The annexation of Crimea? Bad, but what about the NATO intervention in Kosovo back in 1999? Russia not abiding by the so-called Minsk accord on Ukraine? Bad, but what about Ukraine not doing its part either by granting autonomy to the Donbas region?
That happened in Fillon’s debate with rival Alain Juppé, three days before his November 27 victory in the second round of the conservative primary, when he pounced once again on outgoing President François Hollande’s policies on Russia, which he deemed much too hard-line and “a failure.”
Now that he looks like the arch-favorite to become France’s president next year, questions about what his foreign policy would be as president sound a lot like the questions raised in the U.S about what Donald Trump will do once in office: Will he do what he said, or will the shock of reality force him to adjust or water down his most strident intentions?
At best, Fillon’s utterances on foreign policy have sounded like a throwback to France’s Gaullist 1960s tradition of trying to maintain a balance between the alliance with the United States, friendly relations with Russia and forging a foreign policy strictly based on French interests. When he launched his campaign for the presidency more than three years ago, Fillon claimed the mantle of Charles de Gaulle, the World War II resistance chief who was France’s president from 1958 to 1969 and inspired its current Constitution.
At worst, seeing Fillon quoting straight from the Putin playbook reinforced the view of critics who say he is too close to large segments of the conservative French electorate who traditionally tend to have a mystic vision of modern Russia.
Whether true Gaullist or serious Putinphile, Fillon will soon have to square his Russian policies with equally forceful statements that he wants first and foremost to repair what he sees as France’s broken relationship with Germany.
Some of his allies are already seeking to dismiss the personal aspect of Fillon’s support of the Russian president.
“The question is not whether you’re friends or not with Vladimir Putin, that is irrelevant,” Bruno Le Maire, who is poised to become Fillon’s top foreign policy adviser during the presidential campaign, told POLITICO.
Le Maire, a French MP and former European affairs minister who was a candidate in the conservative primary, rallied to Fillon after the first round and is rumored to be a favorite to become foreign minister if the conservative candidate wins the election next year.
“What we need is to reopen dialogue with Russia on a number of topics, whether strategic or economic,” he added.
Ever since he launched his candidacy, Fillon has repeatedly criticized Western sanctions against Moscow and called for ending them. He was the only major French politician to vote in favor of a (non-binding) parliamentary resolution calling for an immediate lifting of sanctions — along with the Communist Party MPs and a handful of deputies from the Right.
During the debate with Juppé, Fillon also reiterated his view that now is the time to extend a hand to Russia and “bring it to the table” for negotiations on Syria.
Fillon’s Russophilia has long been so pronounced that French diplomats fear that, should he stick to it, he would take French foreign policy back several decades to the era of the old divide between pro- and anti-Atlanticists.
“Strip away [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s personal hyperactive and over-excited style, on substance there has been mostly continuity in French foreign policy over the last 10 years or more,” said a senior French diplomat close to Hollande’s Socialist administration.
France has long opted for a non-complicated relationship with the U.S., under two presidents — Sarkozy and Hollande — both in their sixties, who both worked to overcome the tensions that flared after France’s refusal to join the Iraq war in 2003.
The worry now among policymakers is not so much Fillon’s stance on the U.S. as his coziness toward Russia.
“Choosing Putin [as an ally in Syria] would not be choosing between realism and idealism, or efficiency against good conscience. It would bring about a strategic disaster,” four scholars warned recently in a jointly written article published by the French edition of Huffington Post that seemed to sum up the consensus of the foreign-policy establishment in Paris.
Building an alliance with Russia in the region would be “incoherent, useless and counter-productive,” the authors wrote. France doesn’t have the same strategic goals in Syria as Putin, they said, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of the solution — contrary to Fillon’s suggestion of “a temporary agreement that may imply a kind of status quo” in order to stop the violence.
Furthermore, “saying we should talk to Putin is naïve as [the West] has never stopped talking to Putin,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy head of Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique and a co-author of the article. “But talking doesn’t mean our interests should be aligned [with Moscow],” he added.
