Photo: Joel van Houdt
Text: Amie Ferris-Rotman
MOSCOW Feb 17, 2017
Russia ♥ Marine Le Pen
Russia is on a roll: Donald Trump is in the White House, the wheels of Brexit are in motion and the Kremlin’s Gallic target of affection — France’s Marine Le Pen — is riding high in the polls.
“We’re on the verge of a new global order,” said Maria Katasonova, the public face of a Russian campaign to back the National Front leader in the coming French election. “Marine will become president,” Katasonova predicted confidently, in an interview inside Russia’s
labyrinthine parliament, where the 21-year-old assists a hardline, high-ranking lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party.
As it did during the U.S. election, Russian state media is paying close attention to political events unfolding in France, aware of the country’s central role in gluing the EU together, especially after Brexit.
Le Pen is clearly the favorite, having won Russian hearts and minds by saying EU sanctions on Moscow over the Ukraine conflict
should be lifted and by publicly supporting the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Such sentiment, combined with the far-right politician’s election promise to take her country out of the European Union, is music to Russian ears. While the EU remains Russia’s largest trading partner, both Western and Russian insiders say the Kremlin is keen to see the bloc weakened.
On television and social media, the 48-year-old French politician receives near-constant adulation, and particularly dedicated fans
have created paintings and sculptures of her likeness.
Katasonova is among those who have caught Le Pen fever. In addition to the near-daily Le Pen tweets she sends to her tens of thousands of followers, Katasonova is planning pro-Le Pen gatherings in the lead-up to April 23, the first round of the French election, in which Le Pen is up against (among others) the independent and pro-EU Emmanuel Macron and the conservative Francois Fillon, who has been tainted by a scandal over
payments to his wife and children. Katasonova organized similar events in Moscow for Trump on election day and his inauguration.
“She’s a Euroskeptic, she supports Russia and she’s just the best candidate,” Katasonova said. “It’s hard not to love her.”
A ‘charismatic blonde’
On the social networking site VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook, fan clubs dedicated to Le Pen have mushroomed in recent months. In some she is described
as a “beauty” — others have developed punchy memes for the National Front leader. One group, self-described as a “conservative patriotic resource,” recently posted photographs of Le Pen throughout her childhood.
The state-run daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta said a recently released Le Pen campaign video resembled a Hollywood trailer and described the politician as a “charismatic blonde” who was a “beautiful girl” in her youth.
The English-language, Kremlin-
backed outlets RT and Sputnik have showered Le Pen with praise; state broadcaster Rossiya-24 offers more nuance yet clearly favors Le Pen, portraying her as an innocent surrounded by scandal and chaos.
“Le Pen’s philosophy and anti-globalist vision of the world is pretty similar to many people here,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “If she wins, it would be the end of European integration and a profound change across the entire system. It will become messy for the EU.”
A muse for political artists
The White Star art group, which pays homage to the Russian state but said it receives no Kremlin funding, even produced a “triptych” of oil paintings of Vladimir Putin, Le Pen and Trump. Identically dressed in black and white, their steely gazes turned to the right, the leaders appear to peer into the future. “Le Pen will help us fight terrorists. No one else in Europe is capable,” said Mikhail Kovalyov, a member of the art group, echoing Putin and Trump’s joint pledge to tackle terrorism.
When Le Pen’s niece and National Front party member Marion Maréchal-Le Pen visited Moscow in November, Katasonova presented her with a print of the triptych. “She loved it,” Katasonova gushes. That same week, Maréchal-Le Pen held talks with senior members of Russia’s parliament, including its first deputy chairman Alexander Zhukov. “You will push the French leadership in the right direction,” he told her at the meeting, according to official documents.
Maréchal-Le Pen also delivered a well-attended speech on Russia
and France’s “shared destiny” at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a prestigious school with ties to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
“Our triptych is an oracle,” Katasonova said. “Putin knew Trump would win. Now we’ll see with Le Pen.”
Admiration of Le Pen has found its expression in marble, too.
The Ukrainian sculptor Nikolai Shmatko, a fervent Trump supporter who has created several busts of the American president,
made a life-size bust of Le Pen in marble late last year. In stone, Le Pen has a slight curl to her lips. The French text beneath her face reads “Le Pen: The French president.” According to Shmatko’s Twitter feed, he designed the bust to garner support for the candidate, saying it was “God’s will” that she become president. He said he wants to give the bust to Le Pen when she wins the election.
As the French presidential campaign heats up, so do accusations that Russia has had a hand in Le Pen’s success in the
polls. RT and Sputnik have spread rumors about Macron being gay. This week Macron accused Russia of hacking his campaign — an accusation denied by the Kremlin.
Whatever the case, Le Pen clearly has powerful friends in Russia. Beset by financial woes, her campaign was able to borrow €11 million from a private Russian lender in 2014.
At the time, Russia’s Shaltai-Boltai, or Humpty-Dumpty, leaked messages that allegedly proved Le Pen received financing in return for recognizing Crimea as part of
Russia. Le Pen denied the accusations. The emails connected her to Putin enthusiast and internet personality Konstantin Rykov, who regularly tweets about Le Pen.
Katasonova will not say how many people belong to her pro-Le Pen collective, which includes the White Star art group, but admits Rykov is their de facto leader. “He was one of the first to say she’d win.”
Article originally published by Politico. To view original, click here.
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Amie Ferris-Rotman © 2015