Russian Navalny accuses Le Pen of ties to Kremlin ahead of vote

PARIS — Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny weighed in on France’s tight presidential campaign on Wednesday, urging voters to back incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and alleging far-right challenger Marine Le Pen is too closely tied to Russia.

Questions about Le Pen’s ties to Moscow were raised during her presidential bid five years ago which she lost to Macron and they resurfaced amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. She noted that she had condemned the February 24 invasion “unambiguously”.

The tweet from Navalny’s team, hours before a final debate between the two candidates, threatened Le Pen’s relatively smooth ride into Sunday’s second round against Macron.

During the debate, Macron attacked Le Pen as dependent on Russia, which he described as “your banker”.

Le Pen bristled at the suggestion that she is beholden to the Kremlin, saying she was “totally free”.

Earlier in the campaign, she had dismissed questions about the loan to her party from the National Front, renamed National Rally. The bank has since been dissolved.

Navalny, who is Putin’s main internal enemy, said in the long thread in French that he wanted to talk to Le Pen supporters about corruption in Russia and how it has tainted banks like the FCRB.

“This bank is a well-known money laundering agency created at the instigation of Putin,” Navalny tweeted, although he cited no evidence other than his own investigations into corruption in Russia. “It’s selling political influence to Putin.”

A 2019 study by the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund found that the FCRB bank had been “a key cog in Moscow’s attempt to swing political competitions in the abroad – and how this bank has sought to use existing campaign finance loopholes to achieve political ends.

Le Pen’s anti-immigration party was at the center of the study, saying the bank had been implicated in being a “vehicle for money laundering by corrupt elites on a large scale”. He also cited “Russian state-sanctioned interference in the Western political system” in the form of a loan to the National Front.

Le Pen said his party went to the FCRB after French and European banks refused to lend him money. The loan has dogged the far-right party for years, as well as its ties to Putin. A photo of the two encounters in 2017 was posted on social media by his opponents during the campaign.

At a press conference ahead of Navalny’s tweets, Le Pen again defended herself against suspicions of being beholden to the Kremlin. She told reporters earlier this month that she did not believe the FCRB was under orders from Russian leaders.

She added that her party is still repaying the loan, without specifying who the creditors are.

She said the loan was not a favored deal.

“This loan did not come with a favorable interest rate. He was signed at 6%,” she said.

“I am, of course, available to any bank, American, South American, that would like to take over this loan,” she said.

In a search at the French banking establishment, she added: “If a French bank wants to buy this loan, it would, of course, be on the same conditions, very advantageous conditions for the bank.”

French law now prohibits loans to political parties from non-EU countries, and Le Pen’s National Rally has taken out a loan from a bank in Hungary, headed by Viktor Orban, an ally of Le Pen.

Navalny was sentenced last month to nine years in prison for fraud and contempt of court, in addition to a two-and-a-half-year sentence for what he says were politically motivated convictions. The 45-year-old activist, imprisoned in a penal colony east of Moscow, survived poisoning with a nerve agent in 2020 that he blames on the Kremlin.

Over the past year, Putin has cracked down on opposition figures like Navalny, as well as his supporters, other activists and independent journalists in an effort to stifle dissent.

Navalny’s team has stepped up its efforts to exert international pressure on Putin, speaking in EU halls and calling for sanctions against Moscow.

Russia has fascinated the Le Pen family for generations, starting with Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and co-founder of the former National Front. Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal, a far-right politician, has visited Russia, and Marine Le Pen has visited Russia several times, but only met Putin once.

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John Leicester and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

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