France’s Le Pen Rejects Accusations She Was Influenced by Putin

(Bloomberg) — French far-right leader Marine Le Pen said no foreign power has ever tried to influence her as she sought to shake off accusations that her party’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have influenced her policies.

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She also criticized previous governments in Paris for increasing economic reliance on Russia, including through energy company Engie SA’s participation in the construction of the controversial Nord Stream gas pipeline linking the country directly with Germany,

“I have never been the victim of any attempt to influence me, not even once,” she said at a parliamentary hearing on foreign political interference on Wednesday.

The investigating committee was set up last fall by Le Pen’s National Rally party in an effort to confront long-standing criticism over its ties to Russia that resurfaced after the invasion of Ukraine, just weeks before last year’s French presidential election. It’s spearheaded by one of her most prominent lieutenants, Jean-Philippe Tanguy.

The party has been battling accusations of financial links to the Kremlin since it took out a loan worth some €9.5 million ($10.2 million) from First Czech Russian Bank in 2014 that was taken over by Moscow-based aeronautics firm Aviazapchast JSC in 2016. Le Pen said French banks didn’t want to do business at the time with her party, then called the National Front, due to concerns over damage to their brands.

No Strings

“I signed a loan with a bank, not with Vladimir Putin, otherwise you’ve all signed a loan with Macron,” she told lawmakers in a reference to the French president.

She added that Russia used to be a member of the Council of Europe and that she wouldn’t have agreed to borrow money if there were strings attached.

Banks outside the European Union have been banned from financing French political parties since 2017. Last year, Le Pen obtained a €10.6 million loan from a Hungarian bank owned by an ally of Orban, the EU leader with the closest ties to Putin.

Le Pen’s connections to Russia have hindered her efforts to form an alliance in the European Parliament as some far-right leaders in Italy and Poland have adopted critical stances toward Moscow and are wary about being closer to her. She previously said Crimea was never Ukrainian and opposed sanctions against Russia over the peninsula. On Wednesday, she said it became Russian after a referendum was held there.

Le Pen has also expressed admiration for Putin, whom she visited in Moscow just weeks before the 2017 French election.

In the past, she has called NATO, which the Russian president has sought to blame for his invasion of Ukraine, a “warmonger” organization and said France should leave its command structure. In April last year, she called for a rapprochement between the military alliance and Russia once the war ends, saying a strategic partnership would help prevent ties between Russia and China from deepening.

To be sure, a pro-Russia sentiment traditionally transcends party politics in France and dates back to at least the 19th century, when Paris struck a political and military pact with the Russian empire. President Emmanuel Macron has been criticized by Eastern European allies for trying to keep communication lines open with the Kremlin and for saying Russia shouldn’t be humiliated in resolving the conflict in Ukraine. Le Pen has said Putin crossed a “red line.”

Le Pen’s star has been rising in recent months, according to opinion polls, just as Macron’s popularity has been hit by his decision to push through an increase in the retirement age despite months of widespread protests and strikes. Macron won’t be allowed to run for a third consecutive mandate in 2027, when Le Pen is expected to make her fourth bid for the presidency.

Earlier this month, the investigating committee held a hearing with former conservative prime minister and presidential candidate Francois Fillon. He also denied he was the subject of attempts to influence him and added that he was free to “sell potted meat on Red Square” if he wanted. He is a former board member at Russian petrochemical group Sibur Holding and state-controlled oil company Zarubezhbneft.

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