French Elections

Macron files lawsuit over offshore rumors spread by websites linked to Russia

French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron has accused websites linked to the Kremlin of attempting to undermine his campaign by spreading “fake news and lies” about alleged offshore accounts in the Caribbean. Macron isn’t just sounding off  — the pro-EU candidate filed a lawsuit Thursday against those spreading the misinformation.

Macron filed a complaint with prosecutors in Paris that accused unknown actors of “spreading false information” in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election. While his opponent Marine Le Pen isn’t mentioned by name, the lawsuit was filed a day after the far-right candidate accused Macron of having a secret bank account in the Bahamas during a live TV debate in advance of the Sunday election. Macron called the allegation as “defamation.”

Speaking on French radio Thursday, Macron called the allegations “fake news and lies,” and claimed that some of the sites repeating them were “linked to Russian interests.” Authorities in France and across Europe have repeatedly warned of disinformation campaigns directed by the Kremlin hitting key elections on the continent this year.

The fact that Le Pen is not named means that the lawsuit Macron filed will act as a warning to anyone thinking about repeating the rumor online, showing that the centrist candidate is willing to take anyone to court who spreads the story.

In an interview with BFM TV on Thursday, Le Pen backed away from the claims she made during the debate, saying she had no proof of the secret account, and if she had, she would have raised them with the court.

Macron extends lead

Despite Le Pen’s allegation – made during a debate watched by 16.5 million people – an opinion poll published Friday showed that Macron had extended his lead as the candidates entered the final day of campaigning ahead of a quiet day on Saturday.

The poll, conducted immediately after the debate, showed Macron on 62 percent compared to Le Pen’s 38 percent. Macron had slumped slightly to 59 percent in a previous poll, his lowest ranking in three months.

Another survey  suggested that many French voters were disillusioned with both candidates. This poll, carried out by the Odoxa Institute for France Info, says Sunday’s vote will have the lowest turnout of any second-round presidential election since 1969. Far-left voters — particularly those who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round — were particularly unlikely to vote.

Following the debate, both candidates received hostile receptions from the electorate, with Le Pen pelted with eggs as she visited a town in the western region of Brittany. Macron on the other hand was booed when he met with trade union members at a glassworks in Albi as a result of his plans to liberalise labor laws.

Russian influence

This is not the first time Russia has been accused of interfering with Macron’s campaign. Back in February, French authorities warned Russia not to interfere with the election after alleging that cyberattacks against Macron’s website were carried out by hackers linked to the Kremlin.

“This form of interference in French democratic life is unacceptable and I denounce it,” Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said at the time.

According to researchers monitoring the activity of pro-Kremlin accounts and blogs, the disinformation campaign in France didn’t kick into gear until January, when Francois Fillon’s campaign stumbled as a result of a corruption scandal — and Macron surged in the polls. The resulting efforts however were somewhat ham-fisted. “The disinformation machine tried to go from a car being in neutral to a car being in sixth gear, and it kind of stalled,” Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told VICE News.

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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