Cyber-Attack Concerns Mount Ahead of French Elections

By Fayçal Benhassain | January 19, 2017 | 1:23 AM EST

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

Paris (CNSNews.com) – Ahead of France’s closely-watched presidential elections in the spring, senior officials, experts and political parties are worried about the risk of cyber-attacks.

Many fear that hackers from Russia, in particular, could target political and other sites in a bid to influence the outcome of the election, which takes place over two rounds in April and May.

“Intelligence agencies are aware of risks and are now taking extra measures to be ready if any attacks happen,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French media outlets. “Last year my ministry has been targeted 24,000 times by hackers and there is no reason why these unknown hackers would not attack the elections.”

After allegations of cyber interference in the 2016 U.S. election campaign, French authorities are urging political party members to take precautions online, to be aware of signs of cyber-attacks, and to take measures in response as quickly as possible. They strongly advise parties to train staffers or to hire experts.

“We can’t just act as if the problem does not exist,” Guillaume Poupard, head of the National Information System Security Agency, told the France 24 TV channel.

“The attackers who influenced the American election could try to do it again in France. We must be prepared. Even if we cannot be sure that they are absolutely the same people, there are attackers who regularly tap the door of our ministries.”

One of Poupard’s responsibilities during the election is to secure the count of ballots at polling stations, from where they will be sent, via regional prefectures, to the Ministry of Interior for the official tally.

Both the Republicans’ nominee, former Prime Minister François Fillon, and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National (NF) have pledged if elected to improve relations with Moscow.

Still, it is no secret that French cyber experts and political parties are keeping a wary eye on Russia in particular. Both parties are advising members to be very careful when using the Internet, emails and online databases.

NF vice-president Florian Philippot said the party’s website is often attacked by hackers, adding that “we have considerably reinforced our digital protection, especially the one we use in our campaign.”

Fillon is leading in the opinion polls, running at 63 percent when pitted against Le Pen who would come second.

The Socialist party of President Francois Hollande – who is not himself a candidate – has yet to hold its primaries, although former Prime Minister Manuel Valls is thought most likely to be its nominee.

Hollande imposed sanctions on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the Socialist party says it is also aware of a potential threat.

“No political party can say that their systems are seriously secured,” said Socialist senator Sébastien Pietrasanta.

“Private companies are aware of the risks and threats because it can have a negative impact on their finances. But parties, in general, don’t think that cyber-attacks can really happen against them.”

Pietrasanta also pointed out that measures to secure networks can be very expensive for political parties.

While all parties recognize they may face intrusion attempts, the one targeted most obviously so far is a group founded by a former economy minister who resigned from the Socialist party to run as an independent and is rising in the polls.

The En Marche movement, led by Emmanuel Macron, admitted that its website and database had suffered a successful attack in recent weeks.

In April 2015, a powerful cyber-attack took the French television network TV5Monde off the air. A ISIS-linked group calling itself the Cyber Caliphate initially claimed responsibility, but investigators later concluded that the attack was carried out by a group of Russian hackers.

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