What to Expect from the First Putin-Macron Meeting

The first meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron will enable the two sides to compare notes as relations between Russia and the European Union continue to be complicated, the Valdai Club experts believe. It sends a message that Macron is a pragmatist ready to build constructive working relations and help resolve difficulties in the Russia-EU relations.

On Monday, May 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in France on an official visit. He is due to hold his first meeting with Emmanuel Macron, elected president of France only three weeks ago. The two leaders are to visit the Russian spiritual and cultural centre in Paris and the exhibition in the Versailles palace, titled “Peter the Great. The Tsar in France. 1717.” Putin is the first foreign leader to be received by Macron who said prior to the meeting that he would conduct “demanding dialogue with Russia.”

The Valdai Club experts – Tatiana Romanova, Associate Professor at European Studies Department, Saint Petersburg State University, Head of Jean Monnet Chair, and Jacques Sapir, Director of studies at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, and head of the Centre d’Étude des Modes d’Industrialisation (CEMI-EHESS) – commented on the visit for valdaiclub.com.

“Russia is obviously quite an important partner for most European countries, including France, so it’s worth checking watch, especially since we are in a rather difficult situation,” Romanova told valdaiclub.com in a phone interview. “Macron spoke rather critically about Russia during the election campaign. But campaign is one thing, and real politics is quite another. The parties should clarify the situation. I would not expect a radical change in the sanctions plan imposed by the European Union on Russia, but we will see attempts to find areas of common interest and to overcome the crisis that continues from 2014.

In any case, Macron will act very cautiously before the parliamentary elections, and everything will depend on how many seats he will be able to secure for himself in the parliamentary elections.

While it is an introductory meeting, it gives a good signal, showing that Macron is a pragmatist and that he would like to establish not warm and friendly relations, but at least constructive working relations and help resolve the situation that has developed in the area of cooperation between Russia and the European Union. This meeting can also be seen in the context of France’s attempt to play a more important role in the Franco-German alliance.

We should expect an exchange of views on what is happening in Ukraine, and on other conflicts in Europe. Obviously, Putin and Macron will talk about the economic cooperation between Russia and France and in what form it could be implemented in conditions of sanctions pressure. Issues of cultural cooperation will not be left aside, because this is an occasion for a meeting of the two countries’ leaders.”

“Mr. Macron has explicitly said that he wanted ‘good relations’ with Russia,” Jacques Sapir told valdaiclub.com. “He is definitely a pragmatic man, not someone deeply loaded with ideology like Mr. François Hollande, the former President, or Hollande’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs, be they Laurent Fabius or Jean-Marc Ayrault. In this context, it is not so surprising that the first foreign leader to be invited to Paris was Mr. Putin. By the way, right now there is a sense of competition inside the European Union, and more specifically between France, Germany and Italy to mend fences with Russia and to improve economic relations. This is not to say that there are no differences of views between France and Russia, either about the Middle East or about Ukraine. But these differences, and divergences, are not seen to be an obstacle to improving relations with Russia.

I do not think this visit is connected with the parliamentary elections in France, at least from the Russian side, even if Mr.Macron, now the new President, will try to capitalize on this visit to improve the rating of his party for the upcoming elections. He needs to strengthen his own personal image as a skillful negotiator, and to make wrong the image on an ‘inexperienced boy’ that has been casted on him by his opponents.

Topics to be discussed are to range from economic issues (and we have to understand that these issues are high on the new president’s agenda) to more political ones. These would include the Middle East (and of course Syria and the fight against terrorism), Ukraine, but also, more generally speaking, relations between Russia and the EU. One cannot exclude that Emmanuel Macron would want to discuss the issue of supposed Russian ‘interventions’ in the French presidential campaign. But this topic is not high on Mr. Macron’s agenda.

Right now, bilateral relations with Russia are severely constrained by the EU policy toward Russia. It will be a test to know if President Macron wants to alleviate the EU constraint and implement a more French-minded policy toward Russia or if he places French foreign policy strictly under the EU framework. The fact that he wanted this visit to take place with some decorum in Versailles is not to be taken as an indication either way. What’s more, President Macron is to be highly scrutinized for his actions toward Russia both by opponents (the Republicans party, but also the radical left of Mr. Melenchon and the National Front of Marine le Pen are all supporting some improvement in French-Russia relations) and by his supporters (the MODEM of François Bayrou, the Socialist Party or his own party now called LREM). If this visit is to be concluded by a dramatic announcement of improvement in bilateral relations, he will be sharply criticized by his own friends. If the visit is a failure, he will be criticized by his opponents. My personal bet is on some improvements in bilateral relations, but nothing particularly spectacular. But this does not mean that a general process of improvement could not be launched by this visit, a process that will unfold in the coming months.

Mr. Macron, as the new French President is, first, to show that he has the French interests in mind (something which was somewhat lacking in François Hollande), second, to demonstrate that he defends principles (but we have to see what principle will come first) and, third, to use this visit at his political benefit. He has been strongly attacked during the presidential campaign for his lack of experience in dealing with international affairs. He will try to show that these attacks were not grounded. To some extent, the stakes are very high for him as it is his first experience in world-wide diplomacy and he desperately needs to make a good and durable impression or else the image of an ‘inexperienced boy’ will be long-lasting.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.