ANALYSIS: How serious is Russian interference and disinformation in France?

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: How serious is Russian interference and disinformation in France?
A city employee cleans the "Wall of the Righteous" (Mur des Justes) covered with Red hands graffiti outside the Shoah memorial in Paris, on May 14, 2024. (Photo by Antonin UTZ / AFP)

France's Europe minister says the country is being 'being pounded by Russian propaganda' while Emmanuel Macron has 'no doubt' that Russian disinformation campaigns are targeting the Olympics - so how serious is the threat of Russian interference in France? And is France being singled out for Kremlin-directed operations?


As the European elections and the Paris 2024 Olympic Games draw closer, France has been unafraid to point the finger at Moscow for an uptick in disinformation campaigns, with some involving actions on the ground in France.

In February, France's foreign minister Stéphane Séjourné addressed the public on X, calling for "the utmost vigilance" in the face of information attacks in the run-up to the European elections. "Each of our countries will be a target for foreign powers (...) let us not be deceived," he said.


In April, France's Minister Delegate for Europe told Ouest France that the country was "being pounded by propaganda from Vladimir Putin's Russia and its transmission channels."

Later that month, President Emmanuel Macron said that he had "no doubt" Russia was targeting the Paris Olympics including with disinformation.

Russia meddling in France is not new. During the 2017 presidential election, the hacking group 'Fancy Bear', which is associated with the Russian military, is thought to have leaked emails from the Macron campaign. Similarly, France accused Kremlin outlets of supporting the campaign of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. 

But watchdogs believe that the threat is intensifying.

"Russia is ramping up these malign campaigns against France, President (Emmanuel) Macron, the IOC, and the Paris Olympics," Clint Watts, general manager of the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center, wrote in a blog post on Sunday.

"While Russia has a decades-long history of targeting the Olympic Games, the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center has observed old tactics blending with artificial intelligence...that may intensify as the 2024 Paris opening ceremony approaches," he added.

In response, the Kremlin called the report "absolute slander". 

READ MORE: OPINION: France's European elections are more than a poll on Putin

The face of interference

Russian interference in France has spanned everything from deepfake videos, like the false documentary criticising the Olympics called 'Olympics has fallen' 'including an AI-generated impersonation of Tom Cruise, to fictitious news stories, including forged content meant to look like mainstream French media stories in order smear Macron. 

There have also been organised efforts online and especially via social media to amplify and create hysteria around real news stories - such as the problems with bedbugs in Paris. 


One key example of this was the circulation of two fake articles. They were made to look as if they had been published by the French regional news outlet La Montagne, but they actually originated elsewhere and claimed that sanctions against Russia were partially to blame for the bedbug scourge in France.

These fake articles were shared across social media, arguing that Russian chemicals were needed to create insecticides and disinfectants, but with the imports of these products banned due to sanctions, France was left without the means to get rid of the bugs. This is untrue, and sanctions have little role in the problems of bedbugs that are experienced by Paris and many other big cities.

READ MORE: France blames Russian disinformation for bedbug panic


But this is not just happening online, there have also been in-person incidents of sabotage which French authorities have blamed on foreign actors with links to Russia.

Most recently, five coffins were found near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, draped in French flags with the inscription "French soldiers in Ukraine" - it is now being investigated as a possible interference by a foreign power in French affairs.

Before that, French authorities told the public that Russia was involved in the red hand graffiti that was painted onto France's Holocaust Memorial, as well as the Star of David graffiti left on buildings in and around Paris in autumn 2024, shortly after the Hamas attack on October 7th. 

Russia's goal with such actions is "to destabilise and sow chaos in democracy, particularly among Ukraine's allies," according to disinformation expert David Colon, professor at Sciences Po and author of the book ‘La guerre de l'information’ (The information war).

Colon explained that this can be done by increasing existing divisions, but also by making France appear weak on the international stage.

"They are targeting the Olympics with disinformation to make people doubt France, to make them believe France is not capable of hosting such a large event," he said.

Nicolas Hénin, a former investigative journalist and current contributor to the (Mis)Translating Deceit project, told The Local that on a general level "France is targeted as part of a global effort by Russia to break the cohesion of Ukraine's allies."



Hénin explained that the recent sabotage operations echo Cold war tactics, when Soviet operatives drew pro-Nazi signs on the walls in West Germany, causing discord and panic among the Western countries.

"As for these recent incidents, I like to call them 'Flixbus operations', after the budget long-distance coach service that the perpetrators tried to escape France on. 

