French far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s visit to Moscow on March 24 went a whole lot better than her New York trip in January.
On that occasion, she was left stranded at the bottom of Trump Tower, drinking an awkward coffee in its cafe without being invited up to meet then-US president-elect Donald Trump. This time, however, she not only snagged a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, but got a hero’s welcome at the country’s parliament.
Waiting with a bunch of Le Pen’s signature blue roses was Maria Katasonova—a smoldering 21-year-old Russian nationalist who somehow manages her time between working for a high-ranking politician, heading up a “Women for Marine” movement, studying law, and being part of a patriotic artists’ collective.
Katasonova, an aide to Evgeny Fedorov, a hardline Duma member in Putin’s party, is emblematic of Putin’s push to realign the world away from globalized liberal democracy to one run by fellow hardliners who share his transactional view of international relations. The Kremlin supported Trump’s candidacy through a hacking and propaganda campaign, according to US intelligence agencies, and the attention has now turned to the two rounds of French elections in April and May.
Le Pen’s leading opponent, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, has claimed there have been Russian hacking attempts on his campaign’s emails. Le Pen has in the past received millions of euros worth of loans from Russian banks. (She reportedly said that no talk of Russian funding came up in her meeting with Putin.)
As the French campaign heats up, Le Pen has been showered with praise on Russian TV, and been an inspiration for nationalist artists. The art group White Star (of which Katasonova is a member) produced an eye-catching triptych of Putin, Le Pen and Trump that was plastered across the internet, and which Katasonova used as part of her unsuccessful campaign for election to Russia’s parliament with the far-right Rodina party. Another member of White Star, Nikolai Shmatko, has made busts of Trump and Le Pen and said that he plans to give her the sculpture if and when she becomes president.
Katasonova, as befits her age, is an internet native. Her Instagram feed is a well-curated assemblage of leaders she admires, political events, tableaux of Moscow life, cat pictures, and sultry portraits of Katasonova herself. She responded within seconds to an interview request sent via Twitter, where she has nearly 29,000 followers.
She explained that her rationale for supporting Le Pen comes straight out of a Kremlin playbook that has long railed against America’s dominion over international relations. “We have the chance now to change the whole configuration of global politics, and that’s what Marine is pushing for…nothing good will come of us acting like globalists,” she said. “Marine will stand up for her country’s interests but she also understands that the world is multipolar and that you need to have a dialogue with different countries.”
“Putin, Trump and Le Pen all stand up for their countries’ interests but they understand very well that cooperation and dialogue with each other’s countries can correct the mistakes that the Obama-Merkel-Hollande axis made—really serious mistakes like allowing for terrorism, an economic crisis, and a refugee crisis,” said Katasonova. “They can fix all that.”
She branded the election of Le Pen, who wants France to leave the EU, as crucial for the future of Europe. “With her as president of France, the EU can escape the crisis it finds itself in,” she said, though she refused to say whether she wanted the EU to fall apart altogether. (Le Pen has promised a French referendum on leaving the union if she’s elected.) The bloc has proven a thorn in Putin’s side, particularly over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, for which it hit Russia with sanctions that have hurt the country’s economy; Le Pen has promised to put an end to the sanctions.
Although her fan group emphasizes female support for Le Pen, Katasonova isn’t feminist, at least not in the Western understanding of the term. She insisted that there are many female politicians “worthy of respect” in Russia’s heavily male-dominated political landscape, but refused to name any because she didn’t want to “divide politics between men and women.”
Similarly, she brushed off suggestions that Trump is sexist. “I don’t know Trump personally,” she deadpanned when asked what she thinks of his attitude towards women. When asked directly about his notorious Access Hollywood tape, Katasonova replied: “I’m not interested in who said what, when and where. What someone says in private doesn’t necessarily reflect their politics, and if you look at American citizens, Trump was supported by a huge number of women.”
The Kremlin has long had a reputation for allegedly funding cut-outs to play these kind of civil society cheerleading roles. Katasonova insisted that she is working entirely in her free time and with her own funds, and just wants to do her bit to help Le Pen to victory. “I’m sure she will win in both the first and second rounds,” she said.