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Marine Le Pen plays down her Russia ties ahead of election runoff

PARIS — French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said Wednesday that accusations she was close to Russia were “unfair,” and reiterated that she had changed her stance on the Kremlin since the war in Ukraine.

“The trial I am subjected to is particularly unfair,” the National Rally politician told a press conference in Paris, at which she set out her proposals on foreign policy ahead of an April 24 runoff vote against incumbent Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election.

“Until the triggering of the war in Ukraine, I actually believed that it was in the interest of France to have closer ties with Russia again, and … prevent Russia from building such a solid alliance with China,” Le Pen said.

But since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Le Pen has struggled to shake off the image of being a pro-Vladimir Putin candidate, despite her attempts to downplay her affinity toward the Russian leader and present herself as a more mainstream choice in the presidential race.

A longtime admirer of Putin, Le Pen visited the Kremlin in 2017, praised the Russian president’s “new vision” of the world, and accepted Russian loans to finance her party. Last month, Le Pen’s campaign team reportedly had to bin over a million campaign leaflets because they featured a photo of her shaking hands with Putin. Earlier in February, Le Pen said she did not believe “at all” that Russia would invade Ukraine, and condemned “a misunderstanding of the issues and thinking” in Russia.

She has since backtracked, admitting on television that the conflict had “changed her opinion” of Putin, and she has consistently condemned the invasion. Earlier this month, she called the reports of civilian massacres by Russian troops in Bucha “war crimes,” and called for a U.N.-led investigation.

On Wednesday, Le Pen said she had shared Macron’s desire to “tie up Russia to Europe again,” when he invited Putin to the Versailles Palace in 2017 and to his summer residence in Brégançon two years later.

She added that she is in favor of closer NATO-Russia ties “once the war between Russia and Ukraine is over and resolved with a peace treaty.”

Le Pen also argued that she was “independent” from any foreign power, and had secured a loan from a Russian bank “because I’ve never managed to obtain a loan either in France … until now … or in Europe.” She added that the party continues to pay back that loan.

During the press conference, Le Pen also played down her Euroskeptic stance.

“Nobody is against Europe,” she said, insisting that wanting to transform the EU was “to save it.”

“It’s the shape of it that makes us disagree,” she said.

However, Le Pen’s previous declarations on Europe include a proposal to renegotiate EU treaties and include the primacy of French law over EU law in the country’s constitution after holding a referendum.

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