Commentary | 13 May 2017

Russia's meddling in French elections dismissed with Gallic disdain

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review. Photo: Flickr/Mutualité Française. 


  • Alastair Davis

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review. Photo: Flickr/Mutualité Française. 


  • Alastair Davis

Two pivotal Western elections, two organised attempts to undermine faith in centrist candidates and the democratic process.

Last Friday, less than 48 hours before polls closed in the French presidential election, a "massive and coordinated" leak of documents from Emmanuel Macron's campaign spilled online. Suspicions immediately fell on the dark web of hackers supported by Moscow.

The following Tuesday, after congratulating Macron, President Donald Trump reignited the debate about his campaign's links to Russia when he fired the man leading the investigation into Russian involvement in the election, now-former FBI director James Comey.

Where alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election had a clear effect on the tenor of the campaign, attempts to manipulate the French run-off fell flat. President-elect Macron won with a strategy that learned from the mistakes made by Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016. In the United States, however, the fallout of the alleged intervention is still dominating the news cycle and casting a shadow over the Trump administration.

Last year's US presidential race was marked by a constant drip feed of leaks from the Clinton campaign. The leaks played to Trump's populist message, casting Clinton as a deceitful Washington elite. The Clinton campaign never found a winning strategy to combat this charge.

During the campaign, Trump encouraged the leakers. He repeatedly praised WikiLeaks, the distributor of Clinton campaign documents, and implored Russia to release Clinton's emails.

He may come to regret this. The aim of the leaks was not only to swing the election, but to erode trust in the electoral process and the eventual winner. Seven months on from the election, they are still succeeding.

Facing a similar intrusion, the French political system emerged comparatively unscathed. In fact, the leaks may have backfired, strengthening Macron's position. So why did France's experience differ so radically from America's?

Shrugged off

First, the attempted interference in the French election was far less successful because it was poorly executed. The timing of the leaks – just before the campaign blackout – prevented coverage by French media, which was already suspicious of false information from earlier campaign smears against Macron.

The leaks found little traction on social media. Alt-right campaigns spreading the leaks on French Twitter with English language hashtags were clumsy. An electorate wary of "fake news" questioned the motivations behind the #MacronLeaks hashtag more than the substance of the leaks themselves.

Second, unlike Clinton, Macron's lack of political baggage meant the leaks were less effective at exploiting a pre-existing negative perception. And in the campaign, Macron challenged Ms Le Pen's populist messages head on, calling out the inconsistencies in her arguments. "I'm sorry Madame Le Pen," he snapped in the presidential debate. "France deserves better than you."

Third, the Macron campaign, having seen the impact of the alleged Russian interference in the American election, was prepared. Campaign officials took countermeasures known as "cyber blurring", fooling attempted hacks by creating false email accounts and passwords.

While the French managed to quickly shake off the meddling in their election, the saga of Russian involvement with the Trump campaign continues.

Trump's firing of the FBI director seems likely to boost the attention on the Russia investigation, not bring it to a close.

Russia in the headlines

According to the New York Times, Comey was addressing FBI employees in Los Angeles when stories appeared on televisions in the room advising of Comey's dismissal. Comey initially thought it was a prank.

The extraordinary dismissal letters cited Comey's handling of the investigation into Clinton's emails as the reason for his removal. In October, Trump complimented Comey's decision to reopen the investigation, saying "it took a lot of guts".

Domestically, the outcome of Comey's dismissal will keep the Russia investigation in the headlines and bolster the calls for a special prosecutor. Internationally, it reinforces the Trump administration's perceived disdain for democratic values. It will concern European allies already nervous about Trump's intention to warm relations with Russia.

The operation to undermine the credibility of the winner of the 2016 election was a success. In attempting to deflect from the issue, the president has rejected the unanimous conclusion of the US intelligence community that Russia intervened in the election, accused his predecessor of wiretapping him and now fired the man leading the Russia investigation.

Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office on Thursday, who joked about the firing of Comey. The Russians may be smiling, but no one – not even President Trump, it turns out – benefits in the long term from external attempts to undermine faith in institutions and democratic leaders.

France and the United States offer diametrically opposed experiences in how to deal with foreign meddling.

The French public, media and politicians gave us a blueprint to resist foreign interventions into our elections. All it took was preparedness and some Gallic disdain.