Putin and Macron

Is a 'Reset' Between France and Russia Needed and, If So, Is It Possible?

December 09, 2019
Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean

As Emmanuel Macron hosts Angela Merkel, Vladimir Zelenskiy, and Vladimir Putin for a summit aimed at resolving the Ukraine conflict, it is worth taking stock of the French leader’s Russia policy to try to discern what Paris’s policy toward Moscow can and cannot achieve.

Four French presidents and one Putin: ups and downs of the bilateral relationship

Emmanuel Macron is the fourth French president whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has had to contend with during his 20-year stay in power. The Franco-Russian relationship was friendly under Jacques Chirac, France’s president from 1995 to 2007. In 2003, France and Germany’s opposition to the U.S. intervention in Iraq was perceived in Moscow as a promise of a new international order. Putin's recent visit to Paris to Chirac’s funeral and the warm tonality of the Russian official media on this occasion reflect a nostalgia for the common Russo-European resistance to the unilateral action of the transatlantic "adversary-partner."

The Kremlin's relationship with Nicolas Sarkozy, president from 2007-2012, also had its glorious moment with Sarkozy’s mediation of a blitzkrieg war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. But France’s return to the NATO military command and its participation in the intervention in Libya in 2011 were interpreted in Moscow as the beginning of a neoconservative and interventionist policy. But it was under François Hollande’s presidency (2012-2017) that the bilateral relationship experienced one of the worst moments in its history, marked by the annexation of Crimea, sanctions and the cancelling of contracts for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers.

Despite the Russian media's negative portrayal of Emmanuel Macron during his presidential campaign, his election raised hopes of improving bilateral relations when the new president condemned "imported neo-conservatism" and announced a return to the "Gaullo-Mitterrand" line. Macron reformulates Europe’s Russia dilemma: succeed in lashing it up, let it fall back on itself or see it in the arms of China.

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, France’s Russia policy—both Hollande’s and Macron’s—is frequently summed up by the double formula "dialogue and firmness." France is committed to defending its security, European and transatlantic solidarity, as well as democratic and liberal values, while maintaining and expanding political, economic and cultural dialogue with Russia. The balance between dialogue and firmness is not an exact science. The scales shift and the timing is often treacherous: In June 2018, Macron maintained his visit to St. Petersburg in spite of the Skripal affair (the poisoning of a double agent in Britain), by avoiding the Russian stand of the Paris Book Fair earlier that year. The last French opening to Russia, in the summer of 2019, was made at a moment when Putin’s popularity was declining, disillusionment was on the rise within Russian civil society, police violence had hardened against demonstrators and elites feared the uncertainties looming after 2024, when Putin’s fourth term in office ends..

Factors that explain Macron's new turn to Russia

Since the beginning of the summer of 2019, France’s Russia policy is strongly leaning toward dialogue rather than firmness. In June, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe received his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Le Havre. The Russian delegation reintegrated the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in favor of the French presidency. Macron received Putin on Aug. 19, a few days before the opening of the French-hosted G7 summit in Biarritz. In September 2019, the so-called "2 + 2" format of two foreign affairs ministers and two defense ministers was also relaunched with a meeting in Moscow.

This summer flexion of French politics can be explained by several reasons. In the context of Brexit, the political eclipse of Germany linked to the end of Angela Merkel's mandate and the recent renewal of European authorities, France is de facto the only country in Europe able to formulate relevant initiatives in regard to Russia. The French presidencies of the Council of Europe and the G7 gave Macron additional opportunity and legitimacy to "re-engage a dynamic" with Russia and resume "a strategic dialogue" without fear of accusations of complicity with the Kremlin.

Another important element in the French reasoning was certainly the election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, with whom Macron has established a good relationship. The French president welcomed the two Ukrainian presidential candidates between the two rounds of elections, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel only received outgoing President Petro Poroshenko. The Elysee Palace certainly considers that the parliamentary elections in Ukraine last July, which gave Zelenskiy full power, opened a window of opportunity that must be taken advantage of without delay to advance the settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which is at the heart of the Russia-Europe blockages.

In an interview with The Economist in November 2019, Macron stated that “We showed ourselves to be weak in 2013-2014, and Ukraine happened,” suggesting that the EU could have prevented Russia from taking Crimea. Macron also used the interview to reaffirm his intention to engage Russia in spite of the difference. In the interview, Macron called for a Russian partnership with the EU based on a new “architecture of trust and security” and expressed skepticism about a “stand-alone option for Russia.” He also warned that NATO was becoming brain-dead and that “Europe … if it can’t think of itself as a global power, will disappear, because it will take a hard knock.” The French leader’s comments about the brain death of NATO created a furor, but he doubled down on them later the same month. "Is our enemy today Russia, as I sometimes hear? Is it China? Is it the goal of NATO to designate them as enemies? I don't believe so. Our common enemy today is terrorism, which has hit each of our countries," Macron said.

