As soon as Emmanuel Macron swept home to an enormous victory in the French presidential election in early May, analysts predicted that Russia’s propaganda and alleged hacking interference in his campaign had backfired, turning a relatively moderate candidate into a president with a grudge.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s first meeting with Macron, in Versailles palace today, showed they weren’t wrong. When asked at a joint press conference why he had banned Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik from attending events towards the end of his campaign, Macron pulled no punches (link in French), saying, “I’ve always had exemplary relations with foreign journalists, for as long as they are journalists,” he said. “Let’s tell things like they are: Russia Today and Sputnik didn’t behave like organs of the press and journalists, they behaved like organs of influence and mendacious propaganda.”
The body language of the two leaders during and after Macron’s comments is worth watching, even for non-French speakers:
With Putin stony-faced and shifting uncomfortably next to him, Macron added: “It was serious that these foreign press organs—under whatever influence there may have been, I don’t know—interfered by reporting serious falsehoods in a democratic campaign. I will give no ground at all to that.” The allegedly Kremlin-linked disinformation campaign against Macron veered from Sputnik saying that Macron was rumored to be gay and having a secret affair, to a trove of Macron’s campaign emails being published online, with false documents reportedly mixed among them on May 5, two days before the vote.
While they pledged to work together on Syria, the disinformation campaign wasn’t the only sticking point in the pair’s meeting. Macron also said he had pressed Putin on the torture and murders of gay men in Chechnya, on the crackdown on NGOs in Russia, and of the need to de-escalate violence in Ukraine.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin “does not agree” with Macron’s characterization of RT and Sputnik. The Russian outlets previously accused Macron’s decision to ban them as being an attack on free speech.