Ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz, French president Emmanuel Macron met with Vladimir Putin in a renewed attempt to rebuild relations and engage Russia on key international issues.
While Russia’s relations with the West largely broke down after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Emmanuel Macron has been at the forefront of attempts to rebuild relations.
The meeting with the Russian president is a reflection of Macron’s proactiveness on international issues, with the meeting in Brégançon in the south of France marking the latest high-profile meeting between the two leaders. The French president is widely seen as positioning himself as the central European leader on the global stage whilst other key European players find themselves preoccupied with other issues.
Although France has strong economic ties with Russia, the French belief is that Russia’s engagement is crucial to tackle international crises such as Ukraine, Iran and Syria.
Such issues were high on the agenda for the meeting. In particular, Macron had been hoping to seize the opportunity to begin renewed peace talks to address the situation in Ukraine, building on the election of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as president, who has shown himself willing to engage in dialogue.
“There is a real opportunity to put an end to the conflict that has been going on for five years”, Macron said.
Since 2014, both France and Russia have been part of the “Normandy format” talks along with Germany and Ukraine. Although the talks produced the Minsk accords, implementation of this ceasefire agreement has not been successful, and fighting is still ongoing between Russian-backed forces and the government in the east of Ukraine. The French president hopes to rekindle these talks to try to reach an end to the conflict.
Both leaders raised the possibility of reviving the Normandy format, declaring that their advisors would explore the option of holding a summit “in the next few weeks”.
The meeting was not without some clashes between the two leaders, however. Putin compared the Russian crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow to the altercations between law enforcement and protesters during the long-running Yellow Vest protests in France. “Russia doesn’t want Yellow Vests”, he added.
Macron rejected the comparison, responding pointedly that “those who protested were able to run in elections”.
The French president has faced criticism from human rights advocates for meeting with Putin in light of events within Russia over the past month, in which protests erupted in Moscow over the disqualification of opposition candidates from the city’s assembly elections. In response, Russian authorities used considerable force, whilst unprecedented numbers of protesters were arrested.
This criticism mirrors wider debates in Europe over how to respond to an increasingly assertive and authoritarian Russia that has been turning away from the West in recent years.
But the French president remains adamant that re-establishing a dialogue is better than isolation. Strongly refuting claims that it is “pointless to speak to Russia”, Macron argued that to not engage with Russia would be to “isolate it”, damaging European interests by pushing Putin towards privileged engagement with other powers such as China.
“We are both permanent members of the Security Council: we must speak to each other, find points of agreement, and converge.”