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The Cable

Marine Le Pen Spends One of Her Last Weeks Campaigning for French Presidency in Chad and Russia

A busy week for Le Pen as she juggles offending Chadians and posing with Putin.

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The first round of voting in the French presidential election is a month away. It seems only natural, then, that Marine Le Pen, far-right presidential candidate and leader of the National Front Party, would spend this week in Chad and Russia.

If this timing doesn’t make sense to you, consider this: Le Pen is spending her time in Moscow speaking to a French expat community. No, no, just kidding — she met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said Russia has no intention of meddling in French elections, which should assuage everyone’s fears.

“We do not want to influence events in any way, but we retain the right to meet with all the different political forces, just like our European and American partners do,” Putin said. He added, “I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.” Mais oui.

Le Pen was in Russia at the invitation of Leonid Slutsky, head of the State Duma’s foreign affairs committee, who called her visit “courageous.” Presumably Slutsky also found it courageous that Le Pen told Duma spokesperson Vyacheslav Volodin that she is opposed to EU sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea (she finds them counterproductive).

Le Pen was allegedly at the Kremlin to see French Gothic art and to hold a press conference at the Russian parliament, but apparently those plans were scrapped and she met with Putin. Perhaps they just happened upon each other in the Kremlin. Quelle chance.

The visit comes amid speculation Le Pen may be seeking Russian money for her campaign. French law doesn’t bar foreigners from contributing in its political campaigns. A Len Pen campaign got an assist in 2014 in the form of a 9 million euro loan from Russia’s First Czech-Russia Bank. Her her party insists it has to look for foreign funding because French banks won’t give them loans.

On Friday, Russian newswire sent out notice that the Kremlin said Russian banks would fund Le Pen, further fanning the speculation. But shortly thereafter sent out a retraction. National Front treasurer Wallerand de Saint-Just said the trip is not for campaign fundraising, according to the Associated Press news agency.

Le Pen isn’t the only candidate who has taken Russian cash. Center-right candidate François Fillion, who has been dogged by corruption allegations in the race, took $50,000 to arrange a meeting between Putin and a Lebanese billionaire in 2015. Trés chic.

In contrast to her Russia visit, the impetus for the Chad trip seems more straightforward. Le Pen went to central Africa Wednesday to speak with some 3,000 French troops who are stationed in Chad on a counter-terrorism mission. “A trip to visit the troops…is a traditional thing to build up your commander-in-chief cred,” said Martin Michelot, a French election expert at Europeum Research Institute. He added Le Pen “enjoys a quite high level of support among the armed forces.”

But given her anti-immigrant views and record of defending French colonialism in Africa, the visit didn’t go down well with Chadians. (Though it didn’t stop Chad president Idriss Deby from meeting her.) During the visit she panned Francafrique, the loose web of relations France maintains with its former colonies, and the CFA franc, a currency former French colonies in Africa use that’s pegged to the Euro.

Her stance on Francafrique actually gained some traction among Africans, who see her protectionism and nationalism as a way of wresting their countries from French meddling. But those were overshadowed by accusations of Le Pen’s xenophobia and racism. (That’s a family affair: Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, rose to political prominence on the same controversial platforms of his daughter).

“The far right continues to promote the idea that if there are problems in France, it’s because of the foreigners, especially Africans,” a spokesperson for Chad’s opposition party Laring Baou told Deutsche Welle. “I remember her father’s words: ‘I like Africans — but only in Africa’.”

Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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