That time Marine Le Pen visited Vladimir Putin

Was this the photo op heard ’round the world or a last minute campaign finance pitch? Possibly both.

With only a few weeks to go before the first round of the French presidential elections, National Front party candidate Marine Le Pen was not even in the country yesterday. Instead, she was in Russia being greeted by none other than Vladimir Putin himself. And what did they talk about? The usual stuff which world leaders bat around, like sanctions, trade and… (wait for it) the fact that Putin has no intention of interfering in the French elections. (The Guardian)

Vladimir Putin has received Marine Le Pen in the Kremlin in a surprise move likely to reignite fears in Europe about Russian support for the European far right.

Putin told Le Pen Russia had no intention of meddling in the French presidential elections, though the meeting is likely to send the opposite message.

“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,” said Putin.

It’s easy to read quite a bit more into this meeting than first meets the eye, and plenty of outlets (such as the Daily Beast) were quick to do so. And that’s not entirely without cause, either. Le Pen had originally just been invited by a Russian MP to some meetings with Parliament members, not a meeting with the big boss. But by the end of the day she was across a desk from Putin talking about the news of the world. It’s rather hard not to interpret this was a major gift from the Russian president to Le Pen, whether you want to call it “interfering” or something else.

Like most outsiders trying to break into top level politics anywhere, Le Pen has struggled to establish her foreign policy credentials. After all, not everyone from the private sector gets to sit down with world leaders. In that light this could be seen as a major endorsement, no matter what Putin says about it publicly. But that’s also something of a red herring which we see in American elections as well. These types of state sanctioned visits make for some good optics, but Le Pen doesn’t have any authority at this point to negotiate much of anything. In other words, the optics are pretty much the beginning and the end of it.

There’s one other possibility as to what was going on yesterday, though. It’s been reported that Marine Le Pen had previously arranged for a significant loan to her campaign from Russian sources. It’s conceivable that she was there to discuss something similar as the race enters the final stretch and the meeting with Putin was just an unexpected bonus. So will it make any difference? During the first presidential debates last week, several of the candidates were taking an awfully Russia-friendly posture, including Le Pen. It may sound counterintuitive to American observers, but Russia could actually bit a bit more popular among the French than one might assume. There’s plenty of talk about ending EU sanctions against the Russians and softening their stance. And it sounds like if that’s what’s currently selling in France, Le Pen is ready to deliver. Of course, that would require actually winning the runoff election on May 17th, which is still widely seen as a steep hill for her to climb.

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