May 24. 2024. 6:30

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Wise moderate or just muddled? Macron’s singular stance on Russia and Ukraine reflects French uniqueness

President Emmanuel Macron’s nuanced position on the war in Ukraine is part and parcel of yet another French specificity, an attitude towards Russia which is unique in Europe.

Macron prides himself on being a moderate among western warmongers. At the February 17th-19th Munich Security Conference, he reiterated his belief in the necessity of supporting Ukraine militarily, and his desire for a Ukrainian victory.

But Macron also repeated that Russia will remain geographically part of Europe, and that Europe’s future security will be guaranteed by dialogue, not confrontation, with Moscow.

“I do not believe for one second in regime change [in Russia],” Macron said. “I hear a lot of people calling for regime change, and I ask them, ‘Who would take over? Who is the leader?’… We have seen regime change in numerous countries and it always led to failure.” In the past two decades, western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya ended disastrously.

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Wise moderate or just muddled? Macron’s singular stance on Russia and Ukraine reflects French uniqueness

Wise moderate or just muddled? Macron’s singular stance on Russia and Ukraine reflects French uniqueness

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Fintan O’Toole: There are different agendas being pursued by the West in Ukraine

“So we’re stuck with the Russian regime, with its obsessions, its people,” Macron continued. “Defending Ukrainians against Russia can force Russia to the negotiating table on Ukraine’s conditions.”

On Saturday, Macron told French media that France has never wanted to “crush” Russia. “I want the defeat of Russia in Ukraine, and I want Ukraine to be able to defend its position ... But I am convinced that this will not be solved militarily. I do not think, as some do, that Russia must be undone completely, attacked on its territory. These observers want above all to crush Russia. That has never been the position of France, and never will be.”

The verb “to Macron”, meaning to cleave so closely to the middle ground as to be ineffectual, has entered the Ukrainian language

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has defined victory as the recuperation of all of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea, war reparations and the creation of a war-crimes tribunal. It is difficult to see how these goals can be achieved without “crushing” Russia.

Zelenskiy has shown impatience with Macron’s ambiguity. The verb “to Macron”, meaning to cleave so closely to the middle ground as to be ineffectual, has entered the Ukrainian language. “Macron is wasting his time” by trying to bring Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table, Zelenskiy told Corriere della Sera on Sunday. “It would be a pointless dialogue.”

Macron has also been criticised in France. “Emmanuel Macron wants a Ukrainian victory on condition that it doesn’t mean a Russian defeat, the sort of pirouette at which he excels,” the philosopher Pascal Bruckner wrote in Le Figaro. “He helps Kyiv’s army to fight, while at the same time exhorting them to negotiate and respect the security of their big neighbour. The paradox is untenable. You cannot be Churchill and Chamberlain at the same time.”

In late 2022, Macron called for “security guarantees” for Russia, and told Le Monde that allowing Ukraine to join Nato would be “confrontational”. He has not spoken with Putin on the telephone since September and no longer says – as he did in spring 2022 – that Russia “must not be humiliated”. Macron’s desire for negotiations nonetheless contrasts with those western leaders who consider the Russian dictator to be a pariah and war criminal.

France’s history with Russia goes back to Catherine the Great’s friendship with Enlightenment philosophers, Napoleon’s march on Moscow, Alexander III’s trip to Paris. When the second World War ended, Charles de Gaulle saw the Soviet Union as a counterbalance to US omnipotence.

Thomas Gomart, the director of the French Institute for International Relations Ifri, emphasises that “French public opinion is heavily in favour of supporting Ukraine.” France is giving one quarter of its artillery to Ukraine, Gomart notes. France’s weapons stockpiles, like those of its Nato allies, are dangerously low. Macron has raised the defence budget to €400 billion for the 2024-2030 period, a €100 billion increase over the preceding period.

Yet France has what Gomart calls “a sort of Russian problem”. In the wake of the second World War, the French Communist Party (PCF) comprised a quarter of the French electorate and maintained close links with Moscow.

“The PCF represented a counter-society, with trade unions, associations, banks, companies. It created politico-intellectual channels that still exist,” Gomart says. “Certain political parties, in particular [Marine Le Pen’s far-right] National Rally and [Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left] France Unbowed developed a pro-Russian discourse which was basically a way of criticising Nato. They talk about Russia, but in reality, they are thinking about the US.”

Whatever errors of judgment Macron may commit regarding Putin, they pale by comparison with the words and deeds of the French political class.

The French historian Françoise Thom refers to far-right and populist European parties who defend Putin as “the Putintern”, after the long defunct Comintern or Communist International. Its reach extends beyond extremist parties in France. In a 2019 poll cited by Laure Mandeville in Le Figaro, between 30 and 40 per cent of French respondents said they wished for rule by a strong man “like Putin”.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, numerous French politicians demonstrated complacency, even complicity, towards Moscow. The five main candidates in last year’s presidential campaign all had a weak spot for Putin, Mandeville says.

When he invited Putin to his summer residence in 2019, Macron proposed that France and Russia elaborate together “a new security architecture for our Europe”.

Whatever errors of judgment Macron may commit regarding Putin, they pale by comparison with the words and deeds of the French political class.

The far-right candidate Éric Zemmour dreamed of “a French Putin” who would free the country from “American tutelage”. Le Pen wanted France to leave Nato and forge a military alliance with Russia. Mélenchon accused Nato of “provoking an escalation” in Ukraine.

Unlike their German counterparts, French politicians are mostly silent about their Russian errors. “Public opinion is hostile towards Vladimir Putin, so no political party has any interest in stirring up the past,” says Sylvie Kauffmann of Le Monde. “There are too many skeletons in [French] closets”.

Le Pen said in 2017 that she shared Russia’s point of view on Ukraine. Two years earlier, a Czech-Russian bank had loaned Le Pen €9 million. Thierry Mariani, an MEP from Le Pen’s party, until recently received visitors at the Association for Franco-Russian Dialogue on the Champs-Élysées, beneath a huge portrait of Putin.

The investigative website Mediapart reported in January that former president Nicolas Sarkozy received €300,000 from the Russia Direct Investment Fund in two transfers before and after a November 2018 speech in Moscow. “I have always been a friend of Vladimir Putin,” Sarkozy said. “He’s a man with whom one can talk, including when there are disagreements ... Russia has become a world power again. That is her place, her historic role, her destiny.”

A €3 million contract allegedly signed by Sarkozy with the Russian insurance company Reso-Garantia in 2019 is under investigation.

François Fillon was Sarkozy’s prime minister from 2007 until 2012, during which time he forged a friendship with Putin, then nominally prime minister of Russia. Fillon resigned from the boards of the Russian petrochemical company Sibur and the Russian oil company Zaroubejneft when Russia invaded Ukraine.

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Fillon is the only French politician to have made his mea culpa. “Vladimir Putin alone is guilty of having unleashed a conflict that could and should have been avoided,” Fillon said days after the invasion. He admitted to “having been mistaken regarding the tensions which preceded the attack” and labelled the war “an aggression against Europe, against France.”

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