NANTERRE, France (AP) — French far-right leader Marine Le Pen had no plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin or his aides during Putin's visit to France, a top official of her National Front party said Monday.
Le Pen tweeted ahead of Putin's meeting at the Palace of Versailles with President Emmanuel Macron, her former campaign rival, she "rejoices that V. Putin is being welcomed to France. Our relations must be normalized."
Le Pen visited Putin in Moscow in March while running in France's presidential election, which she lost to Macron this month.
The secretary-general of Le Pen's National Front party, Nicolas Bay, said Monday that "of course" Le Pen's contacts with Russia continue and "there is no reason these contact wouldn't continue long-term." But they're "totally distinct from diplomatic contacts" of Macron and his government, Bay said.
"It is urgent to stop considering Russia as an enemy, as this is a country with whom we (France) have very strong ties that go way back," Bay said at a news conference at party headquarters outside Paris.
Putin said at a joint news conference with Macron that he had no reason to refuse a meeting with Le Pen, who had visited Moscow before and long worked to develop ties. But hosting the French nationalist at the Kremlin "doesn't mean we tried to influence the results of the election," the Russian leader said.
Le Pen is now seeking a seat in the National Assembly, one of 573 National Front candidates running in France's June 11 and 18 parliamentary elections, more than any other party, officials claim. The party hopes to form a strong group to counter Macron's policies.
However, the National Front may have to scale back those hopes. Le Pen's lopsided electoral defeat to Macron has left the party fragile and internal divisions have surfaced.
One of its two lawmakers, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a rising star, recently announced her departure from politics. Marine Le Pen's top lieutenant, Florian Philippot, has formed an association, The Patriots, that has ruffled feathers and raised questions about his intentions.
Le Pen denied in an interview Monday with RTL radio that the party was fractured and described Philippot's association as simply a "think tank."
"I don't envisage (his) departure," she said.