French Susceptibility to Russian Propaganda
"There are Always Two Sides to the Truth"
There are many reasons why France has become a key target of Moscow’s soft power in recent years. These include the country’s diplomatic weight and influence on European politics but also its deep currents of anti-Americanism and anti-globalization. Despite the French population’s largely negative view of Russia, Moscow has always had friends in the French political elite.
This text continues a series of articles edited by Stefan Meister exploring Russia’s use of instruments of hybrid warfare.
Underlying the growing tensions between Russia and the West is an imbalance of power. Moscow’s sense that it is being humiliated by the Americans and Europeans, rather than being taken seriously, has led it to adopt an aggressive, defensive attitude. In order to protect itself against what it perceives as pressure from the West and to respond with its own means, the Kremlin resolved to undertake an active soft power campaign. It has waged this with renewed intensity since the beginning the Ukraine crisis and continues to expand its reach. The establishment of the international news agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) at the end of 2013 was a milestone on the path to this reconfiguration. The communication strategy developed by Moscow not only serves to convince the Russian population of Western “aggressiveness” and to persuade citizens to support Vladimir Putin and his policies. It is also intended to have an impact abroad – to “influence public opinion in other countries with targeted disinformation,” in the words of my DGAP colleagues Stefan Meister and Jana Puglierin. France, in particular, is affected by this “information war” and is perceived by Russia as playing a strategic role in it.
Old Propaganda, New Media
Part of Russian information warfare is an active and targeted media policy; profiting as it does from the power of new media, this policy has been called “more mendacious and more subtle” than it was during the Cold War. Online media are of key importance to Moscow’s communication strategy for making possible the instant circulation of Russian narratives among the general public. In France there are two main information portals that are supported by Russia and aim to provide a supposedly alternative view on international politics and call into question the news coverage of Western mainstream media. The first is Sputnik (formerly RIA Novosti), which was established in January 2015 with the claim that it “says what others are silent about.” The second, simply known by the initials RT (formerly Russia Today), alleges to provide “an alternative perspective on major global events, and acquaints an international audience with the Russian viewpoint.” The French online television broadcaster ProRussia.tv, active between 2012 and 2014 under the direction of Front National politician Gilles Arnaud, had a similar slogan “La vérité n’est jamais tout entière du même côté” (there are always two sides to the truth). ProRussia.tv was a private broadcaster that received important financial support from Moscow.
This communication strategy is also supported by think tanks that foster a degree of closeness with Russian politics, albeit without any verifiable ties to the Kremlin. Their objective is similar, except that rather than target the general public directly, they target opinion makers such as journalists and academics, who then contribute to public debate. The most prominent example in France is the Institut de la démocratie et de la coopération (Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, or IDC), founded in 2008 during the Georgia crisis. That crisis had been perceived by many in Russia as the “defeat of Russian hard power at the hands of the influential soft power of the West.” The Paris-based think tank is financed by anonymous private sponsors and regularly invites representatives of the Catholic and radical right to its conferences. It may not be directly concerned with Russian politics, but it deals with international topics that are of particular interest to Russia, such as Syria, Macedonia, and Ukraine, and it does so from a pro-Kremlin perspective, advocating for instance an international system “that respects the sovereignty of states and nations” and “a political order grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethics of both parts of Europe.” The IDC cultivates an image of itself as critical of NATO and the EU and supportive of a traditional set of values in line with the political elites of Russia. The influence at the institute of Russian media and pro-Russian opinion makers is hard to gauge, partly because the debate covers such a wide range of topics (questions of foreign policy, domestic policy, and social issues), and partly because the positions held are by no means unique to Russia but also have a hold in other ideological circles.
One thing, however, is certain: recent years have seen no clear improvement in Russia’s overall image in French society. Although Moscow invests many resources in cultivating its image abroad, France is among the countries with the most negative image of Russia worldwide. According to a poll carried out by the Pew Research Center in 39 countries in summer 2015, “anti-Russian sentiments” are widespread in the French population: 70 percent of respondents claim to have a “negative attitude” toward Russia – one percentage point more than in the German population and ten percentage points fewer than in the Polish population, where criticism of Russia is particularly vehement. Even more negative are the attitudes of the French respondents toward Vladimir Putin: 85 percent do not trust him. This figure is higher than in Germany (76 percent) and resembles the extent of dislike in Poland (86 percent) and Ukraine (84 percent). According to another poll published in January 2014, the French regard Putin as “cold” (85 percent), “dictatorial” (80 percent), “arrogant” (79 percent), “dangerous” (77 percent), and “unsympathetic and megalomaniac” (74 percent), but also – to name the only positively invested characteristic of the entire survey – “energetic” (72 percent). In the last years, moreover, his image seems to have worsened. The number of French people who have “no trust whatsoever” in Putin has risen sharply – from 38 percent in summer 2011 to 56 percent in spring 2015. Here it should be noted that the political preferences of the respondents do influence their assessment of Russian politics. To be sure, critics of Russia are in the majority in all the big parties, but supporters of the conservative party Les Républicains have a less negative attitude (67 percent) than respondents who are close to the Socialist party.