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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lisa O'Carroll in Strasbourg

France being ‘pounded’ by Russian disinformation, says minister

Jean-Noël Barrot sits in front of French and EU flags and a poster of a woman smiling
Jean-Noël Barrot said France was ‘the target of deliberate manouvres to disrupt public debate’. Photograph: Mourad Allili/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

France is being “pounded” by Russian disinformation that could distort the result of the upcoming EU parliamentary elections, France’s minister for Europe has said.

Jean-Noël Barrot said in an interview with Ouest-France that Russian propaganda was being disseminated across social media platforms on a weekly basis.

“We are being pounded by the propaganda of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its communication corridors,” he said. “Not a week goes by without France being the target of coordinated and deliberate manoeuvres to disrupt public debate and interfere in the campaign for the European elections.”

He cited several examples, including the launch of a fake French ministry of defence website claiming that 200,000 French people were being called up to fight in Ukraine. A link to the site was posted on X at the end of March.

“The site is a fake government site and has been reposted by malevolent accounts as part of a disinformation campaign,” the French defence ministry said at the time.

These “doppleganger” sites, identified as one of several forms of Russian disinformation, involve the creation of websites that look identical to bona fide and authoritative sources, such as government or mainstream media sites.

Other fake news Barrot cited was a recent announcement from a fake ministry of interior site claiming France was tightening up conditions of entry for Ukrainians, when, in fact, people from Ukraine are allowed to live and work in the EU under a bloc-wide temporary protection directive.

He also mentioned false stories about a rise in tuberculosis in France.

Barrot said the risk to the EU elections on 6-9 June “is proven”.

Belgium, which holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, said it was looking at activating a temporary crisis taskforce to monitor and coordinate the response to Russian disinformation campaigns.

The Integrated Political Crisis Response unit was last used at the start of the war in Ukraine and during the Covid pandemic. Sources in Belgium say it would be in operation for two months.

Two weeks ago, the Belgian prime minister, Alexander De Croo, revealed the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office had opened an official investigation into alleged payments by the Kremlin to MEPs after it received classified intelligence from the country’s security services.

He said the mission to “help elect more pro-Russian candidates in the European parliament and to reinforce a certain pro-Russian narrative in that institution” was “very clear”.

The Czech government recently discovered an alleged Russian disinformation operation aimed at influencing the EU elections.

The EU regularly warns about the rise in disinformation, sometimes targeting the election, but also to sow the seed that civil society is crumbling, and to amplify dissent on issues such as Ukraine, migration and LGBTQ rights.

Its disinformation unit has identified 17,000 specific cases of false information on social media and doppelganger sites.

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