and influential media outlets in the French information landscape. Both outlets had garnered a sizeable audience thanks to their coverage of anti-establishment narratives, including support for the Yellow Vests movement and, more recently, opposition to sanitary measures. However, the sanctions the EU placed on Russian state media in early March 2022, as well as the restrictions implemented by information platforms, made both outlets inaccessible to the vast majority of French voters. As a result, RT France’s interactions on Facebook in April 2022 were only about 10 percent of its January 2022 totals. The decline in engagements was even steeper on Twitter. In January 2022, RT France’s Twitter account garnered over 70,000 likes and 38,000 retweets. In April 2022, its numbers had fallen to less than 7,000 likes and less than 2,000 retweets. And YouTube’s decision to remove all Russian state media channels from its platform deprived RT France of what had been one of its most effective vectors of dissemination.
3. Even diminished, Russian influence survived.
While the EU sanctions prevented RT France and Sputnik France from playing a significant role ahead of the presidential vote, the Kremlin’s narratives still found their way into the French public debate. In the absence of its state media megaphone, the Russian Embassy in France, which until the EU ban had largely used social media for benign diplomatic messaging, became an ardent defender of the Kremlin’s version of events about the war in Ukraine and delivered its alternative facts in an abrasive, and at times insulting, tone. The shift was so radical that French authorities summoned the Russian ambassador in March, and again in April 2022, over tweets posted by the embassy account. In addition to the embassy, former RT pundits and commentators continued to appear and those French pro-Russian voices have since been promoting Moscow’s line at the UN. Nevertheless, Russian messaging in France in March and April 2022 was reduced to relatively narrow talking points on the war in Ukraine that did not captivate French voters in the same way that RT or Sputnik’s all-encompassing societal critiques used to.
4. China played a limited role in shaping the debate.
Contrary to its Russian counterpart, the Chinese Embassy in Paris had a history of making controversial statements prior to 2022, most notably accusing staff in nursing homes of leaving their residents to die of hunger at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet Chinese diplomats and state media kept a relatively low profile during the French presidential race. The most salient instances of Chinese information manipulation in France in 2022 were related to the war in Ukraine. On several occasions, the Chinese embassy relayed its Russian counterpart’s conspiracy theories related to Ukraine, and French-language Chinese state media regularly amplified the Kremlin’s talking points about the war. But Chinese diplomats and state media shied away from domestic French political issues and did not comment on the divisive topics that had garnered the sanctioned Russian outlets a large audience. China also avoided denigrating or promoting specific candidates, even those with pro-Beijing views. For instance, despite far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s very outspoken defense of China’s stance vis-à-vis Taiwan, French-language Chinese state media only mentioned him twice in all of 2022.
5. Qatar is a significant player in France’s information space.
AJ+ Français is the French language arm of Qatari outlet Al Jazeera’s viral, youth-oriented spin-off. It has roughly the same following as RT France, with more than 146,000 followers on Twitter and almost 2 million followers on Facebook. During the 2022 presidential race, AJ+ Français concentrated on anti-racist and pro-minority stories and had a marked disdain for the two far-right candidates in the presidential race, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Its coverage of international affairs revolved around its ubiquitous pro-Palestinian reporting on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as frequent denunciations of colonialism’s dire legacy in Africa. AJ+ Français’ defense of oppressed groups both domestically and globally has allowed it to find an audience, especially among disenfranchised sections of the French public. And its video segments on topics like “Must the voting system be changed?” or “How do they manipulate the polls?” indicate its intention to shape this audience’s political awareness.
State-backed efforts to influence French voters were relatively benign compared to Russia’s hack-and-leak effort during the 2017 presidential election. EU sanctions neutered Russia’s highly successful state media outlets, and the negative public sentiment brought on by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine actively harmed the prospects of pro-Kremlin candidates. The impact of the Russian Embassy in Paris, former RT pundits, and French-language Chinese outlets and diplomats on the French public debate was largely confined to the promotion of pro-Kremlin talking points about the war in Ukraine. In contrast, AJ+ Français openly campaigned against far-right candidates and questioned the purpose and fairness of the democratic process. Given its significant presence on social media and its efforts to attract disenfranchised audiences (coupled with RT France and Sputnik France’s reduced capacity due to ongoing sanctions), the Qatari outlet is perhaps the foreign-funded French-language media outlet most worthy of attention ahead of June’s parliamentary elections.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.