Russian President Vladimir Putin met with French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in Moscow today, telling the far-right politician she represents “a European force that is growing quickly.”
The news of the surprise visit was broken by state-sponsored television network Russia Today. According to its reports, Putin told Le Pen: “I know the presidential campaign is now in full swing in France, and in any case it is not my intention to influence the outcome.
“We reserve the right to communicate with all of the political forces in the country, in the same way that our European and American partners do.”
French foreign minister Jean Marc-Ayrault has threatened “retaliatory measures” if Russia interferes in the electoral process in favour of Le Pen, who is widely perceived to be the anti-European ‘chaos candidate’, and vows to recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea if elected.
The leader of France's National Front party also attended meetings at the lower house of Russian Parliament at the invitation of Leonid Slutsky, head of the its foreign affairs committee. She called for European sanctions to be lifted from Russia, and said Russia and France should share counter-terrorism intelligence information.
The National Front Treasurer Wallerand de Saint-Just says the visit has nothing to do with raising funds for Le Pen’s campaign, which received €9m (£7.8m) in funding from Czech-Russian Bank OOO in 2014.
Le Pen is expected to easily make it to the second round of voting on 7 May, as she is currently neck-and-neck in first round voting intentions with centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.
An unprecedented 43 per cent of French voters are still undecided, according to figures released today by polling agency Odoxa.