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Lazaro Gamio / Axios

The polls say centrist Emmanuel Macron has more or less smooth sailing to the French presidency in the second round of voting on May 7. But Kremlin-linked hackers have already attempted to infiltrate his campaign, and political observers expect further attempts to disrupt the election by Vladimir Putin, who supports far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Quick take: With most polls showing Macron up 20 to 25 points, Le Pen stands very little apparent chance of winning. But even if Putin can't swing the election to her, he can serve his long game of encouraging divisions within NATO countries, and fomenting doubt about the integrity of their democratic institutions. Look for fake news to raise the specter of terrorism and sow distrust of Muslim migrants.

Putin favors Le Pen in part because she has said she'll vote to terminate EU sanctions against Russia. She has explicitly identified herself with the Russian leader and President Trump, describing them as "new world" politicians, and Russia has supported her party with millions of Euros in funding.

U.S. and European intelligence agencies have rung the alarm about intrusive Russian cyber and fake news attacks that appear designed to create a crisis environment in the West. Now, experts say France is next.

Daniel Baer, the former US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said:

"Russian disinformation won't just be about Macron. It will amp up the terrorist threat as a political hot button. It will be aimed at arousing anti-Muslim sentiment. Given that Le Pen is so far back in the polls, my hunch is that — as with the U.S. — the Russian game plan will not be primarily about making her win, but rather about sowing doubt/discord/confusion."

The ground in France — as in the U.S. and elsewhere in the west — is fertile for such action, said Pasi Eronen, a cyber expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Putin's method, he said, is to needle already-existing discontent. "We are allowing Russia to work against us by not addressing those wounds in our society," he told me.

Go deeper

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to Texas abortion law

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two cases challenging Texas' abortion law, which bans the procedure as soon as six weeks into pregnancy, but left the law in place in the meantime.

Why it matters: The court is moving extraordinarily fast on the Texas case, compressing into just a few days a process that normally takes months. And that schedule means the court will take up Texas' ban a month before it hears another major abortion case — a challenge to Mississippi's ban on abortions after 15 weeks.

Officials warn 5 key tech sectors will determine whether China overtakes U.S.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

U.S. intelligence officials responsible for protecting advanced technologies have narrowed their focus to five key sectors: artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, semiconductors and autonomous systems.

Why it matters: China and Russia are employing a variety of legal and illegal methods to undermine and overtake U.S. dominance in these critical industries, officials warned in a new paper. Their success will determine "whether America remains the world’s leading superpower or is eclipsed by strategic competitors."

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Pfizer says COVID vaccine over 90% effective in kids

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Pfizer and BioNTech said their COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective at protecting children between the ages of 5 and 11 from symptomatic infections from the virus, according to a study posted online by the FDA Friday.

Why it matters: Pfizer is seeking an emergency use authorization to vaccinate children — one of the last groups of Americans still largely ineligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine.