The World

From Russia With Cash

France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen smiles before a meeting with the speaker of the Russian parliament Sergei Naryshkin during their meeting in Moscow on June 19, 2013. 


French President Francois Hollande announced on Tuesday that, due to the ongoing situation in Ukraine, France is indefinitely suspending the planned shipment of two Mistral-class helicopter carrier ships to Russia. The decision could be a costly one—Russia will likely sue over the breach of the $1.6 billion contract for the ships—but it still seems like a no-brainer that a European country shouldn’t be selling military hardware to Russia at the same time that Russia is under EU sanction for military activities.

Not everyone saw it that way. Marine Le Pen, whose far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party has had a remarkable run of electoral success lately, has staunchly opposed suspending the Mistral deal. Like a number of other far-right European leaders, she’s been a vocal supporter of Russia throughout the Ukraine crisis and blamed the EU for starting a “new Cold War.” She has also traveled to Moscow multiple times since taking over the party from her father in 2011.

Supporting Russia may have been good business for Le Pen’s party. The National Front is now facing criticism for a 9 million euro ($11.3 million) loan it received from the First Czech Russian Bank, an obscure Moscow institution owned by Roman Popov, described by EUObserver as a “financier with close ties to the Russian political establishment.”* The party denies that the loan came with any strings attached. It says it needs the money to cover its campaigning expenses for upcoming national elections in 2017 and it was refused loans from French and European banks. The National Front has only about a tenth of the annual cash inflows of the ruling Socialist Party.

Nonetheless, the whole thing looks pretty fishy given Le Pen’s cozy relationship with Russia, and it’s an odd investment for a financial institution with no ties to France that as of last year had assets of just $771 million.

There’s a history of this sort of thing in French politics. In 2013, prosecutors opened an investigation into reports that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government had funded former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. That year, Sarkozy invited the Libyan leader to Paris for a high-profile official visit, a move the prompted criticism, including within his own government. The investigation is still ongoing. Sarkozy has strongly denied the charge and the investigation, which at one point involved the former president’s phone being tapped, is still ongoing. 

Le Pen, who is leading in some recent presidential polls—as previously stated, the next election isn’t until 2017—probably won’t suffer too much from this. As Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg points out, “She has never made a secret of her support for Putin, and her voters won’t be scandalized.” But coming on the heels of accusations that an MEP from Hungary’s Jobbik party accepted money from Russian intelligence services, it will add to suspicions that the surging European far right is acting as the Kremlin’s mouthpiece within the EU.

Remarkably, the alleged National Front loan isn’t the most embarrassing story about a right-wing European party in the past few weeks. Britain’s UKIP has formed an alliance in the European Parliament with an MEP whose party leader uses racial slurs, justifies rape, and denies the Holocaust. His support will give UKIP’s grouping within the parliament the numbers it needs—25 MEPs from seven countries—to receive taxpayer funding. The alliance-of-convenience doesn’t seem to have bothered British voters, who gave UKIP its second member of parliament in a by-election.

*Correction, Nov. 26, 2014: This post originally misstated that the First Czech Russian Bank lent the National Front 9 billion euros. The bank lent the party 9 million euros.