March 24 (UPI) — French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday as the first round of voting nears, pledging closer cooperation if she’s elected.
Le Pen, who leads the far-right National Front Party, is expected to qualify for the first run-off in the presidential contest. Her candidacy, which has been widely viewed as the next major test of the strength of the populist European movement, has sparked criticism from main-line parties, in part for her public support of the Kremlin.
Le Pen supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has called for resulting sanctions by the European Union to be dropped.
In their meeting Friday, Le Pen said the EU and Russia should work more closely on counter-terrorism to foil potential attacks like this week’s attack near the British Parliament, the Brussels bombings last year and several terrorist attacks on French soil.
“You know what happened a few days ago in Great Britain. I think it would be helpful to share intelligence between our countries,” Le Pen told Putin, according to Russian news agencies.
For his part, Putin said he was keeping lines of communication open with a potential world leader.
“We’re not trying in any way to influence events, but we reserve the right for ourselves to meet with representatives of all political forces of the country, as our partners do, for example in Europe and the U.S.,” Putin said in televised comments prior to the closed-door meeting.
Le Pen also is seeking loans to help fund her campaign, and has accused major EU banks of refusing to give her the money because they oppose her candidacy. In the past, the National Front has received loans from banks tied to the Kremlin to fund its political operations. The topic was not discussed with Putin, she said.
Le Pen reaffirmed her position as a candidate who is not beholden to national or international institutions. She dismissed rumors about Russian election meddling, a charge other candidates in the French election have leveled against the Kremlin.
“We are in a period where conspiracy theories appear to be very much in fashion. As soon as something goes wrong, it’s Russia’s fault. This makes me smile.”