Toward a Putinization of France? 

This essay deals with both history and current events. The author demonstrates how Putin’s regime and its ideologues work to destroy French society from within and make it an ally of Moscow. Françoise Thom also recalls how the “popular fronts” in the Eastern countries freshly occupied by the USSR at the end of the Second World War allowed communists to take power under Moscow’s total control within a few years. Today, the Russian regime uses multiple levers, both left and right, appealing to nationalism, traditional values, anti-Americanism, etc., to better subjugate us.

You must not despair, Athenians, under your present circumstances, wretched as they are; for that which is worst in them as regards the past, is best for the future. What do I mean? That our affairs are a shambles, men of Athens, because you do nothing that you ought; but if you had done your duty and things were still the same, there would be no hope of improvement. 


Demosthenes, 1st Philippic

Since President Macron announced the dissolution of the National Assembly, many French people feel they have fallen into a trap, sliding into a bottomless pit, while the daylight recedes inexorably. They vaguely perceive that disaster is imminent and do not understand how they got there. Like the revolutionaries of 1789, they feel they are being swept away in a torrent that engulfs them and try to see when things took a fatal turn. In the case of the French Revolution, the malevolent plot that almost everyone believed in, both revolutionaries and supporters of the Ancien Régime, did not exist. Only the astounding ineptitude of the royal power was at the origin of the slide into horror. In our current situation, the frivolity, arrogance, immorality, and ignorance of those who govern us, of our political and media elites, are of course also a decisive factor. But there is also a real plot, patiently woven for years, whose many threads lead back to Moscow. Sovietologists were often accused in the past of paranoia, quite unfairly, because the Leninist regime was indeed, from the first days, a system of conspirators whose goal was the destruction of non-communist states. Today’s Russia has resumed this project of hijacking democratic institutions. And it is precisely the enormity of Moscow’s enterprise that makes it hard to believe.

But we do not have to rely on vague intuitions to follow this lead. The men of the Kremlin make our task easier, so confident of their success that they hardly conceal their actions. Let us first give the floor to Aleksandr Dugin, one of the ideologues of the Putin regime (2014): “We must conquer Europe… We can already count on a European fifth column… We only want a protectorate over Europe. We do not need to wage war for this. We will offer Europeans to save them from gays, Pussy Riot, Femen… We have experience in expanding in Europe, that of the Comintern and the infiltration of European parliaments… Annexing Europe is a great design worthy of Russia… Soft power will suffice: find a fifth column, propel people we control to power, buy advertising specialists with Gazprom money…”

Since then, the action plan has become clearer. Witness the ineffable Dmitry Medvedev, vice-president of the Russian Security Council. In a message published on February 3, 2024, on Telegram, he called for supporting, without naming them, all “anti-system” parties in the West: “Our task is to support these politicians and their parties in the West by all possible means, helping them openly and secretl, to achieve correct election results.” Andrey Isaev, a deputy of the United Russia party, rubs his hands in glee after the EU elections. The liberals are losing power in Europe, he gloats. “The process is slow. The mole digs its hole slowly […].” But there is no doubt: “Strong and victorious Russia will restore normal relations with renewed Europe.” Medvedev clarified the Kremlin’s line of action on his Telegram channel on June 13, 2024: “Every day, we must strive to harm as much as possible the countries that have imposed sanctions on our country and all our citizens. Harm by all means. Sabotage their economies, their institutions, and their leaders. Attack the prosperity of their citizens. Their confidence in the future. To do this, we must relentlessly seek the critical vulnerabilities of their economies and strike them in all areas. Cause damage in every sector by paralyzing the work of their companies and administrations. […] Destroy their energy infrastructure, their industry, their transport systems, their banks, and their social services. Make them fear the imminent collapse of all critical infrastructures. […] They are afraid of anarchy and an explosion of crime in cities? Let’s sabotage the municipal authorities! They are afraid of social explosions? Let’s organize them! We must inject the most terrifying nightmares into their media sphere, exploiting all their poignant phantom pains. They scream against our use of fake news? Let’s turn their lives into a completely insane nightmare where they will not be able to distinguish the wildest fiction from the realities of the day, the diabolical evil from the routine of life.”

We would be wrong to think that these are empty threats. Thus, to return to the very important last point mentioned by Medvedev, we have just learned from a recent study that pro-Russian agents deliberately bombard journalists with false information to overload verification resources and neutralize the ability of Westerners to distinguish truth from falsehood, or even to discourage them from seeking the truth.

