MOSCOW • Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Ms Marine Le Pen, a leading French presidential candidate, to a surprise meeting at the Kremlin yesterday, just hours after the National Front leader called for an end to European Union sanctions against Russia.
"We're not trying in any way to intervene but we reserve the right for ourselves to meet with representatives of all political forces in the country, as our partners do, for example in Europe and the United States," Mr Putin said in televised footage of the opening of the meeting, which was not announced in advance.
"I know that you represent quite a fast-developing spectrum of European political forces," he told Ms Le Pen.
According to a transcript provided by the Kremlin, she said: "This meeting is especially important now that a serious terrorist threat hangs over all of us."
The visit by the far right firebrand came a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed Ms Le Pen and US President Donald Trump as "realists" and not as representatives of "populist" political views.
Earlier yesterday, during talks with a Putin ally, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, Ms Le Pen said she has always opposed EU sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict, calling them "counterproductive".
"I am in favour of developing relations with Russia in the context of the long history that links our two countries," she said at the start of her meeting with Mr Volodin.
"I've pleaded at every level for cooperation between our countries in the fight against terrorism," she added, invoking Russia's role in Syria, where it has supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and France's role fighting extremists in Africa's Sahel region.
Ms Le Pen, who is seen in polls as likely to reach the May 7 run-off for the French presidency, is the most outspoken admirer of Mr Putin among the top five candidates.
She openly backs his 2014 annexation of Crimea that prompted the EU to impose sanctions.
The far right leader has visited Moscow on several occasions, enjoying positive Russian state media coverage.
In 2014, Ms Le Pen's National Front party received a €9 million (S$13.6 million) loan from a Russian commercial bank that later collapsed.
The party yesterday dismissed the possibility of seeking further funding from a Russian bank.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters that Mr Putin and Ms Le Pen did not discuss financial aid for her campaign.
Moscow has been accused of seeking to promote anti-EU candidates, including populists, in European elections.
BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE