A French-language version of this op-ed originally appeared in Le Monde on February 14, 2017.
The opponent of a right wing nationalist populist candidate is subject to Wikileaks attacks as a shill of the establishment. The nationalist populist candidate has an unprecedented closeness to Russia and has taken positions that warm the heart of Vladimir Putin. The Wikileaks attacks are designed to damage the candidate most strongly opposed to Russian interests and best able to fight the right wing nationalist candidate.
This was the scene in the United States a few months ago before our presidential election. And it could just as well be France today.
What is shocking is that France may not learn from America’s mistakes. We badly mishandled the Russian intervention in our election and my great hope is you don’t mishandle it in yours.
To refresh, the American intelligence community has confirmed that Russian hackers, at the direction of President Vladimir Putin, meddled in the U.S. election to hurt Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and help Donald Trump win. An unverified report claims that Putin possesses a dossier of embarrassing information he could use to blackmail President Trump. And hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest a president many consider illegitimate.
Given the narrow margin of Trump’s Electoral College victory—just under 80,000 votes across three states—Russia’s actions could have been the deciding factor. What that means for the strength of democracy should chill anyone. This is a case study in how a foreign power undermines a free and fair democratic election. And the people of France should take note—because you’re next on Russia’s list.
Putin’s successful attack on our democracy was not unilateral. He mobilized an unwitting but powerful ally—the American media. As stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign flooded the internet, American news outlets seized on every juicy tidbit. They published every private dig, every internal deliberation, every casual thought or candid observation. All with a sheen of the sinister, the two-faced, the betrayal. Emails were read out of context and provided the worse possible reading; ridiculous conspiracies popped up everywhere on the internet, most notably in the Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
Like a child in a candy store, American reporters and readers couldn’t resist the sweet gossip high. And some outlets have already started to acknowledge the role they played in Putin’s game. The New York Times even admitted to “becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.” (Of course, it did so only after the election.)
I take these attacks seriously because I was one of the many victims of the Russian hacking; my personal emails and information were laid bare for the world to see. But while Russia’s interference has fueled some belated debate in the United States, there has been little discussion about its role in upcoming elections—not just in America but in democracies around the world.
In France, Russia has shown clear support for Marine Le Pen and the National Front. A Moscow-based bank loaned the National Front 9 million euros in 2014, and Le Pen has sought millions more from Russian banks to help fund her presidential campaign. And French intelligence has now confirmed that Russia is backing Le Pen’s candidacy, just as they did with Donald Trump, by hacking thousands of documents from liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron and releasing them through Wikileaks.
To make matters worse, Russia has two friendly candidates in the race. In addition to Le Pen, Francois Fillon is a close friend to Vladimir Putin, and Russia has hedged its bets by supporting both candidates.
For her part, Le Pen has unapologetically promoted Putin’s worldview. She has called Russia’s annexation of Crimea “legitimate,” opposed sanctions punishing Russia for its aggression, blasted France’s alliances with NATO countries and the European Union, and promised to join forces with Trump and Putin if elected.
It doesn’t take a foreign policy expert to realize that Russia is using the exact same playbook it did to help elect Donald Trump. But rather than learning from what happened in the U.S., France is repeating our mistakes. Some French outlets are beginning to spread Russian propaganda about Macron, publishing stolen emails and documents with little discretion. Once more, journalists are becoming pawns in Putin’s plans to undermine Western democracies.
Coming on the heels of the U.S. election and the Brexit vote last year, these hacks represent just the latest attack by Russia, a non-democratic state, against the pillars of democracy—free and fair elections. And it won’t be the last. Even as Wikileaks hammers away at Macron, it has also trained its Russian-guided aim on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will stand for re-election in September.
The seriousness of what is happening cannot be overstated. That’s why French media and French citizens must be vigilant against such attacks. Unlike the American media, which was gleefully used as the tool of the Russians, the French media should be more discerning. First and foremost, French journalists should analyze the motives of the leaks and provide proper context.
Indeed, with just over two months left in the presidential election, French media must resist the temptation to become a mouthpiece for Russian intelligence. Newspapers must refuse to simply copy and paste every salacious but unsubstantial detail. Believers in the liberal democratic order must excoriate anyone who would use stolen data as a weapon in political campaigns, and must challenge anyone who would curry favor with brutal foreign leaders—no matter which party or candidate stands to benefit. Any campaign that would use stolen information as a weapon should be criticized, not championed.
Most important, the public must see these leaks for what they are. The attempt by foreign agents—likely the Russians—to install illiberal leaders in the halls European and American capitals.
America has fallen to such influence. Putin’s wish for a right wing nationalist ally in the United States has been realized. For the love of democracy, please ensure France is not next.