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Putin awaits return on Le Pen investment

Mikhail Klimentyev | TASS | Getty Images

Just hours before France's ill-tempered presidential debate on Wednesday, trolls and bots on Twitter began spreading unsubstantiated claims that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron had a secret offshore bank account.

Mr Macron's campaign immediately accused his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen of enjoying patronage from the masters of online dark arts — Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, previously accused of interfering in last year's US polls. For his part, Mr Putin has frequently said that Russia does not interfere in elections elsewhere.

Ahead of Sunday's run-off in France, there has been speculation about the extent of Mr Putin's influence. In Wednesday's debate, Mr Macron accused Ms Le Pen of being "subject to the diktats of Mr Putin".

Over the past several years, the Russian leader and the far-right politician, who share a similar nationalist outlook, have developed close ties. These links have been cemented by complex financial arrangements and overwhelmingly positive coverage of Ms Le Pen in the Russian state-backed media.

For the Russian leader, a victory for Ms Le Pen would offer an opportunity to sow dissent in the west. Mr Putin's backing has helped the French politician present herself as a global leader.

"We are being vigilant about any attempts by foreign powers to influence this election," said a senior French intelligence official. "It is clear that Russia is sympathetic to Le Pen in the election."

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Ms Le Pen's allies in the National Front and Moscow say that her ties to Russia and the support she enjoys there reflect a natural affinity with the Kremlin rather than any systematic or organised covert subversion campaign. "We share a similar vision of the world," says Bertrand Dutheil de La Rochère, an FN strategist.

These ties have become so close that Ms Le Pen met Mr Putin in a surprise visit to Moscow in March. Given that FN's other foreign allies are limited to fellow far-right parties, this was seen as a coup for the French politician.

Florian Philippot, Ms Le Pen's deputy, said the meeting proved Ms Le Pen was a "global politician".

Her links with the Russian leader date back to 2011, when she took over the party from her father Jean-Marie. Until then, the FN had an informal alliance with far-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As part of her efforts to detoxify the party, she sought to build a relationship with Mr Putin's ostensibly more centrist United Russia.

This relationship was largely limited to sporadic visits until 2014, when Ms Le Pen backed Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

"Mr Putin is a patriot," she said, endorsing Russia's claim to the territory and calling for western sanctions to be lifted. At the same time the party — perennially short of cash as French banks refuse to lend to them because they fear the reputational risk — secured a €9.4m loan from the Moscow-based First Czech-Russian Bank.

Text messages between Russian officials — leaked online and seen by the FT — appeared to indicate that the loan's approval was a gesture of thanks from the Kremlin for her support. Ms Le Pen has called those claims "outrageous and offensive".

The fate of the loan has been unclear since last year, when Russia's central bank shut down the First Czech-Russian Bank, citing fake accounting and a Rbs26.5bn ($463m) hole in its balance sheet. Prosecutors filed criminal charges after the central bank accused executives of using the temporary moratorium period commonly imposed on troubled lenders by Russian regulators to strip the bank's assets.

Roman Popov — the bank's owner and a former manager at Stroytransgaz, a company owned by Gennady Timchenko, one of Mr Putin's closest friends — did not respond to requests for comment. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing. During the moratorium period, the bank sold the FN loan to Konti, a near-bankrupt car rental company about which almost nothing is known.

There is no reply at Konti's legal address, an apartment in a drab pre-fab block on the outskirts of Moscow. The company is one of 977 others registered in the apartment.

A neighbour told the Financial Times that a young couple lived in the apartment with a school-age daughter. The FN says it is paying interest on the loan into an escrow account until arbitration proceedings over the loan conclude. In the interim, it has sought loans from other, even more obscure Russian banks, according to Mediapart, a French news site.

Still the majority of Russians favour Ms Le Pen in Sunday's run-off vote. An estimated 61 per cent support her against 8 per cent for Mr Macron, according to a survey by state-run pollster Vtsiom published on Tuesday. That in part reflects the support Ms Le Pen enjoys on Russian state television. Journalists praise her for wanting to strengthen her ties with Moscow, while portraying Mr Macron as a possibly gay puppet of the "demons of globalisation" eager to set up a "one-world government".

For Russian envoy Konstantin Malofeev, who is under western sanctions over his role in the war in Ukraine, the affinity between the two politicians speaks to the appeal of Mr Putin's opposition to western liberalism.

"Russia has basically picked up the banner that France held during the Middle Ages, or Spain — of the protector of faith," he said. "That's why conservative forces from all countries are turning towards Russia."