Thursday 22 February 2018

Prosecutors probe fake news in French presidential election

French presidential election candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron before the debate (Eric Feferberg/Pool Photo via AP)
French presidential election candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron before the debate (Eric Feferberg/Pool Photo via AP)

Fake news and alleged hacking attempts have dominated France's tense presidential campaign, with just two days left for independent Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen to win over voters before Sunday's high-stakes run-off.

Paris prosecutors have launched a preliminary investigation into whether fake news is being used to influence the voting as the two candidates campaigned in opposite parts of the country.

The move came hours after Mr Macron filed a suit against unknown source "X'' after Ms Le Pen suggested during their only one-on-one debate on Wednesday night that the former banker could have an offshore account.

"I hope we won't find out you have an offshore account in the Bahamas," Ms Le Pen said.

She appeared to be referring to two sets of apparent forgeries, published just hours before their heated showdown, that purported to show Mr Macron was somehow involved with a Caribbean bank and a firm based on the island of Nevis.

Mr Macron's camp said the former investment banker was the victim of a "cyber-misinformation campaign".

Speaking on France Inter radio, Mr Macron blamed Ms Le Pen for spreading "fake news" and said he never held a bank account "in any tax haven whatsoever".

"All this is factually inaccurate," Mr Macron said.

On the campaign trail, Mr Macron visited disgruntled workers at a glass factory in Albi, near the southern city of Toulouse.

Mr Macron arrived to booing and slogan-shouting from dozens of protesting workers.

But after 15 minutes of talking, the 39-year-old front-runner managed to calm some of their anger.

Union leader Michel Parraud called Mr Macron "very kind and very polite", although he said he did not think the pro-business centrist would do much for factory workers.

Ms Le Pen, who spent Thursday in a small northern French village, quickly backed away from the suggestion Mr Macron might have an offshore account but prosecutors soon launched a probe into suspicions of forgery and the spreading of false news in order to divert votes.

In the alleged documents, the "M'' in Mr Macron's purported signature did not match his genuine sign-off, and whoever wrote the documents appeared confused as to whether the firm was a limited company or a limited liability corporation.

Metadata embedded in the document suggest it was created just before being posted online - undermining the anonymous poster's claim to have circulated the documents to "hundreds of French journalists" who had "all sat on this".

Asked on Thursday on BFM TV whether she was formally accusing Mr Macron of having a secret offshore account, Ms Le Pen said: "Not at all. If I wanted to do so I would have done it yesterday. I've just asked him the question. If I had proof, I would have claimed it yesterday."

There are hints tying the faked documents to far-right circles in California.

One document purports to have been drawn up under the laws of Nevis but actually draws some of its language from a guide to forming limited liability companies in California.

The documents first appeared on Mixtape, a relatively new northern California-based file sharing service.

The Macron campaign identified the first tweet referring to the documents as coming from the Twitter account of Nathan Damigo, a far-right activist and convicted felon based in northern California.

Damigo is known on social media for punching a female anti-fascist in the face at a Berkeley protest.

In a subsequent twist, Ms Le Pen's campaign said a hacker confessed to repeatedly targeting its website.

The statement, released on Thursday, gave few details about the seriousness of the interference, which could range from attempts at defacing the website to flooding it with bogus traffic. It said the arrest took place this week.

There has been intense anxiety in France over the possibility that hackers could tamper with the presidential election this year - worries stoked by Russian meddling in the US election last year.

Ms Le Pen visited Ennemain, a tiny village of 230, for a festival on Thursday in the "land of the forgotten" - the disillusioned voters at the centre of her populist programme.

Scores of people from nearby towns gathered there for a fair with balloons, vegetables and rides.

Gaelle Vincent, 35, wore a French flag in her hair to hear Ms Le Pen speak.

"People think little villages like us vote National Front because we don't like Arabs and are racist," Ms Vincent said.

"We're not racist. We have to preserve our land and our values."

The travails of ordinary people are a prime point in Ms Le Pen's campaign against Mr Macron, who she claims represents the urban elite.

Mr Macron, meanwhile, got support from across the ocean.

In a message posted on Thursday on Mr Macron's Twitter account, former US president Barack Obama said he was endorsing the centrist candidate "because of how important this election is".

"The French election is very important to the future of France and the values that we care so much about," Mr Obama said.

"I have admired the campaign that Emmanuel Macron has run. He has stood up for liberal values. He put forward the vision for the important role that France plays in Europe and around the world. And he has committed to a better future for French people."

Mr Obama ended his message with the words En Marche - which is the name of Mr Macron's political movement - and Vive La France.


British singer Pete Doherty called Ms Le Pen "a shadow at the gate" as he joined French artists and students rallying and singing for openness and tolerance.

While Ms Le Pen campaigned with the rural poor who feel left behind by globalisation, around 30 performers and dozens of anti-racism and other groups gathered at a rally in Paris on Thursday night.

The Libertines singer said Ms Le Pen's anti-immigration, closed-borders platform is "not some distant threat, you know. It's like a shadow at the gate".

The crowd held signs reading "Multi-coloured people = Happy France" and "No borders, no nations".


Press Association

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