Prosecutors investigate the effect of fake news in upcoming French election
ALBI, France (AP) — Fake news and alleged hacking attempts dominated France’s tense presidential campaign Thursday 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 runoff.
Paris prosecutors launched a preliminary investigation Thursday 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 Macron filed suit against unknown source “X” after Le Pen suggested during their only one-on-one debate 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,” 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 Macron was somehow involved with a Caribbean bank and a firm based on the island of Nevis.
Macron’s camp said the former investment banker was victim of a “cyber-misinformation campaign.” Speaking on France Inter radio, Macron blamed Le Pen for spreading “fake news” and said he never held a bank account “in any tax haven whatsoever.”
“All this is factually inaccurate,” Macron said.
On the campaign trail, Macron visited disgruntled workers Thursday at a glass factory in Albi near the southern city of Toulouse before holding his last campaign rally in which he called on voters from the left and the right to choose his reformist, pro-European platform.
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 Macron “very kind and very polite,” although he said he didn’t think the pro-business centrist would do much for factory workers.
Macron pledged to “give strength back to the country” and “build a more efficient and fair society,” speaking from an open-air stage in Albi’s central square.
Le Pen, who spent Thursday in a small northern French village, quickly backed away from the suggestion the Macron might have an offshore account but prosecutors soon launched a probe into suspicions of forgery and the spreading false news in order to divert votes.
In the alleged documents, the “M” in Macron’s purported signature didn’t 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 Thursday on BFM TV whether she was formally accusing Macron of having a secret offshore account, 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.
Messages left with Damigo weren’t immediately returned.
In a subsequent twist, Le Pen’s campaign said a hacker confessed to repeatedly targeting its website. The statement, released 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.
Police referred questions to prosecutors, who didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment. The Le Pen campaign also did not immediately respond.
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 U.S. election last year.
Le Pen visited Ennemain, a tiny village of 230, for a festival Thursday in the “land of the forgotten” — the disillusioned voters at the center of her populist program. Hundreds packed a field bedecked with haystacks, food stands and an inflatable kids’ ride near the small red-brick town hall.
Gaelle Vincent, 35, wore a French flag in her hair to hear Le Pen speak.
“People think little villages like us vote National Front because we don’t like Arabs and are racist,” Vincent told The Associated Press. “We’re not racist. We have to preserve our land and our values.”
The travails of ordinary people are a prime point in Le Pen’s campaign against Macron, who she claims represents the urban elite.
Macron, meanwhile, got support from across the ocean.
In a message posted Thursday on Macron’s Twitter account, former U.S. 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,” 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.”
Obama ended his message with the words “En Marche” — which is the name of Macron’s political movement and “Vive La France.