During Vladimir Putin’s visit to France last week, President Emmanuel Macron said they had a “frank exchange” on issues like Syria and Ukraine, but the two said they did not privately discuss reports of Russian meddling in last month’s French elections, including an 11th-hour cyberattack on Macron’s campaign.
“Mr. President hasn’t expressed any interest in this, and from my side, what is there to discuss?” Putin replied when asked about those suspicions on Monday at a joint news conference in Versailles. “I think that the subject doesn’t exist.” Macron said he had already raised the issue when Putin called to congratulate him on his victory. But then the French president laid into Russia, accusing it of spreading misinformation and propaganda through “agents of influence,” including two state-owned news networks, Russia Today and Sputnik.
“So we are going to say things frankly, but Russia Today and Sputnik did not behave as press organs and journalists,” Macron said. “But they behaved as organs of influence and propaganda, no more no less.” His campaign accused Russia of spreading false claims that, for instance, he had a gay lover and an offshore bank account. The efforts ultimately failed to derail Macron, who easily beat pro-Kremlin candidate Marine Le Pen in the May 7 runoff. “I will never give in to that,” he said. “Never.”
Putin looked icy and uncomfortable, occasionally looking down at his notes or his shoes. “Haven’t seen him that angry since Le Pen debate,” tweeted Sophie Pedder, the Economist‘s Paris bureau chief.
During their meeting, Macron also warned Putin that chemical weapons in Syria were a “red line” for France, and that he would continue to monitor civil rights violations of gay and transgender people in Chechnya.
Putin brushed off the hacking allegations, which echo those made by U.S. intelligence officials after the U.S. elections. “Actions cannot be based on hunches, hunches that are moreover unconfirmed,” Putin said. Just because he had supported Mr Macron’s far-right rival during the campaign, he said, “doesn’t mean we tried to influence the results of elections; indeed, it’s almost impossible.” Cybersecurity experts—including those from Russia-based Kaspersky labs—say otherwise, and warn that amid upcoming elections in Germany and the U.K., Russia’s hacking and digital influence operations aren’t slowing down.