Russia-France: A New Start?

Will the relationship between Moscow and Paris reboot in the nearest future? There is much evidence in favour of this assumption, given the latest attempt. On June 24, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is visiting France, where he is to meet with his French counterpart Edouard Philippe. These talks will be the first talks at the level of the heads of government since Jean-Marc Ayrault’s visit to Moscow in late October 2013. Discussions will be held partly in Le Havre and will be dedicated primarily to economics. There are rumours that French President Emmanuel Macron, who currently chairs the G7, plans to visit Moscow in July to meet Vladimir Putin. On April 18, the French head of state sent the Russian President a five-page letter through his special envoy Jean-Pierre Chevènement. Apparently, this letter contains some proposals on overcoming the dead-end in bilateral relations and Russian-European relations in general, which are better than they were in spring 2014.

These initiatives must be observed in a wider, more ambiguous political context. Of course, in recent times we could note a number of positive signals. France played a decisive role in the search for a compromise in the context of the row between Russia and the Council of Europe. Since the previous visit of Emmanuel Macron to Moscow on July 15, 2018, the contradictions with regard to the Syrian crisis have diminished, in light of the joint humanitarian operation in Eastern Ghouta.

However, fundamental contradictions have not gone away. In December 2018, Paris hosted a meeting of the Franco-Russian Economic, Financial, Industrial and Trade Council (CEFIC), chaired by French Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire and his Russian counterpart Maxim Oreshkin. On April 18, 2019, Putin met with the leaders of major French companies in the Kremlin. The “Trianon Dialogue”, a structure created after the first meeting between Macron and Putin in Versailles in May 2017 to promote civil society exchanges between France and Russia, has begun to develop its activities. It administers cultural projects as well as university exchanges and support for the cross-youth initiatives of both countries.

Emmanuel Macron Wants to Give a New Impetus to the Strategic Dialogue with Russia
Pascal Boniface
Paris and Moscow are neither allies nor enemies. We could and must be partners. France should play a leading role in trying to restore confidence between EU and Russia, but also in preventing NATO to fix European policy toward Russia.

However, the opposite tendencies remain strong, and have existed all along. The Skripal affair and its consequences, including the mutual expulsions of diplomats and the cancellation of Macron’s visit to the Russian booth at the Paris Book Fair, frictions around the Central African Republic, the crisis in the Kerch Strait and the arrest of French banker Philippe Delpal in Moscow have tarnished bilateral relations. The position of Paris with regard to the new European gas directive could potentially complicate the implementation of the NordStream-2 gas pipeline project, in which the French company Engie is taking part, has caused dissatisfaction in Moscow. The way the Russian media cover the “yellow vests” crisis has strengthened the initial hostility of the majority in the current French government towards Russia.

What goals does President Macron pursue? The Elysee Palace expects the election of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky to possibly contribute to the resumption of reconciliatory diplomacy with regard to the Donbas crisis, which was buried by the administration of Petro Poroshenko in the fall of 2015. It seems that France wants to take advantage of its leadership in the G7 and the Council of Europe and, perhaps, of Germany’s current passive attitude, in order to handle the Russian issues on its own. The argument that “we should not make Moscow go embrace Beijing” seems to make sense to Paris, where they easily agreed that a number of major international issues are impossible to solve without Russia.

Thus, at the heart of these initiatives of Paris lie negative considerations; President Macron’s take on Russia differs from the diplomatic approach that de Gaulle and Mitterrand took to the Soviet Union. This diminishes the importance of these actions, but in France, they may nevertheless prove to be divisive. They may prompt dissent within the neoconservative and pro-Atlantic circles that now prevail in the French Foreign Ministry and among many senior officials in the Ministry of Defence.

Election to the European Parliament and Macron's “Havoc” Policy
Arnaud Dubien
The configuration of the political system in France continues to change, although it could freeze after the 2017 presidential election. Earlier, Macron managed to “kill” the Socialist Party, and on May 26 he managed to “kill” the Republicans. Although politically he is weakened, he leads his policy of "devastation" successfully.

How likely is that the French initiative will be successful? Much will depend on the response from Russia. Will the Kremlin use this opportunity or will it continue to believe that time is on its side? Moscow’s latest steps in Ukraine are controversial: these include the decision to grant Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in May and Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak’s statement that the position on gas is open for negotiations.

No decisions have been made so far, and many factors, especially including the development of Moscow-Washington relations, have strongly influenced the relationship between Russia and France. Other uncertain factors include the room for manoeuvre of the new head of Ukraine, and the extent to which Macron, if needed, can popularise the logic of détente towards Moscow among the rest of the EU countries so that they favour a detente towards Moscow. The game is worth the candle.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.