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Russia’s Presence in France Goes Deeper Than RT

Knobs, buttons, and monitors in a dark room
A program is mixed and edited at RT France in Paris on January 9, 2018. © Francois Mori/AP

It may not be as intense as its equivalent in the United States, but the debate unfolding in France over Moscow’s influence is nevertheless creating new fault lines within the country’s public opinion. Nowhere is this more easily found than the argument over the influence of Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin-backed media company, within French politics.

A petition in Le Monde, which was signed by multiple public figures and self-described Russia experts, for example, called for the French state agency that supervises the media to deny RT’s broadcasting license [link in French]. Other prominent intellectuals, meanwhile, have argued that the government cannot censor a media entity just because it considers its programming to be “biased.”

Yet Russia’s presence in France goes much deeper than RT. As I explain in “Russian Soft Power in France: Assessing Moscow’s Cultural and Business Para-diplomacy,” part of a project supported by the Open Society Foundations, the bonds between the two nations are longstanding and the result of real historical circumstances, genuine cultural affinities, and shared principles. While not exhaustive, the list below outlines five key ways, besides through RT, that Moscow seeks to brand itself as one of France’s privileged partners:

1. Through émigrés

Ever since the 1920s, when a flood of Russian émigrés who were fleeing the 1917 revolutions arrived in France, the Kremlin has sought to foster a community within the French political and cultural elite that could be sympathetic to Russian interests. Many of these émigrés and their descendants would become important figures within France’s cultural elite and business classes, often providing a link between French firms and Russian markets, and, more recently, urging French policymakers to lift sanctions leveled against Russia in the wake of its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

2. Through the far right and the mainstream right

While the National Front, France’s leading far-right party, has been connected to Russia for decades, it was only after Marine Le Pen became its leader in 2011, that the party established itself as the strongest pro-Russian voice within French politics. Yet it may be Moscow’s links with Les Républicains, France’s traditional center-right party, that are most important. There is a distinct pro-Russian bloc within Les Républicains—a bloc that includes former President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Prime Minister François Fillon, and a circle of foreign policy advisors seen as friendly to Russia.

3. Through the Russian Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church constitutes another important element of this Russian landscape in France. Through the 2007 canonic reconciliation between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, Russia was able to retake control of several Russian émigré parishes. However, it did not entirely succeed, and several parishes were able to remain independent, in particular those who put themselves under the Constantinople Patriarchate umbrella.

Overall, 2016 was a successful year for the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin, with the inauguration of a new Orthodox cathedral and cultural center in Paris, the largest in Europe. Its very existence is proof that Russia has chosen Paris to display its reasserted power in the heart of Western Europe.

4. Through France’s Catholic right

A new political and cultural realm in France that Russia has very recently succeeded in influencing is that of the French Catholic right. After being marginalized for decades, the resurgent Catholic right is a relatively new phenomenon in French politics—one that was given a significant boost during a 2013 campaign against same-sex marriage.

The Syrian civil war and refugee crisis has further cemented a bond between religious conservatives in Russia and France, who both have a history of depicting themselves as defenders of Eastern Christians, including those in Syria.

5. Through a shared interest in a politics of “sovereignty”

In both Russia and France, large segments of the public hold a worldview we might define as “sovereigntist.” In political terms, this is usually manifested as a desire to emphasize the interests of the nation-state over those of the European Union and other transnational bodies. In economic terms, it’s often seen in support of “protectionist,” rather than “globalist,” trade policy. And in cultural terms, it’s frequently associated with hostility toward immigrants and reverence for so-called traditional norms regarding gender relations and sexuality. While the French left is generally dismissive of these cultural anxieties, it can be sympathetic to the sovereigntist views on politics and economics that are so vocally championed by Moscow. 

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