Vladimir Putin denies French election interference after Marine Le Pen meeting
Russian President Vladimir Putin has held a surprise meeting with France's far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, but dismissed suggestions that Moscow will influence the French election in her favour.
They met hours after a previously announced visit to the lower house of the Russian parliament.
In the meeting with members of the Duma, Ms Le Pen urged Russia and France to work together to save the world from globalism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Such positions put her in parallel with Kremlin stances and there has been wide speculation that Russia aims to influence the upcoming French election.
Mr Putin said: "We in no way want to influence events, but retain for ourselves the right to meet with all representatives of all political powers, just as our partners in Europe and the US do."
Ms Le Pen has made multiple trips to Russia and often met Russian legislators.
Moscow has courted far-right parties in Europe in an influence-building campaign amid friction between Russia and the West over the conflict in Ukraine and the war in Syria.
France's two-round presidential election takes place on April 23 and May 7. Ms Le Pen is expected to be among the top two candidates on April 23 who will move on to a run-off on May 7.
Over the years, Mr Putin has frequently met Francois Fillon, the centre-right Republican Party's presidential candidate who was prime minister in 2007-12.
An unconfirmed report this week said he was paid 50,000 euros (£43,000) to arrange a meeting between Mr Putin and a Lebanese magnate. Mr Fillon has called the accusation a "shameful lie".
Mr Putin's meeting with Ms Le Pen came amid rising controversy over whether Russia tried to influence the US presidential election by hacking computer accounts of the Democratic National Committee, and over meetings between members of President Donald Trump's inner circle and the Russian ambassador.