One of the great weaknesses of Russian subversion strategy lies in its unchanging methods. It brilliantly incorporates new means, such as social networks and especially public relations, but it fundamentally operates in a repetitive and stereotyped manner. This is why knowledge of Russian history and especially the history of the USSR is essential for anyone who wants to see clearly in the Kremlin’s machinations.

Comintern techniques 

Dugin mentions the Comintern heritage [international communist movement founded by Lenin in 1919] for a reason. Today we face techniques for manipulating foreign opinion that seem inspired by those invented by the German communist Willi Münzenberg, a brilliant Comintern propagandist. Stalin frequently used them from the rise to power of Hitler when he launched the policy of the “antifascist popular front” to be able to influence the politics of Western democracies and direct German aggression westward. The idea was 1) to instill in the idea in the Western public that the USSR was the only true adversary of fascism; 2) to cast a wide net by mobilizing pro-Soviet non-communist intellectuals (“fellow travelers”) while concealing the Kremlin’s hand in the movements set in motion, in order to expand the influence of the communists, few in number and long marginalized in democracies. Münzenberg was adept at multiplying front organizations, which put forward prominent figures while the strings were pulled by the Comintern. He “organized committees, congresses, and international movements like a magician pulls rabbits out of his hat… Each of these organizations hid behind a facade of highly respectable personalities, from English duchesses to American editorialists and French scientists, who had never heard the name Münzenberg and believed that the Comintern was an invention of Goebbels,” wrote Arthur Koestler1. In August 1932, Münzenberg organized a “World Congress against Imperialist War” in The Hague. Officially, it was the French writers Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse who initiated the congress, while in reality, the communists controlled everything behind the scenes. Münzenberg managed to get Heinrich Mann and Albert Einstein to speak, without them knowing the true organizers of the congress. The writer Manès Sperber recalled: “Münzenberg organized caravans of intellectuals who only awaited a sign from him to set out; he also chose the direction.”

Henri Barbusse during a speech at the Moscow Bearing Factory No. 1 on November 28, 1934. Photo: Ivan Shagin, public domain.

1944-1949. The sovietization of popular democracies. Typology of state capture 

During the Second World War, Stalin returned to Münzenberg’s strategy to facilitate communist infiltration of underground resistance organizations in occupied countries so that, upon liberation, the communists could seize power in their country without prematurely alarming the Westerners. Moscow’s strategy was to increase the influence of often tiny local Communist Parties by creating broad coalitions infiltrated by communists within the resistance. To do this, it was necessary to cast a wide net on both the right and the left. Stalin dissolved the Comintern on May 15, 1943, understanding that in order to take power, the communists had to embrace nationalism, as he explained to Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas: “There is something abnormal in the very existence of a global communist forum at a time when communist parties should strive to discover a national language and fight under the conditions imposed by their own country.”2 To Tito, he even ordered to temporarily restore the monarch: “You do not need to restore him forever,” he told him in September 1944. “Take him back temporarily; later, you can stab him in the back when the opportunity arises.”3 To all European communists, he recommended abandoning revolutionary rhetoric and prioritizing patriotic propaganda. On Soviet soil, Comintern schools indoctrinated prisoners of war and selected the future cadres of occupied Europe. The National Committee for a Free Germany, set up in the USSR (July 1943) by communist émigrés and German prisoners of war supervised by Soviet special services, was open to Catholic opposition, former Christian unions, SPD elements, the Wehrmacht, and the former German National People’s Party. Stalin was already wooing the German nationalist right: the Committee was chaired by communist writer Erich Weinert and co-chaired by Lieutenant Heinrich von Einsiedel, Bismarck’s great-grandson, who called for reviving his ancestor’s Russian policy: “A communist Germany alongside a communist Russia will always have weight and be a decisive factor in Europe.”4 Edvard Beneš, the very Russophile president of Czechoslovakia, met Stalin in December 1943; euphoric after this meeting, he assured the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, W. Averell Harriman, that Stalin had changed and did not intend to impose communism in the regions liberated by the USSR.

Edvard Beneš (right) with Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Kalinin and Kliment Voroshilov in the Kremlin in December 1843 // National Archives of the Czech Republic

