French diplomats understand that without contacts with Moscow it will be very hard to address some common challenges. Apart from Ukraine, these include the settlement in Syria, the situation in the Persian Gulf, the future of the Iranian nuclear deal and perhaps the situation in Libya.
President of France Emmanuel Macron has raised the prominence of Russia in French foreign policy in the past few weeks. In an interview with the Swiss television channel RTS, he said Europe “must engage in dialogue with Russia,” needs a “new code of trust and security” for relations with Moscow and cannot passively observe Russia’s “turn to China.” President Macron promised to have a substantive conversation with Vladimir Putin, and not only as the leader of France but also as the G7 host in 2019. In addition, at a joint news conference with President Zelensky of Ukraine on June 17, President Macron reaffirmed that France supports restoring the rights of the Russian delegation in PACE and again suggested holding a Normandy format meeting.
All this must be viewed in the context of at least two circumstances without which no analysis of the recent events in Franco-European relations with Russia would be complete. First, President Macron’s traditionally friendly proposals always come with one condition – implementation of the Minsk agreements. He believes it is incumbent on Russia to jumpstart the process. However, the Russian leadership has a different position on this issue, one that has remained unchanged for a long time: Kiev should first fulfil all of its commitments under the Minsk agreements. By making this one pointed caveat, President Macron gives a speculative tinge to his appeals for dialogue and renders his statement in the subjunctive mood. He finds this line very comfortable because it does not entail any extra responsibility and, moreover, coincides with the views of Berlin.
It is telling that Paris continues to consistently support the anti-Russian sanctions. While the business communities of both countries continue to work well together and their societies promote contacts through Trianon Dialogue, and while calls to lift sanctions are often heard in France, in Brussels the French leaders systematically reaffirm the course set in 2014. After the June 17 meeting with Zelensky, Macron confirmed again that the Fifth Republic is not going to revise its position on this matter. As was expected, on June 20, France again voted to extend the sanctions together with other EU countries.
And yet the French leadership does not want to close completely the window of opportunity for dialogue with Russia. This motive was present at the recent meeting of prime ministers in Le Havre. The position of France rests on three sets of reasons that take precedence at the moment.
First, although French diplomats have presented consenting to the restoration of Russia’s full membership in PACE and the Council of Europe (CoE) as primarily a human rights concern (Russian citizens will keep the right to petition the ECHR), deeply buried in its decision is an important subtext. Since the late 1990s France has perceived Moscow’s presence in the CoE as a testament to Russia’s European identity, and an example of the affinity of core values and attitudes. Paris reasons that, on the contrary, if Russia were out of the CoE, it may finally make a different choice, both as regards values and politics (for instance, drift closer to China, as President Macron warns). This would in fact signal a rapid decline in Europe’s influence as a global center of gravity and a civilization in its own right. Apart from these considerations, there is also the more mundane issue of membership dues owed to the CoE (Paris would certainly like to see the return of Russian financing of the CoE).
Second, the fact that President Macron is pointedly speaking as G7 host may be interpreted as less a hint regarding Russia’s hypothetical return to this club than as a way to bolster French prestige. Fairly soon, on August 24-26, France will host the latest G7 summit in Biarritz. The French president is already trying to position himself as a leader that speaks on behalf of the entire Western world. Incidentally, this is not the first time he has taken on this role. In relations with China he also tries to act as the EU’s informal leader. It seems such a unifying figure will not hurt the G7, considering the heated debates between the heads of state at the previous summit in Quebec. It will come as no surprise if President Macron once again invokes his role as G7 host – once again to elevate himself.
Third, French diplomats understand that without contacts with Moscow it will be very hard to address some common challenges. Apart from Ukraine, these include the settlement in Syria, the situation in the Persian Gulf, the future of the Iranian nuclear deal and perhaps the situation in Libya. Most likely, these issues will be discussed at the next meeting between Macron and Putin, possibly on the sidelines of the forthcoming G20 summit in Osaka.