The far-right French election candidate Marine Le Pen has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Russian media said Mr Putin told the Front National (FN) leader that the Kremlin has no intention of interfering with the election – which it has been accused of doing in the US last year.
Ms Le Pen’s plan to visit Moscow on Friday was widely reported, with meetings set up with members of Russia’s Duma, but there had been no word on whether the President would agree to meet her.
“We attach a lot of importance to our relations with France, trying to maintain smooth relations with both the acting power and the opposition representatives,” state-controlled Russian media reported Mr Putin as saying.
"We don’t want to influence in any way the events going on [in France], but reserve our right to communicate with all representatives of the country’s political powers, as our partners do in Europe and in the US.”
Opinion polls show Ms Le Pen, who has said she admires Mr Putin, getting through to the second, decisive round of France’s presidential election on 7 May but then losing to centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Ms Le Pen backs the lifting of the European Union’s economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict – a stance she reiterated on Friday.
Ms Le Pen has also repeatedly called for sanctions to be dropped, calling them “completely stupid” and the cause of “major problems for the EU”.
Ms Le Pen reportedly called for closer French-Russian ties at a meeting in Russia’s lower house of parliament earlier in the day, and labelled sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea “counterproductive”.
“I believe that barring parliamentarians from speaking to each other, working together is an infringement of democratic rights,” Interfax reported her as saying to Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin.
Speaking to reporters in a Moscow hotel after her meeting with Mr Putin, Ms Le Pen denied that she had discussed financial aid for her party, echoing an earlier denial from the Kremlin.
Ms Le Pen’s party took a €9m (£7.8m) loan from a Moscow-based bank in 2014 and is actively seeking new sources of funding.
Ms Le Pen said her discussion with Mr Putin had focused on what she said were shared Russian and French interests in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
“A new world has emerged in these past years. It’s the world of Vladimir Putin, it’s the world of Donald Trump in the United States, it’s the world of Mr (Narendra) Modi in India, and I think that probably I am the one who shares with these great nations a vision of cooperation and not a vision of submission.”
The meeting represented a coup for Ms Le Pen. She had travelled to New York earlier this year and was seen at Trump Tower, the New York home of President Donald Trump, but did not meet Mr Trump himself.
Her Kremlin audience is likely to go down well with her core supporters in France, many of whom admire the Russian leader’s conservative stance on social and moral issues.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ms Le Pen and Mr Trump are “realists, if you want, or anti-globalists”, and not representatives of fringe or “populist” views.
Ms Le Pen, along with independent centrist Mr Macron, are expected to lead in the first round of the French presidential elections on 23 April. A new poll found with just a month to go, 43 per cent of voters are hesitant about who to vote for, underlining the uncertainty surrounding the volatile election campaign.
Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande has hit back at accusations by former election front runner François Fillon that he was orchestrating a plot to scuttle his bid for power.
Mr Hollande, of the Socialist Party, accused conservative Fillon of desecrating the position to which he aspired.
“There’s a degree of dignity and responsibility that has to be respected,” Mr Hollande, the first leader in 60 years not to seek re-election, told franceinfo public radio. “I believe Mr Fillon has overstepped the mark.”
His comments followed a TV show in which Mr Fillon said he was a victim of a plot to spread damaging media leaks in which Mr Hollande was directly involved.
Mr Fillon, 63, a former Prime Minister, had looked sure of winning the presidency in the weeks after he won the candidate-selection contest of his The Republicans party last November.
But he has fallen to third place – meaning he faces first-round elimination – since media revelations in late January prompted magistrates to open an inquiry into allegations that he paid his wife and children hundreds of thousands of euros of public money for minimal work as parliamentary assistants. He also faces allegations failing to declare a loan from a billionaire and accepting two suits from a lawyer who has a reputation as an intermediary in affairs of state in France and former colonies in Africa. Mr Fillon denies all allegations against him.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the most popular Socialist government minister after close to 40 years in politics, offered another fillip to Mr Macron on Thursday when he said he would back him rather than the official Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon.Reuse content