In 1944-45, Stalin established Patriotic Fronts in the areas occupied by the Red Army, bringing together communists, socialists, and agrarians (the latter was the most rooted in Eastern Europe). These coalitions promoted unifying slogans such as “antifascism,” “national independence,” and “national reconstruction.” Stalin encouraged irredentist claims and population transfers, and practiced a policy of territorial tips, knowing that these measures would create lasting hostility between neighboring countries, making each popular democracy dependent on Moscow to retain its gains. In March 1945, Stalin received Beneš again and assured him once more that the USSR had no intention of Bolshevizing liberated countries, that “the various communist parties would become nationalist parties interested in the national interests of their own country.” He imposed the inclusion of communists in the National Front government established in April and led by Social Democrat Zdeněk Fierlinger, formerly ambassador to Moscow, where he had been recruited by the NKVD. Communists secured key positions in all these coalition governments: police, army, state security, and propaganda were the portfolios they reserved from the early days and which were entrusted to NKGB agents. Walter Ulbricht, Stalin’s favorite German communist, conveyed the Kremlin master’s instruction to his colleagues: “We must keep democratic appearances, but we must control everything.”5 The communists proceeded step by step, camouflaged, “zigzagging,” as Stalin recommended. “All of Germany must be ours, that is, Soviet and communist,” he told Bulgarian and Yugoslav communists in June 19466. Everywhere the Soviets imposed the creation of “vice-ministers” positions, in reality communists who monitored non-communist ministers. All non-communist ministers had communist deputies.

Within the coalition governments, the communists provoked successive ministerial crises that allowed them to advance their pawns. Gradually, they eliminated their coalition partners by creating a split within each non-communist party between a pro-communist left wing oriented toward Moscow and a right wing rallying those who did not want the communist dictatorship. The left wing eliminated the right wing; then the communists got rid of their left-wing allies. This piecemeal liquidation of the opposition was called “salami tactics.” Apparatchiks prevailed over committed antifascists, the real supporters of the union, considered unreliable by Moscow. An entire arsenal of means was deployed to intimidate and demoralize the opposition. People’s militias were formed, creating the false impression of mass support for the regime. Referendums were another means used to instill the idea that everything was lost and that one should give up. Thus, in Poland, a referendum was organized in 1946 on three questions: “1) Are you in favor of abolishing the Senate? 2) Are you in favor of nationalizing industry and agrarian reform? 3) Are you in favor of Poland’s western borders?” [Stalin had given Poland part of East Prussia taken from Germany, while in the East he had amputated Poland’s eastern provinces.] The referendum took place under the vigilant eye of the Soviet MGB [Ministry of State Security]. Its results were rigged, but the propaganda exploited it to maintain the illusion that the Polish people supported the communists. This example shows how the practice of referendums can become a war machine against democracy.

The primary objective of the “Popular Fronts” is to neutralize historical parties and their leaders, systematically accused of having collaborated with “fascism.” The ultimate goal is the paralysis and destruction of all other power centers in society. The communist core does not transfer existing powers onto itself: it destroys what is not itself.

The police control of the population is immediately established, both from above (control of the Ministry of the Interior by Moscow adherents) and from below. The communists create a parallel hierarchy in the army and police. Security organs supervised by the Soviet MGB infiltrate their agents into all parties. If the courts show “legal prejudice” and hesitate to condemn “enemies of the people,” the communists organize large popular demonstrations to intimidate them.

In 1948, Moscow moved to the next stage, imposing the fusion between socialists and communists, not to transfer the socialists’ allegiance to the new party but to liquidate the latter by forced incorporation. In Czechoslovakia, the Prague coup of February 1948 shattered the last illusions of those who believed in the possibility of coexistence between socialists and communists. On February 20, 12 non-communist ministers resigned, intending to impose a new government and elections. But, contrary to their previous commitments, the social democratic ministers did not resign, the Klement Gottwald government did not fall. For President Beneš, it was a debacle: the communists decided to take advantage of the opportunity to carry out a coup with the support of militias controlled by the Communist Party. On February 23, Gottwald formed a new National Front government composed solely of communists and fellow travelers; taking seriously the threat of civil war brandished by Gottwald, Beneš yielded on February 25 and resigned. Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, who did not want to resign, was forced out of a window on March 9.

Finally, in the last stage, the “Moscow lackey” factions within  Communist Parties denounced the “national communists” who had helped them rise to power. From intimidation, they moved to terror.

Willi Münzenberg at the Berlin Sportpalast during a congress of International Workers’ Aid, March 3, 1932 // Münzenberg Forum

Post-communism. The construction of the Russian party in Western democracies 

Why is this historical reminder relevant today? The evolution of Russia since 1996 shows that Leninism was not reduced to a simplified version of Marxism. It was also a set of recipes for taking and maintaining power. Leninism survived the collapse of the Marxist doctrine, as a technique for the coup d’état, as subversion know-how and as a means for pro-Russian dictators rejected by their people to stay in power.

