Russia’s persistent interference and propaganda in French media

Since March, experts in Viginum’s Paris offices—the new state service tasked with monitoring and protecting France against foreign digital media interference—have had to deal with an incredible series of attacks and fake news propagated by Moscow and its influence outlets, a Mediapart investigation has revealed.

The French official services entrusted with monitoring it state that this onslaught of skewed and twisted ‘news’ encompasses all facets of Russia’s disinformation machine. It is consistent with the Russian services’ known intentions—to divide French opinion on the Russia-Ukraine war—and their typical procedures, as revealed in a large data leak known as the Kremlin Leaks.

A diplomat with knowledge of  these issues at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Mediapart that Russian propaganda has recently reached an industrial scale.

In February 2024, the domestic intelligence agency DGSI requested that the French police and gendarmes report even the “smallest signs” of Russian interference. The news agency AFP reported that the warning notice provided a series of examples of “subversive actions” that have already occurred in France and throughout Europe.

Numerous incidents appear to have resulted from the delivery of this declassified warning message to as many people inside the security and police services. The DGSI has accepted this but has declined to provide information on the number or nature of the incidents.

Russian DDoS attacks and French troop deployment propaganda

Vignium identified a significant cyberattack on the state’s inter-ministerial network, which connects governmental services. On March 10, a strange group of Sudanese hackers, speaking in Arabic and Russian, claimed this was a so-called distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, a method of overwhelming a server by sending it a huge number of simultaneous requests.

In the following days, Russian-speaking Telegram groups saturated the internet with fake news about the upcoming deployment of several thousand French troops to Ukraine. The items included out-of-context remarks from an interview with the French army’s Chief of Staff and a reportedly made video by the Ukrainian Azov Battalion urging French Foreign Legion members to join them. Viginum experts hardly had time to review this content before receiving calls from colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing them of a much larger problem.

Sergei Naryshkin, the chief of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, led a far more significant disinformation campaign than these officials had detected, the report says. Various media agencies, including the Russian state news agency Tass, picked up his remark that France was “preparing to send a contingent of two thousand soldiers to Ukraine.” The following day, another high-ranking official in Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chair of the Security Council and former prime minister, repeated this false information.

‘Tuberculosis threat from Ukraine’ disinformation

A week later, the French public radio network Radio France International found a bogus report circulating on Telegram, credited to the station and using its logo. On March 27, a Telegram report asserted that an “epidemic of Ukrainian tuberculosis was threatening France.” Disturbing news banners claim that Ukrainian soldiers receiving treatment in France introduced this infectious disease, which has already infected “85% of soldiers” and “at least 35 medical personnel.”

A few hours later, the Viginum team observed the appearance of a bogus website, ‘sengager-ukraine.fr’, purporting to be from the French army and saying that a campaign was underway to recruit individuals to fight in Ukraine. The analysts browsed through the pages: aside from a few oddities (such as this unusual reference: “Priority to immigrants”), it was quite well designed and replicated the look of “sengager.fr” (“sign up”), the French army’s official recruitment site.

The French authorities became the target of another pro-Russian disinformation campaign on April 3. Investigators from Viginum noticed that Russian-language Telegram groups were disseminating a fake document purportedly from Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, asserting that the government was reducing the requirements for obtaining refugee status in France for Ukrainians.

Ongoing Russian interference and European elections

The Russian propaganda machine also includes ‘cloning’ the websites of government ministries, French institutions, and major media outlets, as well as previously undetected hacking operations, sabotage of French IT and communications systems, and, in the most extreme cases, clandestine actions carried out on French territory to be posted online and cause discord.

Constance Le Grip, a Member of Parliament who previously served as the rapporteur for a commission investigating foreign influence in France in 2023, confirms the analysis. “As the European elections approach, Putin’s Russia is intensifying its interference,” she stated. The MP is not alone in believing that the June European Elections have become a priority target for Russia.

Some argue for a more comprehensive and methodical discussion of the threats, including within the French Parliament. According to a member of the National Assembly’s Defense Committee, there is “no specific awareness campaign for elected officials at the moment,” despite the current interference. “There are DGSI training sessions, but they are voluntary,” the committee member explains.

Counter-espionage experts also encouraged prospective MEPs to be cautious about their interactions in the coming weeks. “Some people believe that being able to spy on a future Member of the European Parliament could be useful,” said top public official Stéphane Bouillon, secretary-general for defense and national security, during a recent MPs hearing.

Identifying Russian propaganda 

When it comes to identifying and reacting to Russian disinformation strategies, the French government has a few options. One of the most radical solutions is for the president or ministers to publicly identify their culprits. Paris can direct Viginum to publicize its investigations into influence activities, identifying Russia as the orchestrator, to lend credibility to these accusations. This occurred recently.

The French foreign interference watchdog needs to carefully craft its public reports. So, when Viginum discovered a network of pro-Russian propaganda sites known as “Portal Kombat” in the winter of 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs collaborated with the Prime Minister’s office on how to publicize it.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended that Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné deliver the response during a meeting with his German and Polish counterparts. “Portal Kombat” has also targeted Poland and Germany, and the three countries are eager to present a united European face on these concerns. One critical distinction is that the three foreign ministers belong to different political factions in the European Parliament. This demonstrates, according to the diplomats involved, that the fight against Russian interference has become a “cross-party cause” at the European level.

When France wants to tone down the criticism, it can do so more subtly: carefully leak material acquired by its intelligence services about Moscow’s role to media outlets or NGOs in the hope that they will pick up or complete the story. Sometimes there is an added bonus: financial sanctions imposed by the US Treasury or the European Union on organizations or persons involved in these influence activities, as was the case in 2023 with a Moldova-based network. 

Intelligence services alone cannot secure these penalties. According to an unofficial convention, the EU requires credible and open-source material before imposing penalties on a corporation or people. The EU does not accept reports from the DGSI, but it has published investigations in the press.

Network of pro-Russian news websites in France

Insight News conducted a study in February-March that identified a network of news websites in Europe that propagate pro-Russian narratives, interconnected by quotations, hyperlinks, and user traffic. Among them are 60 dozen local French sites that either spread disinformation from the Kremlin’s state media or publish materials with narratives that fit Moscow’s agenda.

The identified network of websites disseminates negative materials against the political establishment in France and favorable materials about right-wing radical and Eurosceptic parties in the context of the European Parliament election campaign.

The websites on the list have different levels of bias, from constant criticism of the West, choosing only negative information about Ukraine and positive coverage of Russia, to spreading well-known Russian fakes and harsh Kremlin propaganda quoting Putin’s state media. 

Pro-Russian websites network in Europe that serves Russia’s information warfare

EU’s need to monitor pro-Russian website network

Recently, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen promised to fight back against Putin’s far-right “friends,” who, in her words, want to “steal the future of Europe.”

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned of threats from right-wing populists, speaking ahead of the European Parliament elections in June.

In these circumstances, experts, watchdogs, and EU states need to monitor websites spreading pro-Russian views, and readers should question such content because efforts that favor Russia in the information field in times of geopolitical confrontation play into the hands of the Putin regime and are detrimental to Europeans.

After all, Russia has shown that it is waging not only a war on the battlefield to destroy Ukraine but also an information war to break up a united Europe.

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