There is no world leader with a more contradictory attitude toward Russia than Emmanuel Macron.
The French president was ostensibly the ‘least apologist’ candidate of those running in the first round of the 2017 elections. Compared to the Russian-funded Marine Le Pen on one end of the spectrum, and the radical leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the other, Macron seemed a model of moderation.
To the Kremlin, he must have been perceived as the least desirable candidate for its interests, which is why they hacked the servers of his party, En Marche, just prior to the vote in a last-ditch attempt to derail the campaign. Moscow need not have feared.
It all started so promisingly. Even though Vladimir Putin was a worryingly early visitor to France in Macron’s first weeks as president, the French leader seemed to possess some early backbone.
At the highly-symbolic venue of Château de Versailles, standing a metre away from his Russian counterpart at a press conference, he called out Russia Today and Sputnik as agents of influence and propaganda – an unusually bold stance considering heads of state are generally more inclined to diplomatic nicety over directness when meeting counterparts. It was also impressive considering the vast difference in experience between the two men.
The picture since then has, to be generous, been mixed. The French leader’s sizeable mandate, combined with the unwise aspiration of ‘winning Russia round’, has won out over principles – and over the evidence.
Macron’s recent meeting with Putin at Brégançon directly before the G7 summit, and the Biarritz summit itself, produced numerous assertions about Russia which, whether one agrees with them or not, simply contradicted each other.
Take a couple of Macron proclamations at G7: he lambasts Russia over its repression of protests in Moscow and calls for the Kremlin to ‘abide by fundamental democratic principles’. At the same time he makes overtures that ‘Russia and Europe [should be brought] back together’.
A country that is ramping up repressive actions against its own citizens who dare to stand up for themselves is, sadly – but logically – not fit to be ‘back’ with Europe (and it is not certain that they were ever together). The interesting question is whether Macron is aware that his statements are mutually exclusive.
To say, as Macron did, that ‘we’ are ‘pushing Russia away from Europe’ without elaborating on such an evidence-free statement (since it was Russia who was distancing itself through its own actions) is appealing to those who know a little about Russia and international relations. But it is factually wrong to anyone who simply takes the trouble to make a list of Russia’s recent transgressions of international law.
Dialogue for the sake of dialogue – without principles or concrete objectives – is a slippery slope to accommodating Russia’s interests. France was already instrumental in reinstating Russia at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in June 2019. And during the traditional discours aux ambassadeurs on 27 August, Macron went further by effectively excusing Russia from any responsibility for the frozen conflicts around its periphery.
This might not matter had Macron not fallen into the role of first among European equals. With Angela Merkel in the twilight of her career and all recent UK prime ministers distracted by Brexit (except, perhaps, for two weeks following the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal), fate and ambition have given Macron added heft.
In any case, the German and British positions on Russia have been compromised by Nordstream II and the City of London’s role in funnelling Russian criminal proceeds. The danger is that this French heft translates into policy which in turn translates into the lowering of defences and the sacrificing of allies, such as Ukraine and Georgia.
Macron’s contradictory stance towards Russia can be explained by French foreign policy tradition and by the president’s own hubris. It has long been commonplace for France to acknowledge Russia’s role in European security architecture from ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’, and to respect its ‘great power’ status (even if self-proclaimed).
Macron himself is emblematic of a wider tendency in French politics and business – looking to build bridges with the Kremlin, regardless of how wide the chasm between them is.
The hubris comes with Macron’s personal dream that ‘France is back’, and in his belief that that can only succeed if Russia is back too – both in Europe and as a buffer against China. This was made abundantly clear in the discours aux ambassadeurs.
That olive branches have been extended to Vladimir Putin countless times over the past 20 years does not necessarily mean that no more should ever be forthcoming, should a future Kremlin leadership offer any meaningful concession. What it definitely does mean, however, is that the lessons need to be learned as to why they have been rebuffed hitherto: because ‘what Russia wants’ is incompatible with established Western conceptions of the European security order.
The French president’s assumption that he can find a way to bring Russia into the fold (or in from the cold...) is mistaken because Russia does not want to be brought in, even if it says it does. And certainly not on the EU’s terms. When G7 leaders such as Donald Trump blithely call for Russia’s return, insufficient consideration is given to Russia’s broader strategic aims. Instead, the overriding temptation is to take what what Putin says in press conferences alongside other heads of state at face value.
France pushing for dialogue with Moscow without self-discipline or preconditions means accommodating illegitimate Russian interests. Even if Macron is indifferent to that, he may not realize that in a world where great powers carve up spheres of influence once more, France stands to lose.
James Nixey, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme and Mathieu Boulègue, Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.