"They are truly hybrid operations, in the sense that they start in the real world and then move into the online space.

"We've also seen this hybrid strategy with people bringing fake signs to real demonstrations, then taking photos of the signs and spreading them via proxies and online echo-chambers. Some of these recent operations have generated enough publicity that they did not even needed to be shared online afterwards.


"The idea is the same as in the 1950s - to spark outrage, then from the outrage to cause or increase polarisation on topics related to international relations, nowadays being the wars in Gaza or Ukraine," Hénin said.

According Colon, another small difference is the profile of those involved in the recent hybrid actions.

"While it is not new that there is action in both the real and online world, what is new is that Russia worked with Moldovans (in the autumn) and Bulgarians (in the spring) to exclusively bring about these operations.

"This is related to the fact that there are fewer Russians in France. Following the start of the war in Ukraine, hundreds of Russian diplomats were expelled from Europe, and many of those engaged in spying under the guise of diplomacy," he explained.


Why is France a target?

France is a known ally of Ukraine, but in recent months the French president has doubled down on comments that he would not rule out sending troops to Ukraine, remarks that have angered the Kremlin.

Macron is also calling for the EU to scale up its defences, warning during a speech at La Sorbonne that "our Europe, today, is mortal and it can die" and course France is one of the key players within the EU.

But Hénin said: "France may also be a little more targeted than others because disinformation works.

"Cohesion here is not as strong as we wish (...) The rise of the far-right - and to some extent LFI (the left-wing party) - is a sign of a polarised society. When it comes to facing foreign interference, this is a particular vulnerability."

Colon also noted that "authorities were able to look at documents showing that the Kremlin sees France as a country that is particularly vulnerable to disinformation.

"This is partially because of the state of public opinion - as there are some French people who still have support for the Putin - and that there is a high level of mistrust or doubt in media. They see France as a country where it is easier than elsewhere to spread disinformation."

Is France more targeted than elsewhere?

To the average person, it may appear that France has been targeted to a greater extent than other Western allies of Ukraine, but experts are not so convinced. 

"I am not sure that France is more targeted than Germany, the UK, or even some central European countries, the notable difference is France's public transparency about Russian disinformation, and the steps taken to prevent it.

"Until recently, France was very cautious about making public information about the intelligence world - hacking, spying, etc," he said.

"This has changed because Macron directly attributes Russia's actions and uses them within domestic politics to show how the country, and himself, have been targeted.

"Attribution is a sensitive and dangerous game. If you make it with good arguments and foundation, evidence, then it is clearly powerful. But there are risks."

Hénin said there are two primary concerns, aside from the possibility that owning up to foreign interference could simply make the country look weak.

The first is that attribution "can trivialise and make foreign interference seem routine. Though, I would say the answer to that is that we ought to disregard small scale operations, or just sum them up in a quarterly report. 

"The second is the possibility of being incorrect. It's worth clarifying that there is no evidence any of the attributions so far have been false. It's fair for the government to continue doing this, but they need to be very careful.

"If you mistake one attribution then your credibility is seriously damaged and it will take a very long time to recover."

Who is winning the war of disinformation?

In addition to politicians calling out interference publicly, the French government has also taken administrative steps. For example, the creation of the government agency, VIGINUM, which is mandated to detect disinformation.

In February, the agency was able to expose a dormant network of 193 websites nicknamed 'Portal Kombat' that could be activated during election periods to spread pro-Russian news in several languages (French, English, Spanish and German).

To Hénin, this has been a success. "VIGINUM is a great initiative, and it really is working. Their limited mandate is a good thing - they have to focus only on foreign, online, impactful interference - if these conditions are not met, then they will not study the phenomenon."

Nevertheless, depending on who you ask, Russian interference has also been successful, though it can be difficult to quantify. "It's easy to divide the French public," Hénin said. 

"The next steps must involve preventive work to offer media literacy training for the general public, all without giving too much space or importance to our adversaries."

As for Colon, he recalled the success of disinformation regarding the Covid-19 vaccination, as well as the growing rates of QAnon followers in France.

"If you look back to the Star of David operation in the autumn, that sparked a huge debate amongst the French public. The Kremlin was able to accentuate existing division," Colon said.

"The real impact of disinformation is to break down social cohesion in democracies, accentuate division, decrease confidence in institutions, diminish our capacity to react in a unified way and ultimately to break down our ability to distinguish between true and fake."



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