Amid growing alarm Europe may be the next target of Russian cyberattacks, some believe France — which is gearing up for presidential and parliamentary elections this year — may not be the obvious choice.
The reasons range from the candidates themselves to the lack of a powerful motive or payback for the same kind of election hacking that U.S. intelligence authorities have blamed on Russia.
“I think there’s a lot of fear out there that Russia will meddle in every election in Europe for whatever concern,” said Stefan Soesanto, a London-based digital policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“But if you look at Russia, there’s always an objective behind what they’re doing and the technology to support it,” he added. “And in the French elections, there’s no real outcome that would be really beneficial or really negative.”
To be sure, that does not mean Russia or other outside players may not try to influence the French vote in other ways, experts say. Or that officials are not alarmed over existential cyber threats.
“We can’t be naive,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, as he announced France aimed to boost its cyber defenses over the next two years.
In 2016 alone, he said, security agencies had thwarted 24,000 external attacks, although Le Drian did not specifically cite Russia as a point of origination of hacking. French infrastructure -- including water, health, communications and transportation — was at risk ahead of the elections, he said.
“France reserves the right to respond by all the means it judges appropriate,” Le Drian added.
Still, analyst Soesanto believes France is well prepared for cyberthreats, suggesting Le Drian’s remarks might be politically motivated during an election year.
“I would argue the current French defense posture is very good,” he said.
Others believe France is right to be worried.
“I think France is absolutely part of this style of information operation,” analyst Molly McKew told France 24 TV, referring to Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. vote. “Germany has very clearly been put in the target as well.”
There is also a precedent — a 2015 cyberattack against French international broadcaster TV5 that came close to destroying it. A group calling itself the Cyber Caliphate claimed responsibility for the strike, which targeted malicious software against the network. But TV5's chief later identified Russian hackers, not the Islamic Sate group, as behind it.
Fears of Russian interference are being echoed across the European Union this year, as several member states, including Germany, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic prepare for voting.
Earlier this week, Germany’s domestic security chief said Berlin must be capable of counter-attacking cyber assailants. “We cannot only operate defensively,” Hans-Georg Maassen told German news media.
“Germany is a much neater and easier target,” for Russia than France, Soesanto said, partly because information cooperation among German states can be difficult. “And Putin and Merkel are not on the best terms.”
European intelligence cooperation in identifying Russia’s cyber activities is also woefully lacking, he said.
“Currently every member state is left on their own, so the response is not that strong — or there’s no response at all,” Soesanto said.
In France, which holds presidential elections in April and May and legislative elections in June, the ruling Socialist Party’s security head Sebastien Pietrasanta has also called for stepped-up preparedness.
“The stakes are enormous,” he told Le Journal du Dimanche, adding that “this isn’t political fiction.”
To be sure, French-Russian relations under the ruling Socialists could not be frostier. President Francois Hollande led the push for EU sanctions for the Ukraine crisis and has fiercely criticized Russia’s role in Syria.
In October, President Vladimir Putin canceled a visit to Paris to inaugurate a new Russian Orthodox cathedral after President Hollande said Moscow could face war crimes charges for bombing Syria's second-largest city of Aleppo.
But Hollande is not running for re-election, and the Socialists are expected to fare badly.
By contrast, the two leading presidential contenders — center-right candidate Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front — have both criticized sanctions against Russia and called for resetting relations with Moscow. They have also called for cooperating with Russia and the Syrian regime in fighting the Islamic State group.
“The Russians do not see one candidate as being a friend and another a foe,” said French analyst Jean-Yves Camus of Le Pen and Fillon. “So they would not put this at risk by interfering in the French election to the extent they did in the US.”
Russia expert Anton Koslov, of the American Graduate School in Paris, said while Russia does have an interest in influencing the French electorate, cyberattacks would not be “logical.”
“There are other means,” he said, including through pro-Russian sympathizers in the French media and parliament and France’s sizeable Russian diaspora.
Digital policy analyst Soesanto adds another, more unusual obstacle thwarting Russia’s potential cyber ambitions.
“There are various attack vectors they can leverage,” he said, including hacking Twitter, news and email accounts, or putting out fake news.
“But I’m not sure the Russians would actually do that,” he added, “because all the information they would exfiltrate would have to be put out in French. And the international impact would not be that big.”