A Russian bank and French nationalism

No word on why the bank gave the loan to France’s National Front party – but why shouldn’t it?

French far right party Front National supporters celebrate win under leader Marine Le Pen [AFP]

You have to be made of wood not to laugh at this: a private Russian bank has given a loan to France’s National Front. This political party, drawn to victory by Marine Le Pen, won the recent French elections by almost three times the number of votes than President Francois Hollande. Although this is news, this wasn’t the biggest media reaction of the day.

Ever since the news came out that the National Front’s campaign budget was allegedly funded by the First Czech-Russian Bank, accusations that “the Kremlin is funding the far-right” and “supporting anti-EU parties” have been making the rounds. This bank has been in operation since 1996, which by Russian terms, makes it “ancient” as capitalism didn’t really kick in until the mid-1990s in Russia. Through this, the sole owner of the bank, Roman Popov, was immediately seen as the “oligarch who is close to the Kremlin”.

The funding, which initially started at a sum of $11m, quickly increased to $49m, purely because that is the amount of money the National Front said it needed in order to pay for its campaign leading up to the presidential elections in 2017.

Media hype

With all the media hype, it seems as though people haven’t picked up on the irony. When former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was running for president in 2005, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi also gave him a sum of money for his campaign. But that is not the irony; the amount of money he gave was $49m. This doesn’t appear to have crossed the minds of western hacks just yet. That is because they have their own steadfast views and refuse to deviate from them.

Far-right parties eye pan-European alliance

In order to find out more, I turned to my Moscow sources for help. But first, I got in touch with the First Czech-Russian Bank. I wanted to find out what they thought about the whole fuss that has erupted around their institution.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the staff at the bank was reluctant to comment on the loan to the National Front, citing client confidentiality. They did, however, provide me with a direct email address to get in touch with one of the deputy chairmen, who never did respond to my request for comment.

Then again, if you should try to find out something somewhat unconventional from any of the private banks in the West, you’d also be met with silence or at best, claims of data protection.

My sources in Moscow did a bit of their own research and told me that the First Czech-Russian Bank was actually launched on the initiative of the Czech government. At some point later on, one of the shareholders was the Russian construction company Stroitransgaz; translated into English, the name means “Gas Pipeline Construction”. The current owner of the bank, Roman Popov, used to work there.

While Popov was head of the Finance Department (1992-2002), Stroitransgaz was a subcontractor for Gazprom, the giant state-owned gas and oil corporation in Russia. It was probably because of that, that western hacks came to the conclusion that Popov is “directly linked to the Kremlin”.

The journalists’ suspicions are further fuelled by the fact that Popov generally keeps a low profile and does not boast about his football club in England or his basketball team in the US or his real-estate profile, which is worth millions in Western Europe. The bank also has two representative offices; one in Prague and one in Bratislava, which would be logical if the name of your bank included the word “Czech”.    

Success of the bank

My sources in Moscow informed me that the First Czech-Russian bank is quite a good bank and has a very decent track record, which is no mean feat for a financial institution that dates back to 1996. It has had no substantial bail outs from the Central Bank and survived the banking crash of 2007 with flying colours.

As for the owner, the best I could find out is that he has a degree in financial management and has been of late developing business beyond corporate entities and individual customers in Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. No word on why he gave the go-ahead to give the loan to the National Front, but even if he did, why not? If the interest is good and the chances of getting it back are high as well, it sounds like a fair deal. Not to mention that it’s a perfectly legitimate political party, which enjoys greater support than the ruling party at present. The most recent opinion poll has shown that Le Pen would win the first round of the presidential elections if they were held tomorrow.     

In Russia itself, the National Front is not seen as ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’, as some sections of the French media portray it.

The question is, of course, did Popov bargain on all the publicity that his bank would be getting once word gets out that he has been funding an anti-EU and anti-immigration political part in France? Well, it might be that he thought that some publicity for his bank might actually attract more clients and raise his bank’s profile. Let’s face it, if a party gets 25 percent in the national vote, like the National Front did in the European elections this year, it means that a lot of people see it as a better bet than the other parties, which in turn means that the potential client base is substantial.

In Russia itself, the National Front is not seen as “racist” or “fascist”, as some sections of the French media portray it. In doing so, they seem to forget that by labelling this party as racists and fascists, they also label 25 percent of the French electorate as racists and fascists.

Some sensible policies

In Russia, the National Front is considered a right-wing political party that has some sensible policies on the EU, on immigration and supports the idea of a strong French identity and closer ties with Russia.

The opposition UMP – led once again by Sarkozy – incidentally, shares some of the National Front’s views on immigration and the EU. Leading Russian political expert Andrey Fursov says that “to call the National Front [headed by Marine Le Pen] a far-right or fascist party is an exaggeration and a mistake”.

“It’s a right-wing party, yes,” he says. “In our modern times, it’s the left-wing socialists who can actually be called fascists.”

In his opinion, those who are called right-wing these days are “realists” who don’t want Europe to be enslaved by the US and the “Euro-bureaucracy”.

It remains to be seen whether the First Czech-Russian Bank made the right commercial move. From the point of view of PR, that is.

Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.