On Sunday, April 10, French voters will choose which two of the 12 presidential candidates will proceed to the second-round runoff. Most polls predict incumbent Emmanuel Macron to come in first, with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen or far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in second place. However, the race remains relatively open, and unexpectedly high or low voter turnout could create an upset.
With the first-round days away, now is a good time to look at where various foreign actors’ influence efforts stand. After monitoring several foreign states’ French-language diplomatic and state media accounts on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook for the past six months, ASD found the following:
RT France and Sputnik France were by far the most successful foreign state media operating in France in late 2021 and early 2022. Their content on anti-sanitary measures garnered a large audience on all monitored platforms, and they seemed destined to play a significant role in the presidential campaign. However, the EU’s restrictions on RT France and Sputnik in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have considerably reduced both outlets’ reach in France. Without the two media outlets, the Russian Embassy in Paris has attempted to fill the gap, with some success when it comes to promoting Russian narratives about the war in Ukraine in France. However, the embassy’s clearly attributable statements cannot substitute for state media outlets whose Russian affiliation went unnoticed to a large part of the French public. As a result, outside of its relentless information manipulation attempts around the war in Ukraine, Russia’s influence on French public debate ahead of the election’s first round is relatively modest.
The Chinese Embassy in Paris and its “wolf warrior” ambassador have a history of confrontation with French authorities, most notably over accusations published by the embassy during the covid-19 crisis. In addition, Chinese state media outlet CGTN Français has a large, but—based on engagement metrics—exceptionally inactive, following on Facebook. In March, both the Chinese Embassy and CGTN Français have stepped up their support of Russian talking points about the war in Ukraine, with the Chinese Embassy amplifying its Russian counterpart’s conspiracy theories surrounding the killings in Bucha. However, Chinese diplomats and state media’s messaging in France has focused on international affairs, and their limited coverage of domestic politics is factual.
Other State Actors
Qatar funds the youth-oriented Al-Jazeera spin-off AJ+ Français. The outlet focuses on domestic French stories that involve the country’s (mis)treatment of minorities. While the individual stories it shares are factually correct, on aggregate they portray France and Western democracies in general as systemically racist and anti-Muslim. The anti-West defiance AJ+ fosters with its readers was particularly apparent in late March when one of the outlet’s popular YouTube shows ran a segment about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s success in rallying support for Ukraine. Many viewers accused the presenter of pro-Western bias. The following week, the same YouTube show focused on how Russian President Vladimir Putin “trapped” Europe, and this episode became AJ+ Français’ most viewed video in 2022. A similar phenomenon is at work in the outlet’s coverage of the French presidential race. While its content warning about the dangers of far-right candidates is similar to what can be found in French media, AJ+ Français also uses the rise of the far-right to discredit French media and institutions.
Election Integrity Questions
For now, the most direct attack on the election comes from domestic actors. For several weeks, narratives about irregularities in the voting process have been circulating in small conspiracy communities and are occasionally relayed by fringe political figures with large social media followings. These narratives remain marginal but are now finding some echo with at least one presidential candidate, Éric Zemmour. It remains to be seen whether more voices, domestic or foreign, will converge to question the voting process’ integrity after the first round.
Compared to the high degree of attempted foreign interference that characterized the 2017 French presidential election, the 2022 vote seems to have drawn less attention from autocratic actors, especially in Moscow. The war in Ukraine is the main topic on which Russian and Chinese voices are trying to shift the French public debate. However, foreign state-funded outlets like AJ+ continuously sap their viewers’ trust in the French state at large, while marginal but growing domestically-driven conspiracies are potentially laying the groundwork for actors—both foreign and domestic—to undermine the French public’s trust in the first round’s results.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.