Sarkozy to the West: Lighten Up on Russia

Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Russia this week to demonstrate his support for stronger relations with the Kremlin.

HEILIGENDAMM, GERMANY - JUNE 07:  Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) waves as he walks beside French President Nicolas Sarkozy on their way to a meeting during the first day of talks with other leaders of G8 industrialized nations at the G8 summit June 7, 2007 in Heiligendamm, Germany. The three-day summit runs from June 6-8 with talks aimed at combating climate change topping the agenda.  (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)
HEILIGENDAMM, GERMANY - JUNE 07: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) waves as he walks beside French President Nicolas Sarkozy on their way to a meeting during the first day of talks with other leaders of G8 industrialized nations at the G8 summit June 7, 2007 in Heiligendamm, Germany. The three-day summit runs from June 6-8 with talks aimed at combating climate change topping the agenda. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)
HEILIGENDAMM, GERMANY - JUNE 07: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) waves as he walks beside French President Nicolas Sarkozy on their way to a meeting during the first day of talks with other leaders of G8 industrialized nations at the G8 summit June 7, 2007 in Heiligendamm, Germany. The three-day summit runs from June 6-8 with talks aimed at combating climate change topping the agenda. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)

Russian warplanes have spent the past month bombing Syria, at times hitting rebel groups backed by the United States and France.

But former French President Nicholas Sarkozy is on the early campaign trail for France’s 2017 elections. And mimicking an earlier move by Marine Le Pen and other members of France’s far-right, he’s backing so far away from socialist President Francois Hollande that he’s started to align himself with Moscow.

Sarkozy, the self-declared “friend of Russia,” who heads France’s center-right les Républicains political party, visited Moscow Thursday. There, according to Russian news agencies, he told an audience at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations that Russia’s friendship is crucial to world stability.

Russian warplanes have spent the past month bombing Syria, at times hitting rebel groups backed by the United States and France.

But former French President Nicholas Sarkozy is on the early campaign trail for France’s 2017 elections. And mimicking an earlier move by Marine Le Pen and other members of France’s far-right, he’s backing so far away from socialist President Francois Hollande that he’s started to align himself with Moscow.

Sarkozy, the self-declared “friend of Russia,” who heads France’s center-right les Républicains political party, visited Moscow Thursday. There, according to Russian news agencies, he told an audience at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations that Russia’s friendship is crucial to world stability.

“It makes no sense to isolate Russia,” he said before attending closed-door meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Without Russia we cannot provide responses to the serious causes and sharp crises which arise today. Anyone who forgets the fundamental role played by Russia has made a mistake. France has not done this.”

His visit to Russia comes after weeks of tension over Moscow’s controversial airstrikes campaign in Syria, which the West has perceived as proof that Putin is more committed to propping up embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad than defeating the Islamic State and putting an end to Syria’s civil war. On Friday, representatives from Moscow and Paris will join other leaders, including from the U.S. and Iran, for talks in Vienna that will attempt to hammer out a solution to the crisis that has killed 250,000 people since 2011.

Despite France’s alignment with Washington, Sarkozy told said in his remarks in Moscow that Europe and the U.S. should, amid all these challenges, take urgent measures to preserve good relations with Russia. “We should in no way accept a new cold war, as this will be a defeat both for you and us,” he said, according to reports.

That’s a big change in rhetoric for a moderately conservative politician whose foreign policy platform earned him the nickname “Sarko l’Américain” when he ran for election in 2007. Once in office, Sarkozy took a harder stance on Russia than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, condemning human rights abuses in Chechnya and accusing Putin of “brutality” in the oil and gas markets.

But now he’s got domestic politics to play, and voters at home are leaning further right. Last year, Le Pen’s ultra-conservative, anti-immigrant party clinched a record number of seats in the European parliament. 

In May, Le Pen — a vocal critic of the West’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis — visited the Russian Duma, where she met its chairman, Sergei Naryshkin, who is a close Kremlin ally.

“It is important that the representative of the leading party of France, which is what I am, should be able to discuss the situation in Europe, in the world,” she said at the time.

She is one of a number of far-right politicians, from Austria to Hungary to Amsterdam, who have aligned themselves with Putin on issues ranging from Ukraine to Syria.

Le Pen, who is facing a lawsuit for comparing Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation of France, is likely too controversial of a figure to win the presidency in 2017. But the more moderate Sarkozy is looking to land neatly between Hollande’s camp and Le Pen’s by pleasing voters on both sides of the aisle. That was evident this week, when he leaned further right, saying that “Russia and Europe have to work together,” and that “the world needs Russia.”

And his visit isn’t the first time les Républicains has taken interest in strengthening ties with Putin.

A small delegation from the French parliament, including members of Sarkozy’s political party made their own trip to Russia this summer, and also a detour to Crimea, where they said they wanted to “talk with everyday people” and find out how the population there “really lived.”

Photo Credit: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

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