MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin made his preferences in the French presidential election clear Friday by hosting far-right candidate Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin, but analysts are skeptical about Russia's ability to sway the outcome of the vote.
Embracing Le Pen is part of Russia's efforts to reach out to nationalist and anti-globalist forces to build up its influence in the West and help overcome the strains in relations with the U.S. and the European Union.
Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential vote has emboldened the Kremlin, even though the ongoing U.S. Congressional scrutiny of his campaign ties with Russia has all but dashed Moscow's hopes for a quick detente. U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Moscow of hacking to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
During Friday's meeting with National Front leader Le Pen, Putin insisted that Russia has no intention of meddling in the French election and only wants to have a dialogue with a variety of politicians. He praised Le Pen, saying she represents part of a "quickly developing spectrum of European political forces."
Le Pen's anti-immigration and anti-EU platform appeals to the Kremlin, which has postured as a defender of conservative national values against Western globalization. She also has called for strong security ties with Moscow to jointly combat radical Islamic groups, promised to work to repeal the EU sanctions on Moscow over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and pledged to recognize Crimea as part of Russia if she's elected.
"I long have spoken for Russia and France to restore their cultural, economic and strategic ties, especially now, when we face a serious terror threat," Le Pen told Putin on Friday. The meeting was a surprise addition to her meeting with Russian lawmakers, which was announced earlier this week.
A Russia-friendly approach to geopolitics runs in the Le Pen family. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front's co-founder, his daughter Marine and her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen have all made numerous visits to Moscow over the years.
Le Pen herself has repeatedly visited Russia, and her party borrowed 9 million euros in 2014 from the small First Czech Russian Bank, but the bank's license was later revoked.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the prospect that Russian banks could offer Le Pen more loans to help fund her campaign.
Polls show Le Pen as the likely winner of the first round of France's presidential vote on April 23, but indicate that she would lose presidential runoff on May 7 to centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Once considered the front-runner in the French race, conservative candidate Francois Fillon has fallen behind Le Pen and Macron after facing preliminary charges in a probe of taxpayer-funded jobs his wife and children received but allegedly never performed.
Over the years, Putin has frequently met with Fillon, the French prime minister from 2007-2012. An unconfirmed report this week said Fillon was paid 50,000 euros ($54,000) to arrange a meeting between Putin and a Lebanese magnate, a claim rejected by the Kremlin as "fake news." Fillon also called it a "shameful lie."
Russian state-controlled television stations and other media have offered extensive, friendly coverage of Le Pen and Fillon while casting Macron in a more negative light, presenting him as a puppet of outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande.
Fillon on Thursday claimed that Hollande was manipulating the French justice system to discredit political rivals — a charge that Hollande vigorously denied.
Dmitry Kiselyov, the anchor of the main weekly news program on Russian state TV, has echoed that theme, saying that the French judiciary was working "as swiftly as a guillotine during the bloody French Revolution" to undermine Fillon and Le Pen.
Le Pen is also facing legal investigations around party finances.
"There is an impression that they are bluntly clearing the political field for Emmanuel Macron, the project of Francois Hollande," Kiselyov said,
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political strategist who consulted for Kremlin in the past, said the coverage of the French campaign by Russian television stations reflects Putin's view that nationalist forces will increasingly shape the global agenda.
"The Kremlin keeps persuading itself and the population that it is right, its policy is shaping the future and its vision of the world will win," he said. "The Kremlin has made more than one bet (in the French vote), but the question is if these bets are real. I believe it's a delusion."
While Russian TV stations use the French election to buttress the Kremlin view of the world in domestic public opinion, Moscow appears to have little ability to influence the French agenda.
The Russian state-run Sputnik news agency and the TV network RT have French-language websites, but they are mostly aimed at those who already have a pro-Russia worldview. It's unclear if they have any impact on a broader French audience.
"It is clear that at the moment the direct audience for Russian media in France is very marginal," said Christophe Deloire, head of Reporters Without Borders media rights watchdog.
He added, however, that Russian influence via social media networks could be more difficult to measure.
Macron's aides claimed in February that Russian groups were interfering with his campaign soon after a spike in social media claims that Macron is gay.
The married Macron denied the claims and within days his campaign officials blamed Russian media and Russian hackers for attempting to sway the French election, but did not provide proof of Russian hacking.
Macron's cybersecurity chief Mounir Mahjoubi told The Associated Press at the time that his campaign website was briefly knocked offline but that hackers had failed to "open the door" to its databases. He said the campaign registered thousands of attempted attacks from an IP address in Ukraine suspected to be part of a coordinated campaign from Russia.
Maria Katasonova, a pro-Kremlin political activist who admires Le Pen, dismissed talk about alleged Russian meddling in the French vote as "utterly stupid."
"We have seen how intensively they have played the Russian theme in the U.S. presidential campaign, and we now can see Le Pen's rivals trying to exploit this theme in the French campaign," she said. "We are witnessing an agony of the liberal clans after Trump's victory in the U.S., and we are seeing them publicly declaring a war on Marine Le Pen."
Elaine Ganley and Jeff Schaeffer in Paris, James Heintz and Iulia Subbotovska in Moscow contributed to this report.