ZOiS Spotlight 12/2017 by David Cadier (31 May 2017)
In 1717, Russia’s Peter the Great went to the Court of Versailles looking to strike a new regional alliance with France and seeking inspiration for his own grand projects and domestic reforms. On 29 May 2017, the new French president Emmanuel Macron received his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the Castle of Versailles on the occasion of an exhibition commemorating the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s visit. Rather than striking a new alliance, the aim was to open a channel for dialogue: putting the emphasis on historical and cultural symbols allows to do so in spite of lasting political disagreements.
For Macron, this was more than just a diplomatic exercise, however. As testified by how recurrent and polarising the topic was during the 2017 presidential election campaign, Russia has also become an issue in French domestic politics. As Macron aims to bridge various political sensitivities in governing, the Versailles meeting was scrutinised for indications of where his Russia policy might go. Although it is too early to tell, the president seems poised to continue the previous policy of ‘firm dialogue’, only more efficiently.
France’s Russia policy has undergone several significant evolutions over the last decade. It has become less politically focused and more dynamic economically, less exclusively bilateral and more Europeanised. As in the case of Germany, several of these changes predate the Ukraine crisis but were markedly accentuated by it. Paris took an active role in co-leading, with Berlin, the conflict resolution efforts in Ukraine, upheld the sanctions regime against Russia, and cancelled a delivery of Mistral-class warships.
Some divergences were apparent in the French political class over the Ukraine crisis, but it was above all Moscow’s intervention in Syria and the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015 that contributed to jolt and accentuate the political debate on Russia. François Fillon, the presidential nominee for the conservative party The Republicans, argued that France should prioritise the fight against Islamic fundamentalism and that Russia could be a valuable ally. Depicting the economic sanctions against Russia as counterproductive, he supported his party’s parliamentarian resolution calling for their lifting.
The far-right and far-left candidates, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also denounced France’s current position as overdetermined by the ‘Cold War mindsets’ of the EU and NATO, institutions which they both more or less explicitly recommended leaving. The Russian president happily fuelled the fire, receiving Le Pen at the Kremlin and putting into question France’s ‘independence’. According to a recent poll, 53 per cent of the French population considers that Putin tried to interfere in the presidential election.
Macron, whose campaign position was the closest to the line pursued by the Hollande government, was the target of a smear campaign in the Russian media. His team accused Russian hackers of having conducted cyberattacks against his party’s website. In this context, a meeting with Putin so soon after the election came as a surprise to many.
Yet, the meeting in Versailles served several immediate purposes for Macron. One was to consolidate his presidential stature and his new position on the international diplomatic scene. The meeting must be read in conjunction with his participation in the NATO and G7 summits. In light of the grand setting of the Versailles meeting and his strong words on human rights and propaganda during joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, Macron can be said to have successfully achieved this first objective.
Another goal was to establish a basis for renewed dialogue with Russia. Divergences remain vivid on the Ukraine and Syria dossiers, but Macron hopes to give a new lease of life to the conflict resolution formats in which they are discussed. On Ukraine, he vowed to work together with Berlin to revive the Normandy format. Macron’s choice of diplomatic adviser, Philippe Étienne, the previous ambassador to Berlin and a former diplomat in Moscow, appears tailor-made in that regard. In Versailles, Macron and Putin announced a Normandy meeting for the near future and the commissioning of an OSCE report on the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
On Syria, the new French president has described the West’s absence from the transition talks as a ‘defeat’, considering that Europe is directly concerned by the externalities of this war, whether in terms of terrorist activities or refugee waves. He thus hopes for Europe to be brought back to the table. It is maybe on this dossier that the lines appear most likely to move, as Macron seems ready to relax France’s position on the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Putin does not consider that time is on his side in this theatre (contrary to the Ukraine conflict). Crucially, on both issues, Macron has placed France’s position in the broader context of EU policies.
Lastly, the Versailles meeting could be regarded as serving domestic political objectives. During the campaign, nearly all political forces, and The Republicans in particular, called for a ‘greater dialogue’ with Russia, but without specifying what the modalities or outcomes of this dialogue should be, let alone France’s strategy in it. Thus, simply by establishing the basis for such dialogue, and even before results are known, Macron is reaching out to The Republicans, notably in anticipation of the legislative election on 11 and 18 June. More profoundly, the ‘firm dialogue’ approach towards Russia corresponds to the kind of foreign policy synthesis Macron had set forth in his programme, reconciling his strong European commitment with a more traditional ‘Gaullo-Mitterrandist’ approach.
During the campaign, Macron advocated for France a Russia policy that is at the same time ‘sovereign, independent, and European’. It is noteworthy that ‘transatlantic’ was not included in the list. At a juncture where the reliability and commitment of the new US administration is in question and Washington is embroiled in Russia-related investigations and political battles, the new French president is likely to promote more autonomous European policy on Russia and reach out to Berlin in particular in this endeavour.
Dr. David Cadier is an Associate Fellow at LSE IDEAS.