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, who has said she admires Putin, getting through to the second, decisive round of France's presidential election on May 7 but then losing to centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Le Pen backs the lifting of the European Union's economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict - a stance she reiterated on Friday.
"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," Putin told Le Pen at their meeting.
"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."
Putin added that Le Pen represented a range of political forces that was gaining momentum.
The meeting with Putin represented a coup for Le Pen. She had travelled to New York earlier this year and was seen at Trump Tower, the New York home of U.S. President Donald Trump, but did not meet Trump himself.
Her Kremlin audience 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.
Back home in France, the meeting was the top item on the website of French conservative daily Le Figaro. Another French newspaper, Le Monde, said Putin had "anointed" Le Pen.
However, some French voters may be put off by Le Pen's association with a leader widely seen in the West as autocratic.
In an interview published this week in French daily Liberation, her opponent, Macron, said Le Pen had a "toxic" fascination with Russia.
"We must certainly talk with Russia to ensure stability in the Middle East. But let's not forget who they are, what they do, and the nature of their regime," Macron said.
Friday's meeting showed 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.
Putin would benefit from getting the sanctions lifted, especially as he is expected to seek a fourth term in office next year. They are curbing Russia's recovery from an economic slowdown caused by low oil prices.
Speaking to reporters in a Moscow hotel after her meeting with Putin, Le Pen denied that she had discussed financial aid for her party, echoing an earlier denial from the Kremlin.
Le Pen's party took a 9-million-euro loan from a Moscow-based bank in 2014 and is actively seeking new sources of funding.
Le Pen said her discussion with Putin had focussed on what she said were shared Russian and French interests in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
"A new world has emerged in these past years. It's the world of Vladimir Putin, it's the world of Donald Trump in the United States, it's the world of Mr (Narendra) Modi in India, and I think that probably I am the one who shares with these great nations a vision of cooperation and not a vision of submission."
She said if elected, one of her first steps would be to think about lifting sanctions, provided Moscow lifted its own restrictions on imports of some European food.
The Putin-Le Pen meeting was not disclosed to reporters until after it had happened.
The declared reason for Le Pen coming to Moscow was for talks with Russian members of parliament. When she left the Russian parliament building unexpectedly, a Russian official told reporters she had gone to visit an exhibition of French Gothic art at the Kremlin. Soon after, Russian state television showed her sitting down Putin.
"We felt they understood each other, they were on the same wave length," Ludovic de Danne, a Le Pen aide who took part in the meeting, told Reuters. He said Putin had wished her good luck in the election.
(Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya, Denis Pinchuk, Christian Lowe and Katya Golubkova in Moscow and Ingrid Melander in Paris; Writing by Andrew Osborn/Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones and Toby Chopra)