Sarkozy to meet Putin as French right looks to Russia
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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Moscow Wednesday where he is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the latest sign the French right is seeking closer ties with the Kremlin in defiance of François Hollande’s government.
Sarkozy is due to meet with Putin on Thursday accompanied by a cohort of senior members of his Les Républicains party – France’s centre-right main opposition party that was until recently known as the UMP.
The two men are set to hold an “exchange of views … on bilateral relations”, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, quoted by Russian state media. Top of the bill “is likely to be Syria”, he added.
The visit comes at a time of tense relations between Russia and the West, not least France, over Moscow’s military intervention in Syria where it has been accused of targeting moderate rebel forces, along with Islamic Stage group militants, in support of Putin’s ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sarkozy: Hollande’s Russia policy ‘risks new cold war’
Hollande’s government has been one of the strongest Western opponents of involving Assad in any solution to the Syria conflict – a position that has put Paris at loggerheads with the Kremlin.
Russia was conspicuously absent from a meeting on Syria hosted by Paris on Tuesday, that included representatives from Germany, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the US.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine has also been a thorn in the side of relations between Paris and Moscow – one that led Hollande to scrap the sale to Russia of two French-built warships last year, a deal that was signed off by Sarkozy during his 2007–2012 presidency.
Sarkozy, along with others on the right of French politics, have become increasingly critical of Hollande’s hardline stance with Russia and have repeatedly called for a more conciliatory approach.
Sarkozy’s Russian trip, according to one party member, is designed to deliver a “particular message” to Putin.
That message is that “Europe must maintain a dialogue with Russia and that France, within Europe, has an important role to play, one it has not been playing for a long time”, Les Républicains MP Thierry Mariani told France Info radio.
Sarkozy himself recently accused Hollande of “a serious error of creating conditions for a new cold war with Russia”, a line that has also been used by far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in criticising the French government’s dealings with Moscow.
French right’s ‘fascination with Putin’
Others within Les Républicains have called for France to cooperate with Russia over Syria, including working with Assad.
Russia has been “maligned so stupidly these last few years”, wrote Les Républicains former prime minister François Fillon in a recent blog post. “The time has come for France to revise its diplomatic strategy [in Syria].”
At the same time, a recent Ifop poll for French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche found that Putin is considerably more popular with right-wing voters. While the survey found negative opinions of the Russian leader were still the norm among the majority, 24 percent of Les Républicains supporters and 37 percent of National Front supporters said they had a “good opinion” of Putin, compared to 19 percent among supporters of Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS).
“There is a sort of fascination among the French right with Putin’s authoritarian regime, which explains [Sarkozy’s] visit,” Bruno Le Roux, leader of the PS in parliament, told France Info Wednesday.
However, he admitted there could be a certain “usefulness” to the former president’s meeting with Putin.
“Everyone has the right to talk,” he later told the AFP news agency. “There is a usefulness in maintaining relationships with all countries.”
"At the same time, in these sorts of moments, the position of France, the position which is that of Europe, must be kept in mind.
“I’ll of course be very interested to know what was said.”