- French government is concerned with disinformation and influence operations, mostly from the perspective of dangers posed by Islamic propaganda.
- The topic of Russian meddling, influence on political parties and disinformation in the media has been raised in connection to the presidential elections.
- The elections have been accompanied by a high level of activity of civil society, mostly in the areas of debunking disinformation.
Relations with the Russian Federation
Trying to stay away from the issues. Historical, energy-related or economically special relations with Russia. Does not feel threatened and does not acknowledge the threat, outside of the conflict of Ukraine. France has taken a harsher tone with Russia after Russian influence in the French Presidential election.
Though traditionally friendly towards Russia, France’s stance grew chillier after the 2014 events in Ukraine. French politicians are not without allegations of financial or intelligence ties to Russia, even though the government’s stance suffered through a radical U-turn on Russia following the annexation of Crimea. France was one of the key countries to initiate the EU sanctions against Russia, but also one of the main countries to participate in negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, and pro-Russian separatists.
In 2014, France decided to call off a deal with Russia regarding a sale of Mistral warships. Facing other issues than Russia, France’s national security focus is less concerned with Russian threats to the EU bloc and more with terrorism. Meanwhile, eurosceptics and the far-right remain relatively popular, even with the alleged support by Russian intelligence. The main far-left party in France, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, is drawn towards Putin’s anti-Americanism and considers sanctions against Russia to be “illegal.”
Political acknowledgement of the threat
Even though the awareness of the threat which Russian hostile interference poses is rising in France, especially in connection with the recent elections with Russia being alleged of meddling into them, the country, which has recently suffered from several terrorist attacks, is more concerned with battling Islamic extremism and propaganda than with Russia. France is putting a lot of effort into fighting Islamic radicalism, it is in a state of emergency since the November 2015 Paris attacks and measures aimed at countering terrorism and radicalism are undertaken systematically.
The new French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a harsher stance against Russia than his predecessors. While Macron held a cautious view of Russia throughout the Presidential campaign, his view has hardened after the election. During a joint press conference with Putin, Macron called Sputnik and RT “organs of influence and propaganda.”
Government activities against Russian influence & disinformation
The French government has its own website targeted against Jihadist propaganda, its year-old Action Plan Against Radicalization and Terrorism mentions, among 79 other goals, that France should “continue to monitor, limit and obstruct all dissemination of extremist propaganda.” The French National Digital Security Strategy consider spreading disinformation and propaganda to be “an attack on defence and national security which is sanctioned by law.” Still, there are currently no publicly known measures aimed directly at countering Russian hostile activities.
Russian subversion may soon be dealt with more seriously in France with the newly elected president Emmanuel Macron, who experienced Russian meddling himself during his campaign, taking office. Macron’s official official foreign policy adviser recently said: “We will have a doctrine of retaliation when it comes to Russian cyber attacks or any other kind of attacks. This means we are ready to retaliate against cyber attacks — not only in kind but also with any other conventional measure or security tool.”
On 3 January 2018, President Macron proposed an anti-fake news election law, which would concern social media platforms, especially during election periods. In the case of fake news published during elections, an emergency legal action could allow French authorities to block the content or even the whole website. Moreover, websites would have to make their financing more transparent.
France is participating in the Finnish COE on Countering Hybrid Threats and has joined the NATO STRATCOM COE. It does not have a seconded national expert in EEAS East STRATCOM team. The French military is also participating in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Pressure in the Baltics.
The approach of intelligence agencies to Russian interference
The 2013 French White Paper on Defence and National Security does mention several threats posed by Russia, however, disinformation and influence operations are not one of them. Public documents of the intelligence committee and agencies (DGSE and DGSI) only mention Russia as a partner in fighting terrorism, since it is also a target of recruitment and disinformation by terrorist groups. French intelligence agencies warned that Russia would try to sway the 2017 Presidential elections towards Marine Le Pen. They also invited all political parties to be briefed on Russian cyberattacks.
Activities of the non-governmental sector
The topic of Russian activities in the cyber space is being dealt with by the French Institute of International Relations (Institut français des relations internationals, IFRI). Also, the EU Institute of Security Studies (EU ISS) resides in Paris and engage in issues such as Russian or Islamic propaganda and disinformation. One problem of the EU ISS is that it is not well known amongst EU member states and therefore it does not receive many tasks from them.
There are several important French experts on Russia – for example, the book of University of Rennes professor Cécile Vaissié “Russian network in France” received high praise. Regarding media, the topic of Russian propaganda and relations between the two countries is well covered in the liberal newspaper Le Monde or in the TV programme C dans l´air broadcasted on France5.
Le Monde has also launched a fake news checker called Decodex, which will allow users to check whether or not a website or Facebook page is reliable. It also comes in the form of a Firefox or Google Chrome extension.
In order to fight fake news in France, Facebook and Google joined the fact-checking initiative CrossCheck, which allows users to submit questions and gathers information provided by 16 French media outlets. In addition to that, Facebook decided to test its own fact-checking initiative in France – the social network’s users can flag information they suspect to be false and partnered media outlets will verify it. If at least two media sources label the information as false, the post will appear on Facebook with a banner signalling that its content has been disputed.
Media literacy and critical thinking in general are being taught in schools, and journalism departments at prestigious universities such as Sciences Po. or Sorbonne are engaging in this issue. However, a lot of absolvents of such prominent universities often start their career at, for example, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs impregnated with a positive stance on Russia, which is based on rich historical ties between the two countries.
 “How do European democracies react to Russian aggression”. European Values. 22 April 2017. Available at: http://www.europeanvalues.net/russia/
 Janda, Sharibzhanov, Terzi, Krejčí and Fišer: “How do European democracies react to Russian aggression?”. European Values Think-Tank. 22 April 2017. Available at: http://www.evropskehodnoty.cz/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/How-do-European-democracies-react-to-Russian-aggression-1.pdf
 “Stop-Djihadisme”. http://www.stop-djihadisme.gouv.fr/
 “Press Kit for the Action Plan Against Radicalization and Terrorism”. French Ministry of the Interior. http://www.interieur.gouv.fr/content/download/97869/767472/file/action-plan-against-radicalisation-and-terrorism.pdf
 “French National Digital Security Strategy”. French Prime Minister. 16 October 2015. Available at: https://www.enisa.europa.eu/topics/national-cyber-security-strategies/ncss-map/France_Cyber_Security_Strategy.pdf/view
 Ben Judah: “Emmanuel Macron’s foreign policy doctrine(s)”. Politico. 8 May 2017. Available at: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/english/content/download/206186/2393586/file/White%20paper%20on%20defense%20%202013.pdf
 “Rapport relatif à l'activité de la délégation parlementaire au renseignement pour l'année 2015”. National Assembly. 2016. Available at:
 Emily Tamkin: “French Intelligence Agency Braces for Russian Bots to Back Le Pen”. Foreign Policy. 8 February 2017. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/08/french-intelligence-agency-braces-for-russian-bots-to-back-le-pen/
 Esther King: “Facebook partners with French media to fight fake news”. Politico. 6 February 2017. Available at: http://www.politico.eu/article/facebook-partners-with-french-media-to-fight-fake-news/