Fillon had to defend himself during his campaign against accusations that he was particularly close to Putin. When the latter said good words about Fillon following his surprise victory in the primary’s first round, rival Juppé quipped that it was “the first time a Russian president chooses his own candidate in a French election.”
Ties between Fillon and Putin go back to the days when they were both prime ministers. “Sarkozy thought that Russia’s man of the future was the new president Dmitry Medvedev,” a former aide to the ex-president recounted. “Not that smart, of course.”
Medvedev had just been installed as president by his mentor Putin in order to formally abide by the term limits then in place in Russia. Meanwhile, Putin became prime minister while awaiting his return to the presidency in May 2012 — which happened, ironically, the day after Sarkozy was voted out of power.
While Sarkozy spent time with his new friend Medvedev, Fillon and Putin got to know each other better. The French prime minister was invited to Putin’s summer dacha in Sochi and Putin sent a pricey bottle of wine when Fillon’s mother died.
Even after Fillon was voted out of power with Sarkozy in 2012, Putin kept showering him with attention. In 2013 Fillon was invited to the Valdai club, the Russian would-be Davos, where he uttered a phrase that raised eyebrows among French diplomats: “It’s through our dialogue, my dear Vladimir, that peace will advance.”
However, a closer look at Fillon’s foreign policy statements over the years suggests that if he does become French president, he will have to make adjustments, or face some major contradictions that his program implies.
To begin with, he has never strayed from the core tenets of French diplomacy, notably membership of NATO. He was the prime minister who defended France rejoining the Atlantic alliance’s military organization in parliament back in 2009, when he was facing a censure vote against the decision Sarkozy had made.
The main speaker for the opposition at the time was Socialist bigwig Laurent Fabius, the former prime minister who went on to become Hollande’s foreign minister and dutifully toed the line once France had rejoined NATO in full.
Fillon hasn’t changed his mind on the U.S. “What a caricature to say that I want to switch alliances … We are the U.S.’s ally, we share with them fundamental values that we don’t share with the Russians, and we have a security alliance with the U.S., which we will not challenge,” he said during his debate with Juppé.
Furthermore, said Olivier Schmitt, professor of international relations at the Center for War Studies in Denmark, “Fillon’s stated European policy rests on a revived relationship with Germany, so he’d have to square what he says about Russia with [Angela] Merkel’s concerns about the security of the EU’s Eastern European members.”
Le Maire confirmed that Fillon’s approach would be to first discuss matters with Germany, within the EU framework.
“There is a simple and strong conviction that the priority is to rebuild the partnership with Germany. First by rebuilding the French economy, taking care of the debt problem and becoming a credible partner again. Then we can together move towards strengthening the eurozone, and boosting the Europeans’ defense capabilities. Russia no doubt will be a major topic of discussion,” he said.
In that respect, Fillon’s oft-stated conviction that “Russia isn’t a threat to Europe” could raise more than eyebrows from Warsaw to the Baltics.
On sanctions, notably, Fillon’s wish to work within the European framework raises questions about whether he would act alone — since unanimity is required to roll the sanctions over, he could theoretically do so — or first try to reach a compromise with Berlin.
The more basic question, the French senior diplomat noted, is whether he will adapt his Gaullist views to the changing times. “It is of course an illusion to think that France can be a kind of go-between trying to foster compromises between the U.S. and Russia. If they want to strike a deal, they won’t need us.”
Even though he has never been a minister of foreign affairs or defense, Fillon brings with him a substantial knowledge on national security matters, the diplomat noted. As a young parliamentarian in the early 1980s, he became known as a defense specialist, and he chaired the National Assembly’s Defense Committee from 1986 to 1988.
“On one of France’s two basic foreign policy pillars — an independent nuclear power and the push for more defense cooperation in Europe — he will stay in the absolute continuity” of presidents past, said one of Fillon’s campaign aides.
“He’s not a novice, he works and has a keen sense of France’s interests. I doubt he’ll rock the boat to the point of capsizing it,” the diplomat said.
Author: PIERRE BRIANÇON