On May 29th, 2017, important talks were held between the Russian Federation’s President Vladimir Putin and the new French President, Emmanuel Macron. The discussions took place in Versailles, France; this was done strategically as the talks coincide with the opening of an exhibition which commemorates Tsar Peter the First’s or Peter the Great’s visit to France in 1717. The visit marks 300 years of diplomatic ties between Russia and France and was meant to be a goodwill departure point for the diplomatic talks between Macron and Putin.
As a point of interest, it is worthwhile to note that Peter the First visited France with the objective of learning about France as a modern state. In particular, Tsar Peter was interested in modernizing Russia’s army and government structure and took elements of the French state so as to better compete with other European countries at the time. Peter the Great is famous for many achievements in Russia, but one of his most important legacies was Russia’s shift to the West as a direct result of Peter the Great’s reign.
In contrast, Putin’s diplomatic visit reflects the fact that Macron is interested in engaging with Putin in dialogue, particularly in relation to the Syrian War and the ongoing turbulence emanating from Ukraine (the Donbas and Crimea). Macron recognizes that in order to resolve these complex conflicts or at least make significant progress towards resolution, it is essential to engage with Russia. As well, President Macron wants to discuss these issues from a trade-based perspective; sanctions placed on Russia for its actions in Syria have hurt bilateral trade between the two countries, and Macron wants to try and ameliorate the situation.
However, Macron is reported by the BBC to have intended to have “tough talks” with Putin, which indicates that France is unlikely to capitulate to the Kremlin’s wishes so it is difficult to imagine that this diplomatic visit will drastically change the current state of relations between Western Europe and Russia. This seems to also be reinforced by the fact that France received its first gay refugee from Chechnya on the same day as the diplomatic talks, reinforcing France’s disapproval of the treatment of homosexuals in both Chechnya and Russia. Pro-Russian news source Russia Today also reflects the dubiousness of change arriving from these talks when it stated that “in the past Macron has been critical of Moscow” and that “over the course of his campaign, Macron pledged to deal firmly with Moscow.”
Additionally, this dialogue between Macron and Putin arrives in the context of accusations being levelled against Russia for trying to interfere with Macron’s campaign for the Presidency. According to Reuters, President Macron’s campaign leader indicated that Russia used fake news to try and discredit him as well as hacking Macron’s campaign team’s emails- claims that have thus far been unsubstantiated. Russian Ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, summed up the importance of this diplomatic meeting between the two powers when he said, “Many things in the future will depend on the first meeting,” and that “it is very important that [France and Russia] begin to dissipate the mistrust that has built up in recent years,” especially as it regards Syria and Ukraine.
Thus, while these talks were meant to be framed by commemorating Russia’s long relationship with France, Tsar Peter’s interest in reorienting Russia towards Western Europe could not be more different to President Putin’s current stance towards France and the rest of Europe.