The experience of post-communist countries in the “near abroad” allows us to establish a typology of Putin’s state capture technique, for that is indeed what it is, and not merely “interference.” This becomes apparent by comparing the methods used in Belarus, and in Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovych, with the processes we observe in our own country. The initial phase is the construction of the “Russian party.” Patiently, over the years, Russia weaves a vast network in target states through state, pseudo-private, and non-governmental initiatives. All countries in the Kremlin’s crosshairs are covered by these finely meshed influence networks. Each targets a specific category of individuals: experts, think tanks, parliamentarians, retired military personnel, business circles, journalists, left-wing parties, right-wing parties, etc. The priority given to infiltrating decision-making centers, using “kompromat” and corruption, does not prevent Moscow from encouraging the expansion of its influence networks in regions and municipalities. Under the guise of cultural ties, we see the creation of organizations oriented toward the Kremlin, serving as breeding grounds for future collaborators. The Kremlin ensures control over a local intelligentsia ready to serve Russian interests. As sociologist Igor Eidman observed, the Putin regime has “turned Russian culture into a weapon in its hybrid war against Western civilization.” Note also the importance of memory issues, with which President Putin is obsessed. The reformatting of memory is well underway in countries targeted by Moscow. In Yanukovych’s Ukraine, the cult of the “Great Patriotic War” was imposed. In France, there was the project (aborted due to Covid) to ceremoniously repatriate the remains of French General Charles-Etienne Gudin, an officer of Napoleon’s Great Army who fell in Russia and whose bones were conveniently been found when the Kremlin hoped to foster a “new start in diplomatic relations” between France and Russia. The subliminal message was: “Look what happens to the French who march against Russia.” The recent burial at the Pantheon of Cominternist Missak Manouchian echoes the cult of the Great Patriotic War and the “anti-fascist front.” The subliminal message is: “With such heroes, are you not ashamed to support the Nazis in Kyiv?”

The infiltration of “siloviki” (military and police) is of particular interest to Russian special services. The case of Ukraine before 2014 revealed that Russia did not just deploy a spy network in the armed forces but systematically recruited officers through corruption or kompromat, ensuring that those they controlled were promoted to positions of responsibility; moreover, they ensured that the Ukrainian armed and services obeyed Moscow directly, bypassing local rulers.

This device is complemented by the infiltration of business circles, creating strong networks close to political power. When the “Russian party” wins elections, Russia launches one or more major projects in the target country funded by Moscow, creating a critical mass and tipping the country into the Kremlin’s orbit. Take the example of RosUkrEnergo, led by oligarch Dmytro Firtash, an intermediary in gas trade between Russia and Ukraine. The company was used to divert revenues from the resale of Russian gas sold to Ukraine at below-market prices into the pockets of Kremlin affiliates, the pro-Russian Party of Regions (Yanukovych’s party), and a vast network of corrupt Ukrainian officials controlling the country’s political life. The supposedly reduced-price Russian gas was sent to the West, while Russian and Ukrainian ruling elites skimmed off the profits. Another example is Russia’s 2014 funding for the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary. The contract with Rosatom was classified for 30 years and for a reason: it made former opposition leader Viktor Orbán, head of the Hungarian government, a zealous auxiliary of Kremlin policy.

However, it is in Yanukovych’s Ukraine (2010-2014) that we can best observe the culmination of the processes described above. In the spring of 2014, when Ukraine wanted to resist Russian aggression, it found it had neither armed forces nor special services to rely on: Russian agents were in command everywhere, the Ukrainian state had become a “mole hole”, and it took the improvised mobilization of the entire society to withstand the shock of the Russian “hybrid war.”

The effectiveness of Putin’s methods is also evident in Western Europe. During his 2006-2007 election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy was highly critical of Putin. It was enough for Gazprom to announce in July 2007 that Total [now TotalEnergies] would get 25% of the shares in the Shtokman field development consortium for Nicolas Sarkozy to adopt a pro-Russian stance that would have grave consequences since he authorized imprudent technology transfers in the military field, not to mention the disastrous contract for Mistral helicopter carriers signed on June 17, 2011.

Kremlin propaganda has succeeded in convincing a good part of the French right that Vladimir Putin is the only defender of “traditional values” threatened by globalist liberalism; that he is the champion of Christians threatened by militant Islam. But the Kremlin’s PR is so ingenious that the far-left, in turn, sees President Putin as the only leader fighting neo-colonialism and Western hegemony. Even Stalin had not managed such a balancing act. As a result, a “National Bloc” faces the Popular Front, and France is caught between two movements whose leading groups converge on three points: alignment with the Kremlin, hatred of Europe and the Anglo-Saxons. As Dugin summarized, “The Third Rome, the Third Reich, and the Third International are elements that must be connected in the revolt against the modern world.”

