On the eve of the French presidential election, as the media entered its 44-hour blackout on election coverage, a massive hack leaked 14.5 gigabytes of emails, as well as personal and business documents from the campaign of Emmanuel Macron. Macron, a centrist who won 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the election, faced a challenge Sunday from far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, after she came in second during the first round of voting. Many around the world were looking to France to halt the rise of the populist right, seen in the UK’s Brexit vote and in the victory of US President Donald Trump in November elections. Ultimately, the French system and French voters ultimately resisted the far-right, for a number of reasons, despite the last-minute hack.
The parallels to the US elections were numerous. After the first round of elections, Macron, a pro-European centrist, became the last bulwark against Le Pen, who ran a fiercely nationalist, populist, and anti-European campaign. Le Pen had largely succeeded in bringing her party into the mainstream after its history of anti-Semitism and extremism. Both Le Pen and Trump relied on deep anti-immigration sentiment to gain traction for their campaign.
Most polls and election forecasts in the US predicted a Clinton victory. Pundits were hesitant to give credit to the idea that Trump, a political outsider with an unpredictable temperament, and a habit of making offensive public statements, could win against center-left political veteran Clinton. So in the runup to the French elections, the media was more cautious, especially outside of France, despite polls predicting Macron would handily win the runoff elections by about 20 percent.
48 hours before the election, the Macron hack on Friday cast a shadow of déjà vu over the proceedings, reminiscent of the release of 20,000 hacked emails from Clinton campaign John Podesta, by anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. While it is difficult to quantify the effect these leaked emails had on the outcome of the US election, the evidence suggests that it was part of a perfect storm of factors that swayed voters in key swing states. The emails were released throughout October, and the Clinton campaign declined to say whether the emails were real or faked. US intelligence officials and private security firms have indicated that the leak can be traced to Russia, before the emails made their way to WikiLeaks.
Evidence from Google Trends shows that Americans took an interest in the leaked emails, and that the release of the emails roughly matched the timetable of Clinton’s drop in the polls. Clinton herself has since blamed her loss in part on the leaked emails, saying they “raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me.”
In some ways, those who predicted a Clinton win had the right instinct. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Many more Americans voted for Clinton than voted for Trump, a fact that is all too easily forgotten in analyses of the Trump victory. Ultimately, the American electoral college allowed small shifts in the vote, in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to propel Trump to the presidency. France, of course, has no such system – the popular vote decides the winner.
Disturbingly, the Macron hack has also been linked to Russian activity, according to several cybersecurity research firms. However, the leak was handled quite differently by the French media and the public, and the outcome reflected those differences.
In addition to the legally enforced 44-hour media blackout the weekend of the election, France’s electoral commission threatened media outlets and internet users with prosecution if they published documents leaked in the “massive and coordinated hacking attack.” For its part, the Macron campaign claimed the leaks contained faked documents alongside real ones. The timing of the leaks, immediately before the election, may have backfired with French voters, averse to the idea of being manipulated. French voters may have been vigilant against such efforts after witnessing the effects of leaks on the American election. In France, the leak was largely met with silence.
Johan Hufnagel, managing editor of French daily Libération, explained:
“We don’t have a Fox News in France. There’s no broadcaster with a wide audience and personalities who build this up and try to use it for their own agendas.”
Some reports cast additional doubt on the leaks, saying that the Macron campaign, anticipating such an event, may have fed hackers false information responding to phishing emails. This may account for the late release of the leaks, as hackers were forced to sort out real information from false.
Le Monde said Saturday that it planned to scrutinize and attempt to verify leaks before publishing any information.
“If those documents contain revelations, Le Monde, of course, will publish them, after having investigated in accordance with our journalistic and ethical rules, without letting ourselves be manipulated by the publishing agenda of anonymous actors,” they promised.
As of late Monday, the coverage so far, though still minimal, has revealed mostly mundane, insignificant information from the leaks.
In the end, Macron won 66 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 34. He will take office on May 14th, aiming to follow through on his promise to reduce unemployment in France, and to strengthen lackluster economic growth. The victory is a relief for European Union, rebounding from Britain’s unexpected Brexit vote last year. It is also a victory for the estimated 4.7 million Muslims living in France, who were a particular focus of scorn from Le Pen’s campaign. Whether Macron’s win represents a sustained victory against the far right remains to be seen. Germany, and possibly Italy, will also face elections soon. In any case, Le Pen’s defeat allows champions of the EU, and the pluralism it represents, to breathe a temporary sigh of relief.