France is lacking major diplomatic successes: the weakening of the Franco-German tandem, European fragilities, the turns of French diplomacy in the Middle East and the fear that Europe will find itself hostage to the strategic competition between the United States and China. Additionally, Syria and Iran (France tried this summer to mediate between Washington and Tehran) are issues where dialogue with Russia is needed. Many bilateral issues worry the French authorities, ranging from the detention in Russia of banker Philippe Delpal to Russian actions in the Central African Republic, openly described as "anti-French" by Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. 

Finally, considerations of French domestic policy are probably pertinent to this turning point. Macron is already positioning himself for the 2022 electoral race, and is trying to seduce the right and even the extreme right as much with hardened rhetoric on immigration as with more open rhetoric on Russia. The advantage with Russia is that just the change of tone and the effect of announcement are already perceived as a breakthrough in and of themselves by large parts of the political chessboard.

Potential impact for the bilateral relationship and beyond

On the opposite side, Putin certainly appreciates France’s openness, which allows him to reaffirm once again his positions and to show, internally and internationally, how much Russia matters for Europe and the West. But the risk is that it makes a bad reading of the last French openings, like that which was made of Russia’s reinstatement to PACE. The latter was presented in the Russian official press as a symbolic victory over the West, ready to return to its principles in the name of Realpolitik—and even financial considerations like Russian contributions to the Council of Europe budget—without getting anything in return. The Russian president seems to reap the benefits of his strategic patience and his intransigence towards Europe. In this context, the risk is that Putin will not see in Macron a new de Gaulle, but will interpret the French openings as an admission of weakness and an inconsistent Russia policy in France—and in Europe more broadly. The French position is far from comfortable. The dialogue with Russia is indispensable and inevitable, as many bilateral and regional issues have accumulated on the negotiating table. At the same time, the openings in Paris help to consolidate Moscow in its uncompromising posture and legitimize its foreign policy, which has been perceived since 2014 by the Russian population as the main success of Putin’s presidencies.

The French-Russian bilateral relationship is based on a solid economic base, despite Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions. Since 2015, France is one of the largest foreign investors in Russia and the largest foreign employer. Putin regularly receives French entrepreneurs as a way to thank those whose will and faith in the Russian market helps to loosen the grip of sanctions. The Yamal LNG liquefied natural gas project (in which Total holds 20 percent) is exemplary in this respect: it opens up new global prospects for Russian hydrocarbons while serving as a strong political message about the possibilities of working in Russia without the American dollar. On the cultural and citizen level, the "Trianon Dialogue" aims to strengthen exchanges between civil societies. 

But the relations binding the two countries are neither exclusively bilateral nor purely mercantile. It is especially on the multilateral strategic issues that blockages and tensions are very strong. Thus, the settlement of the crisis in eastern Ukraine has been floundering, though there is hope that today’s meeting of the Normandy format summit could lead to some progress in efforts to resolve it. Russian passports are issued to residents of the separatist regions of Donbas. Russia will not give up on the special status of this region within Ukraine to continue to influence the strategic choices of this country. Crimea will not be returned to Ukraine. No factor today allows us to start the discussion on the lifting, even partial, of European sanctions conditioned on the Minsk agreements. And France, which inscribes its policy in that of the EU, will not go it alone to lift sanctions, as Greece or Italy have, to preserve European cohesion.

Despite all the talk about a new European security architecture, no serious consultation is envisaged with Russia on the EU's neighborhood policy, the subsequent enlargement of NATO or the recognition of the Eurasian Economic Union as an international player. In Syria, Russia is the master of the game, and has blocked several French resolutions in the U.N. The crises and the hardening of positions are not to be excluded, despite the current thaw in the discourse, as positions of each partner on the majority of international topics are divergent and the evolution of the Russian regime—more and more authoritarian, nationalistic and conservative—away from the values declared by Europe and generates mistrust.

Some opportunities for rapprochement that have lastly emerged are also fueled by American policy, whose assumed unilateralism strongly challenges transatlantic solidarity. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, sanctions whose extraterritorial effects threaten European companies, the abandonment of the Iranian nuclear agreement of 2015 are all decisions that weaken the cohesion of the Western camp, already quite flayed by various factors ranging from Brexit and the growing unpopularity of the European project to the rise of populism. Macron’s position is not the most comfortable: aware of the weaknesses of the Western camp, he also knows the risks of spreading them against Russia, which, according to his own expression, will not hesitate to rush into it. Finally, Macron's new policy worries European countries like Poland and the Baltic countries. They criticize Paris for not coordinating its actions with other European capitals, while officially Macron seeks to strengthen the EU. 

We can therefore anticipate contradictory tendencies that will continue to shape the dialogue with Russia, which France wants to be wanted frank and without naivety. The time for a "strategic and historical dialogue" with Russia, which Macron wanted, does not seem to have come yet. It remains for France to work to avoid further degradation in the immediate future and to prepare for the long-term future by fully fulfilling its role as a responsible power respectful of multilateralism, international law, Europeans values, etc. This "grammar"—the word favored by Macron—can reassure the Russians, because if it does not imply a complacency toward them, it is just as far from the mere follow-up of the American policy. It is enough to allow France to continue, as in the era of the Cold War, to play a privileged intermediary role in all circumstances, raising its own international rank at the same time.


Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean

Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean is head of the Russia-NIS Center of Ifri.

Photo by kremlin.ru.