France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, hosted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles on May 29, 2017. The interaction was both supremely tense and incredibly productive. Perhaps no one has ever been so brutal in Putin’s presence in chastising the Russian media for spreading disinformation. At the same time, no Western leader has moved forward quite so far in bilateral relations despite a policy of containment.

By inviting Putin to Versailles, the French president threw his hat in the ring for the role of a new geopolitical leader in Western Europe. He made this decision in the context of not just bilateral relations but also France’s relations with the West at large and the European Union in particular. 

It was a working visit, but it excluded the possibility of official talks in the presidential office at the Elysée Palace. In this way, Macron demonstrated a desire to maintain a certain distance from his guest and the Russian leader’s policies. Judging by how the meeting went, it seems Macron will stand up for both principles and pragmatic interests. While standing next to Putin at a press conference, Macron slammed the Russian state-funded media outlets RT and Sputnik for conducting a coordinated information campaign against him ahead of the French election. 

With this frank criticism, Macron showed his Western partners that he is willing and able to speak bluntly with the bad guys, draw red lines, dictate terms, and differentiate between pragmatic objectives and overarching values. The Russian president was less of a target and more of an instrument for Macron’s new foreign policy approach.

Russia, in turn, was happy to take the opportunity to show Washington, Berlin, London, and Brussels that the West can and should conduct dialogue with Russia, that sanctions should not preclude cooperation, and that the policy of containment is erroneous and futile.

The question of what the Russian regime wants from France is simple. Russia dreams of reviving the kind of relationship it had with former president Jacques Chirac (1995–2007): trade, mutual gains, backstage deals on geopolitical matters, avoidance of conflict, and pragmatic compromises.

On Ukraine, Putin would like Paris to increase pressure on Kiev with regard to the implementation of the Minsk agreements and to support Moscow’s claims that it is complying with its portion of obligations. On Syria, Putin wants France to join the anti-ISIS coalition headed by Russia—as a junior partner. Ideally, Putin would like to see sanctions gradually lifted, the Crimea crisis swept under the rug, and all institutions and platforms for bilateral cooperation rehabilitated. 

Naturally, no one in Moscow actually expects the new French president to take all of those steps. But the meeting was a chance for Putin to join Macron in putting principles aside, for now, and focusing on pure pragmatism.

“I am confident that the fundamental interests of Russia and France are much more important than the current political environment,” said Putin at the press conference with Macron.

And, certainly, the focus on pragmatism appeared to yield some preliminary results. Macron needs Russia’s cooperation to make progress in resolving the Syrian conflict. Few details are available now, but Paris has reportedly invited Moscow to set up a working group and take practical measures to establish cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Russia has not had such a platform on Syria with France or Germany; its key Western partner was the United States. Now it appears that Macron is trying to seize that baton from Washington. 

The mission of the working group is to analyze the potential value of Russo-French cooperation on Syria and of the establishment of a new platform for dialogue. The corridor of opportunity seems quite narrow: Paris has not recognized the legitimacy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (which does not preclude negotiations with him); it has demanded the investigation of Assad’s war crimes; and it has condemned the April chemical weapons attack, unequivocally accusing the regime of carrying it out. 

Moscow is trying to draw Paris into Russia’s Syria campaign on Russia’s terms. Macron said at the press conference that any chemical attacks by the regime would bring about a harsh response. However, he also spoke in favor of “preserving the Syrian state,” which has been Moscow’s key argument for a more flexible position on Assad and his fate. If France can come up with its own Syria project—and particularly if it can secure Germany’s support—then cooperation with Moscow could bring about a new round of geopolitical competition.

Following the meeting, Macron suggested reviving the “Normandy format” of talks on Ukraine—another sensitive issue on which Moscow and Paris currently have very different positions. France’s position, like much of the EU’s, has been that Russia is responsible for the conflict in eastern Ukraine and directly involved in combat in the Donbas, violating the sovereignty of an independent state.

In addition to these admittedly baby steps toward progress, Putin’s meeting with Macron brought two pieces of good news for Russia. First, Paris is abandoning the policy of containment with regard to Russia, which had included a freeze on institutions of strategic economic dialogue. The idea was also floated of establishing a Franco-Russian civic forum, a platform for cooperation between Russian and French people. 

The second piece of good news was Macron’s public decision not to moralize on the most sensitive subject for Russia, human rights. “With regard to human rights issues, we have discussed this. Yes, we mentioned specific cases, but we will not publicly discuss these particular cases. I don’t think that would help achieve progress on these issues,” said the French president, choosing not to politicize the problem, including the burning topic of widely reported crimes against gay men in Chechnya. At the same time, Paris sent Moscow a signal of its disapproval. On the day of Putin’s visit, France granted political asylum for the first time to a victim of homophobic persecution in Chechnya.

The current relationship between Russia and France resembles early September 2016, when a compromise on Syria had finally been reached following very tense negotiations between the United States and Russia: a compromise that fell through just a few days later. Both Russia and the United States, full of political will and desire to reach a solution, once again fell victim to a profound mutual mistrust that has become more extreme over the past few years.

Likewise, the groundwork made between Russia and France appears very fragile. Will Macron be able to formulate a geopolitical proposal on behalf of Europe, or will it only represent France? How will it tie in with U.S. President Donald Trump’s chaotic and unpredictable behavior? How will restrained Berlin perceive Paris’s new pragmatic and ambitious course?

Precarious as it may be, however, the groundwork has been laid by the recent visit. Putin reciprocated, inviting Macron to Russia. The two countries’ diplomatic teams received the first sketches for future road maps, and preliminary large-scale and intensive preparations for the French president’s visit to Russia are likely underway. Unlike former U.S. president Barack Obama when progress between the United States and Russia fell through, Macron still has five years ahead of him, which could change the course of history.

  • Tatiana Stanovaya