Putin and Macron reach a wary détente
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Mutual and repeated references to centuries of friendship between their two nations weren’t enough to muffle the subtext of the profound differences between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two leaders held a joint press conference on Monday after a sit-down meeting at the lavish Palace of Versailles, currently the host of an exhibition commemorating the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s diplomatic visit to Paris and surrounding areas. The Russian Czar was the singular driving force in the early modernisation of Russia, and traveled extensively in France and Europe, eventually making French the lingua franca among the Russian nobility.
In his opening remarks, Macron stressed Peter the Great’s openness to and engagement with Europe and European ideals, making an unspoken but not-so-subtle comparison with the nationalistic Putin.
Putin parried with a pointed reminder of his own. He talked about the dynamic economic relationship between Russia and France and noted that no French company doing business in Russia has left as a result of the sanctions a reminder that, as France is the leading foreign investor in Russia, the two nations' interests are linked and that the sanctions hurt French companies as well.
Macron is likely to be unmoved by the reminder. France helped spearhead the sanctions put into place following Russia's annexation of Crimea and Macron has signaled that he is willing to strengthen them.
But Macron and Putin are both pragmatists and despite their somewhat barbed opening gambits, they had put their meeting to good use, emerging with joint initiatives on several fronts. The two nations will work more closely to fight terror and discussed exchanging official delegations to pursue that goal. And they agreed to return to the negotiating table on Ukraine. Macron said he wanted to revive the ‘Normandy format,’ which includes the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine. He said Putin shared in that desire.
The younger Macron dominated the press conference, often speaking for both leaders, leaving observers to take Putin’s silence for acquiescence. Macron said that Putin promised to tell him “the whole truth” about a reported crackdown on gay men in Chechnya and that Putin told him that he had taken several initiatives to determine if allegations that police had arrested and tortured gay men were true. Putin, for his part, didn’t comment on the matter.
Macron said that he wanted to set up a working group between France and Russia to find a way to resolve the Syrian crisis. Again Putin said nothing, leaving it unclear if Macron was simply expressing his own desires or if the two had actually come to an agreement.
The differences between the two presidents didn’t stay hidden for long. When asked about allegations that attempts to hack the Macron campaign’s computer systems had originated in Russia, a visibly piqued Putin said he couldn’t comment on speculation.
“Maybe they were Russian hackers, maybe they were not,” he said. When asked about Russian meddling in the French election, Putin said the subject hadn’t come up during their meeting and that Macron had shown no interest in talking about it.
Macron said nothing during the exchange, but when asked later why he had banned journalists belonging to Russian media outlets from his campaign, Macron exhibited the unflinching directness he is quickly becoming known for.
“During the campaign, Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence that on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign,” he said sharply. “They behaved like organs of influence, of propaganda and of lying propaganda.”
And on perhaps the thorniest point of difference between the two nations, their stance on Syria, Macron let Putin know that he was going to take a hardline there as well. While he said he hoped the two could open up channels to discuss a solution to that crisis, he stated that chemical attacks will be a “red line” for France and would result in immediate reprisals.
Macron was characteristically candid in his assessment of the meeting. “It was an exchange that was extremely frank, direct, with a lot of things that were said,” he stated. “We have disagreements, but at least we talked about them.”