Macron is welcoming the Russian president at the palace of Versailles Monday on Putin’s first visit to France since November 2015, the last one having been abruptly called off amid tension over indiscriminate bombing in Aleppo.
This time, Putin is getting the royal treatment (even if France has called the encounter a lowly “working visit”): Welcomed before any other leader of comparable stature, he gets to meet the new president amid the unrestrained opulence of Versailles as the city of kings celebrates Peter the Great’s 1717 visit to France with an exhibit that forms the cultural backdrop to this meeting.
But if Macron was quick to invite Putin to France, his intention is not to stage a love-in. Au contraire.
After his white-knuckled handshake with U.S. President Donald Trump last week, the young French leader is primed for more displays of muscular assertiveness.
“I will have a demanding dialogue with Russia” that will contain “no concessions” on Ukraine, he told journalists at the G7 summit in Sicily. In case any confusion remained as to France’s attitude toward the Ukraine conflict, he threw in, unsolicited, that “Russia invaded Ukraine” (a view that Moscow contests); said he would press for the oft-violated Minsk Accords to be respected; and called for a return to the four-way “Normandy format” dialogue involving France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia.
At the Élysée Palace in Paris, Macron’s young team of policy advisers was even more explicit. Russia had “excluded itself” from the G7 in-crowd of major powers, as opposed to being pushed out by the other members, said a senior aide. The new president would seek to “maintain the regime of sanctions against Moscow” until Russia respected the terms of the peace accord, while pressing for direct dialogue between the U.S.-led coalition and Russia-backed actors in Syria to end that conflict.
The subtext to all this no pasarán talk was easy to read: Just as he did with Trump, Macron is determined to prove to Putin and the world that despite his 39 years of age and lack of diplomatic experience, he is no pushover.
Moscow’s love for Le Pen
Putin pulled hard for Macron’s opponent during the presidential campaign, staging a Moscow handshake with Marine Le Pen that offered an icy counterpoint to the centrist candidate’s sofa talk with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A web analysis firm found Moscow’s fingerprints all over attempts to hack into the Macron campaign’s communications — attempts that foreshadowed a dump of pilfered emails two days before the final vote.
While neither the Macron campaign nor the French government ever accused Moscow explicitly of trying to throw the election in favor of Le Pen, there may have been no need. Moscow’s support for Le Pen, and its disdain for Macron, was plain and unsubtle, spelled out in the millions of euros that a Russian-backed bank lent to Le Pen’s party, and the dozens of anti-Macron articles pumped out each day by the Kremlin’s media operations in France.
If commentators are to be believed, such meddling hardened Macron’s views on Moscow. It shifted his emphasis from the possibility a year ago of lifting sanctions if Russia played by the rules to his insistence now that the Minsk process needs to be respected.
Russia insists that the Versailles talks are a chance to “reset” the Franco-Russian relationship. “This is a new departure in our relations,” Russia’s ambassador to Paris, Alexandre Orlov, told the RIA Novosti agency. “It seems that between Macron and Vladimir Vladimirovich, there are many common points, and they should be able to understand each other well.”
Yet the contrast between the two men — one an untested former investment banker; the other a former spy well into his second decade in power — could not be greater, nor the differences plainer. All of this suggests Macron will give Putin plenty of theatrics in Versailles. The Russian leader is known to enjoy a good staring match (cf. Obama); Macron, who was an enthusiastic participant in student theater and was coached by an actor during his campaign, may well be disposed to see who blinks first.
But however fun such antics may be to watch and decode, they cannot conceal what remains a deeply uncertain relationship between France, and by extension Europe, and Russia.
Merkel’s weekend call for Europe to fend for itself rehashed a refrain that by now is almost a cliché in diplomatic circles — that Europe needs to be more independent militarily to compensate for fading American interest in the Continent. The problem is getting European political will, and defense spending, to line up with such assertions. For now, Germany remains far from a paradigm shift that would power up defense spending significantly, and put German troops in the line of fire — or close enough to it to count.
France is post-Brexit Europe’s only military intervener, nuclear power and U.N. Security Council member. But, on its own, Paris is no match for Russia. Until Europe brings its military capacity and integration up to the level of its desired rapport with Moscow, a white-knuckled handshake or a hard stare may be all that Macron has at his disposal to signal strength.
Author: Nicholas Vinocur