'Fake news' makes headlines in French presidential campaign days before the election

Forged documents claiming that frontrunner Emmanuel Macron owned an offshore account in the Caribbean have been debunked, but concerns are high that such false allegations could influence the vote.

Eric Feferberg/Reuters
French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party, Marine Le Pen (l.), French journalist Christophe Jakubyszyn (center, l.), French journalist Nathalie Saint-Cricq (center, r.) and French presidential election candidate for the En Marche! movement, Emmanuel Macron pose prior to the start of a live broadcast face-to-face debate in television studios of French public national television channel France 2, and French private channel TF1 in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, Paris, France, on Wednesday.

Days ahead of Sunday's runoff vote between centrist Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, "fake news" briefly took center stage in the French presidential election.

Speaking during their only one-on-one debate Wednesday, Ms. Le Pen told her rival: "I hope we won't find out you have an offshore account in the Bahamas."She appeared to be referencing two sets of apparent forgeries, published a couple of hours before Wednesday's heated showdown, that purported to show that Mr. Macron was somehow involved with a Caribbean bank and a firm based on the island of Nevis.

Le Pen quickly backed away from the suggestion as the rumors were debunked the next day. The documents are obvious fakes: the "M'' in Macron's purported signature didn't match his genuine sign-off, and whoever wrote the documents appeared confused as to whether the firm in question was a limited company or a limited liability corporation. Metadata embedded in the document suggest it was created just before being posted online – undermining the anonymous poster's claim to have circulated the documents to "hundreds of French journalists" who had "all sat on this."

Asked Thursday on BFM TV whether she was formally accusing Macron of having a secret offshore account, Le Pen said: "Not at all. If I wanted to do so I would have done it yesterday. I've just asked him the question. If I had proof, I would have claimed it yesterday.

"Macron's camp said the former investment banker was victim of a "cyber misinformation campaign."

Speaking on France Inter radio, Macron blamed Le Pen for spreading "fake news" and said he never held a bank account "in any tax haven whatsoever."

"All this is factually inaccurate," Macron said.

Le Pen and Macron face off in the presidential runoff Sunday. The latest opinion polls show the pro-EU Macron holding a strong lead over his far-right rival ahead of Sunday's vote.

The election has been shot through with fears by some that outside forces would somehow interfere. Despite slim evidence supporting such claims, French commentators have become highly sensitive to rumors and conspiracies and the networks that disseminate them.

The provenance of the latest conspiracy theory isn't clear, but there are hints tying the faked documents to far-right circles in California.

One of the documents, for example, purports to have been drawn up under the laws of Nevis but actually draws some of its language from a guide to forming limited liability companies in California. The documents first appeared on Mixtape, a relatively new northern California-based file sharing service. And the Macron campaign identified the first tweet referring to the documents as coming from the Twitter account of Nathan Damigo, a far-right activist and convicted felon also based out of northern California.

Mr. Damigo recently won a measure of social media notoriety for punching a female anti-fascist militant in the face at a protest in Berkeley and had recently promoted French far-right content online.

Messages left with Damigo weren't immediately returned.

French media unanimously criticized the poor quality of the only face-to-face televised debate between the two contenders. Le Pen got most of the blame for dragging the conversation down and opting for aggression from the start. She defended her aggressive stance on Thursday, saying a "severe" tone was required because "what is at stake is essential."

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