President Putin Goes to France on ‘Unplanned Visit’

The announcement of President Putin’s visit to France made on May 22 by Russia and France was quite a surprise. The date – May 29 – had not been known though the upcoming event is not exactly a bolt from the blue. The visit has been in the works for quite a long time.

The event has a special significance against the background of US President Trump’s European voyage. The events roughly coincide in time. Brussels – the city to be visited by the US president – and Paris are in relatively close proximity. A Putin-Trump meeting in Europe before the G20 summit has been considered a possibility. President Trump may not fly straight home after the G7 summit in Sicily is over on May 27. He may drop over to Iceland, Slovenia, Malta or France on his way to Washington.

The Russian president’s visit to France comes only three weeks after French President Emmanuel Macron was elected and seven months after a Russian-French summit in Paris was suspended after ex-President Hollande said he would see the Russian president only for talks on Syria. Together, Putin and Macron will open an exhibition organized by Russia’s Hermitage Museum at Versailles, which is dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the visit to France by Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

The two countries have different views on the situation in Syria. France has also been one of the key European Union countries to push for sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis. During the election campaign, Macron called for a tougher line on Russia than the other three of the four top finishers, although he has emphasized that it was vital to continue dialogue with Moscow.

Presidents Putin and Macron will touch on an array of critical issues, including the bilateral relations, Syria, NATO, the EU, and Ukraine. The two leaders agreed in their first phone call on May 18 to continue discussions on Ukraine and Syria despite their conflicting views.

Russia’s ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, said Moscow had a «positive perception» of Macron, describing him as «as «a real head of state - very intelligent, realistic and pragmatic». I think he's not very ideological compared with his predecessors», Orlov told a meeting of business leaders on May 19. «With him, we have more chances of moving forward than before». The ambassador also said «Russia is ready to take the first step with the new French president ... to overcome the reciprocal mistrust of recent years».

Indeed, the French president is certainly not a Russophobe. None of the leading French politicians is. Macron was a pro-NATO, pro-EU candidate and the only one among the rivals who did not put the bilateral relationship at the top of the agenda. The French president may have other priorities, but he cannot ignore Russia, especially in view that the overwhelming majority of French voters want the relationship improved. On May 18, the two presidents held a phone conversation to affirm their desire to work together on current international and regional issues, including the fight against terrorism. That’s when they discussed possibilities for upcoming personal contacts.

The four leading candidates got roughly 20% of support each in the first round of the French presidential election. Three out of the four called for better relations with Moscow. This view is supported by political elite, including two out of three ex-presidents – Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac with the third – Nicolas Sarkozy – uncommitted. Indeed, France has nothing to gain and a lot to lose by maintaining the Western sanctions against Russia.

The parliamentary vote is in June. If Macron loses, he’ll have his hands tied as president. The president will need other parties to form a coalition if his En Marche! movement does well and gets the 26% of the votes it is projected to get at best. The improvement of relations with Russia can bring Macron more popular support – something he needs badly.

With pressure from Washington not as strong as before, there is an opportunity to gradually let the trade war die away. Historically, France has often tended to be less anti-Russian than Anglo-Saxon countries. During the Cold War, France withdrew from the NATO strategic command and often spoke of itself as a Third Force, between the US and Soviet Union.