Vladimir Putin meets France's far-right leader in Kremlin

Marine Le Pen gestures as she speaks during a Europe of Nations and Freedom meeting in Koblenz, Germany, on Saturday, Jan 21, 2017
Marine Le Pen gestures as she speaks during a Europe of Nations and Freedom meeting in Koblenz, Germany, on Saturday, Jan 21, 2017 PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

MOSCOW (WASHINGTON POST) -  Russian President Vladimir Putin held an unprecedented meeting with French presidential contender Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin on Friday (March 24), hours after the National Front leader had urged a joint fight against terrorism and an end to European Union sanctions against his country.

“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 US,” Putin said in televised comments of the opening of their meeting, which wasn’t announced in advance.

“This meeting is especially important now that a serious terrorist threat hangs over all of us,” Le Pen said, according to a transcript provided by the Kremlin.

At her talks with Putin ally, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, earlier on Friday, Le Pen said she’s always opposed EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict as “counterproductive.”

The visit by the far-right firebrand comes a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed Le Pen and US President Donald Trump as “realists” and not as representatives of “populist” political views.

Le Pen, who’s seen in polls as likely to reach the May 7 run-off for the presidency, is Putin’s most outspoken admirer among the top five French candidates. She openly backs his 2014 annexation of Crimea that along with the covert Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine prompted the EU to impose punitive measures.

Le Pen’s visit to Moscow was an “excellent opportunity” to meet Putin for the first time, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. They didn’t discuss financial aid for the National Front, Peskov said.

Le Pen is seeking money to help her finance her presidential run and says French banks are refusing to lend her the millions of euros she needs. So far, she has a 6-million-euro (S$9 million) loan from political fund Cotelec, according to wealth filings with authorities made public this week.

Russia’s First Czech-Russian Bank OOO helped Le Pen finance an earlier campaign with a 9-million-euro loan in 2014. In the same year, Cotelec - the political fund of her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen - received another 2-million-euro loan from a Russian-backed fund based in Cyprus, news website Mediapart reported.

Russia appeared to switch its support from Le Pen to Francois Fillon when he emerged as the conservative Republicans’ contender for the French presidency, with Putin telling reporters in November that they had “very good” relations.

With support for Fillon sliding ahead of next month’s first-round voting, polls show Le Pen is likely to face and lose to Emmanuel Macron in the run-off, a 39-year-old independent who backs the EU sanctions and accuses the Kremlin of cyberattacks on his campaign.