France’s polling watchdog has issued a warning over what it says is a misleading Russian news report claiming that François Fillon, the scandal-struck conservative candidate, has regained the lead in the presidential race.
The Polling Commission criticised a French-language report by Sputnik, a state-run Russian news agency, for presenting a social media survey by Brand Analytics, a Moscow-based online research firm, as a “poll” showing Mr Fillon as the front runner.
In fact, French opinion polls, which are strictly supervised by the authorities, show Mr Macron leading on about 26 per cent, with Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader, one point behind.
Mr Fillon is currently polling in third place, on 19 per cent. If he comes third in the first round of voting in three weeks, he will be eliminated from the second and final vote next month.
In a statement released on Sunday, the watchdog said the survey could not be described as representative of public opinion and that Sputnik had improperly described it as a “poll” because it did not fulfill the legal definition of the term under French law.
“It is imperative that publication of this type of survey be treated with caution so that public opinion is aware of its non-representative nature,” the commission’s statement said.
Sputnik published a similar online survey by the same firm in mid-February, also showing Mr Fillon in the lead while opinion polls were placing him third.
Neither Sputnik nor Brand Analytics responded to requests to comment on Sunday.
The unusual cautionary note from the Polling Commission, which monitors pre-election opinion polls, follows multiple allegations of Russian meddling in the French election.
Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate, has said he is being targeted by “fake news” put out by Russian media.
Mr Macron backs European sanctions on Moscow over the Ukraine crisis, whereas Mr Fillon has said they are ineffective and create a “Cold War” climate. The conservative candidate also favours an alliance with Russia in Syria.
Warnings of Russian efforts to sway France’s election have also come from the French government and intelligence agencies, and Richard Burr, the head of the US Senate Intelligence Committee.
The Kremlin has denied that interfering in the French election campaign or orchestrating media and internet attacks against Mr Macron.
Mr Fillon had been the favourite until he was accused of giving his wife and children “fake” jobs as his parliamentary aides, paying them more than $900,000 (£764,000) of public money.
Mr Fillon, who allegedly received $50,000 to arrange a 2015 meeting between a Lebanese billionaire and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has dismissed claims of interference by Moscow as “fantasy”.
Mr Fillon has denied all allegations of wrong doing.
Ms Le Pen, the French far-Right leader, who is an admirer of Mr Putin, met the Russian leader at the Kremlin last month in her fourth trip to Moscow since 2011.
Her party borrowed €9 million (£7.8m) from a Moscow-based bank in 2014.
The French investigative weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné, has reported that the US director of national intelligence was urged to investigate Ms Le Pen’s links with Russia by Mike Turner, a Republican on the House of Representatives’ permanent select committee on intelligence, in December.