MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin granted an audience to French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen in the Kremlin on Friday, bestowing a level of international recognition that has so far eluded her in the countdown to France's presidential election.
Opinion polls show Le Pen getting through to the second, decisive round of the French presidential election on May 7 but then losing to centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Le Pen, who has said she admires Putin, reiterated her call for a lifting of the European Union's economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict.
"We attach great importance to our relations with France, but at the same time we try to maintain equal relations both with the current authorities and with representatives of the opposition," said Putin ahead of his talks with Le Pen.
"Of course I know that the election campaign in France is actively developing," said Putin. "We do not want to influence events in any way, but we reserve the right to talk to representatives of all the country's political forces, just as our partners in Europe and the United States do."
Le Pen told reporters after the talks that the aim of her visit to Russia was not to boost her election chances, though her meeting with Putin is likely to go down well with her core supporters in France, many of whom admire the Russian leader's conservative stance on social and moral issues.
Other French voters, however, may be put off by her association with a leader widely seen in the West as autocratic.
The meeting also shows that the Kremlin is not shying away from actions that could influence foreign elections, even after the storm over U.S. intelligence agencies' allegations that Russia tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump win the White House.
Russia has denied trying to influence the U.S. vote, and has also dismissed allegations that Kremlin-funded media outlets are spreading "fake news" in an attempt to interfere in the French presidential race.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, told reporters on a conference call that Putin and Le Pen had not discussed the possibility of Russia offering any financial help to her political party.
Her party took a 9-million-euro loan from a Moscow-based bank in 2014, and is actively seeking new sources of funding.
(Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya, Denis Pinchuk and Katya Golubkova in Moscow and Ingrid Melander in Paris; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Gareth Jones)