The French feel that the two extreme blocs that are clashing are not ordinary electoral alliances. They are not yet in power, but already salami tactics is in full swing. We see that they are machines meant to destroy political parties and that their internal dynamics push them toward radicalization, despite soothing words from both sides. One of their priorities is the abolition of the rule of law, “a way for the elite to maintain their power,” opines the very pro-Russian National Rally candidate Pierre Gentillet, who founded the “Pushkin Circle” in 2015, a platform to bring Russia and France closer. Éric Zemmour has complained that his party is the victim of “an absorption operation by the National Front.” He bitterly notes that “Madame Maréchal [Marine Le Pen’s niece] is surrounded by betrayal specialists.” On the other side, Rima Hassan has said that “the union cannot hold with the poison of betrayal distilled.” With the support of the “decolonial” hard core, purges strike those who dared to criticize Jean-Luc Mélenchon, such as Alexis Corbière and Raquel Garrido. As in 1946-1948, apparatchiks cover themselves with the hunt for enemies of the people to get rid of those who naively believed in union.

If the extremes win, France risks becoming ungovernable. The only measures that will pass will be those desired by the Russian party, where the two apparently antagonistic extreme blocs converge: sabotage of the European Union and NATO, lifting sanctions against Russia, ending military aid to Ukraine. LFI’s7 communitarianism, the threat of civil war it will pose, will strengthen the National Rally’s grip on power. We can expect Russia to generously offer France more oil and gas at knock-down prices, encouraging the multiplication of French oligarchs serving the Kremlin. These will take control of the media and disseminate Russian propaganda. Let us not think that the French will be impervious to it. Our country is in the throes of resentment, fertile ground for Kremlin narratives. As for the power of this propaganda, it suffices to see Russian soldiers marching to their deaths in successive waves like zombies to measure its grip.

Many of our compatriots vote for the National Rally thinking that we should try it, experiment with a new team that might be less disappointing than the previous ones. But can we be sure that these elections are not the last free elections our country will have? Experience shows that it is nearly impossible to topple leaders who make the geopolitical choice of Russia. The Ukrainians who managed to get rid of their satrap Yanukovych have paid for it with more than ten years of genocidal war. The Kremlin will gladly share with its French supporters its well-honed technique of Potemkin elections, of neutralizing opposition. As for us, can we trust our compatriots’ attachment to our institutions when our president himself offers Russia a gift it had not dared to dream of, plunging the country into the chaos the Kremlin wished for? Moreover, boasting: “I threw my grenade without a pin at their feet. Now let’s see how they handle it…” A president prey to such nihilistic impulses, indifferent to any concern for the public good, will not even have the will to oppose his country’s slide into servitude. Therefore, we can only hope for a civic awakening. And resist what French historian and critic HippolyteTaine called “inner capitulation.”

She has a degree in classical literature and spent 4 years in the USSR from 1973 to 1978. She is an agrégée in Russian and teaches Soviet history and international relations at Paris Sorbonne.

Footnotes

  1. Hieroglyphs 1, 1952, Pluriel 1953, p. 331
  2. V. M. Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, Gallimard, 1962, p. 93.
  3. About the relations between Tito and Stalin, see Yu. S. Guirenko, Stalin Tito, Politizdat, 1991.
  4. H. Graf von Einsiedel, Der Rote Graf, Frankfurt, Frank Schumann, p. 43.
  5. Wilfried Loth, Stalin’s Unwanted Children: The Soviet Union, the German Question and the Founding of the GDR, Rowohlt, Berlin 1994.
  6. Nikita Petrov, Nikita Petrov, Po stsenariou Stalina: rol organov NKVD-MGB SSSR v sovietizatsii stran tsentralnoï i vostotchnoï Evropy 1945-1953, Moscow, Rosspen, 2011, p. 6.
  7. La France Insoumise, far-left party

See also

Yulia Sineokaya: “We are Engaged in a Critical Analysis of the Catastrophe”

The Russian philosopher, in exile in Paris, speaks in this interview about the state of science in Russia, odious figures like Zinoviev and Dugin, and the role of philosophy in our world.

Thoughts on the Crocus City Hall Attack

The scale and atrocity of the Krasnogorsk attack shook the world, bringing back bloody images of other mass...

Most read

Russian Expansionism: Enduring Goals and Recurring Methods

Russia's messianic, expansionist and militarist propensity is inseparable from the autocratic matrix of Russian power.

Subverting Elites and Manipulating the Masses: how Russian Interference Corrupts American Politics

Russian political culture has already permeated some American political circles. Fortunately, American opinion remains overwhelmingly pro-Kyiv, as does the Republican establishment.