Dispatch

The view from the ground.

There’s a Method to Macron’s Madness

The French president wants to leave room for talks and carve out a bigger role for France.

By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin before a meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin on Jan. 19, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin before a meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin on Jan. 19, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin before a meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin on Jan. 19, 2020. Emmanuele Contini/Getty Images

PARIS—Until recently, French President Emmanuel Macron had been able to navigate the Ukraine crisis with a certain savoir-faire. His diplomatic efforts to prevent the Russian invasion and then, after Russia attacked, to bring about a truce were unsuccessful. But they seemed to back up his narrative of France as a natural mediator and boosted his leadership credentials at home—helping him to win reelection as president in April. And the European Union, for the moment under a French presidency, appeared more united than it had been in a long time, swiftly agreeing to slap tough sanctions on Russia in response to the aggression.

But over the past couple of months, Macron has increasingly found himself the diplomatic punching bag for embittered allies, his international standing diminished by confused messaging on what exactly France’s plan is. The French leader’s repeated remarks that Russia “should not be humiliated,” in order to preserve the chances of a diplomatic solution, have drawn the wrath of the Ukrainian government, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeting that such calls “humiliate France.”

Macron’s overtures and his regular contacts with Russian President Vladimir Putin have also underscored a split between France and more hard-line Ukraine backers, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, and the Baltic states.

PARIS—Until recently, French President Emmanuel Macron had been able to navigate the Ukraine crisis with a certain savoir-faire. His diplomatic efforts to prevent the Russian invasion and then, after Russia attacked, to bring about a truce were unsuccessful. But they seemed to back up his narrative of France as a natural mediator and boosted his leadership credentials at home—helping him to win reelection as president in April. And the European Union, for the moment under a French presidency, appeared more united than it had been in a long time, swiftly agreeing to slap tough sanctions on Russia in response to the aggression.

But over the past couple of months, Macron has increasingly found himself the diplomatic punching bag for embittered allies, his international standing diminished by confused messaging on what exactly France’s plan is. The French leader’s repeated remarks that Russia “should not be humiliated,” in order to preserve the chances of a diplomatic solution, have drawn the wrath of the Ukrainian government, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeting that such calls “humiliate France.”

Macron’s overtures and his regular contacts with Russian President Vladimir Putin have also underscored a split between France and more hard-line Ukraine backers, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, and the Baltic states.

“Did anyone speak like this with Adolf Hitler during World War II?” Polish President Andrzej Duda said in a recent interview. “Did anyone say that Adolf Hitler must save face? That we should proceed in such a way that it is not humiliating for Adolf Hitler? … I have not heard such voices.”

Macron’s interest in placating Russia is manifold. On the one hand, he wants to secure a prominent role in the peace negotiations that will ultimately have to take place.

“It’s driven more by vanity than anything else,” said Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. But “in a case like this, where you have a live war going where thousands of people are dying, civilians are being massacred and deported, cities are being leveled, and so on, there is something really problematic about talking in this way,” he said.

Moreover, whether Macron’s language is actually boosting his credibility with Russia is anything but certain. “I doubt that the Russians are thrilled by Macron’s choice of words,” said Jean de Gliniasty, a former French ambassador to Moscow and the author of a recent book on Putin’s Russia. “They don’t necessarily consider themselves as humiliated, rather as unfairly treated.”

In a clip from state TV widely picked up by French news channels this month, two commentators mocked Macron’s repeated, painful calls to the Russian president, which they described as “pointless.”

But Macron’s insistence on maintaining a connection with Putin is also about France staking out a leadership role in a Europe that has moved past now-departed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a French foreign-policy tradition that has always prided itself on showing independence from Washington.

The French leader has engaged in dialogue with his Russian counterpart ever since becoming president, often drawing criticism from his Western allies. Just weeks after his election in 2017, Macron hosted Putin in the splendor of the Versailles palace for a “pragmatic” exchange on a variety of issues, including the conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria. Several face-to-face meetings later, Macron remains convinced that “we will need to find rules of cohabitation with Russia” and not just on Ukraine but also on cyber, space, and arms control, said Pierre Morcos of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

At the same time, France’s relative caution in its involvement in the war reflects an old reluctance, dating back at least to Charles de Gaulle’s presidency in the 1950s and 1960s, to align itself too closely with the United States. This “diplomacy of balance” entails being “very close to our allies but always keeping our positions slightly different, in order to mark our independence,” said Guillaume Devin, an international relations expert at Sciences Po in Paris.

The push for European strategic autonomy from Washington has been a longtime battle of Macron’s and one that has already been hampered by the changeover at the White House from an erratic Donald Trump to the much more dependable Joe Biden. Now, the Russia-Ukraine war may be the last nail in the coffin for Macron’s grand project.

France’s stance betrays a “desire to have the geopolitical center of gravity somewhere between Paris and Berlin, but it’s just no longer the case,” Cohen said. “The combination of the U.S., the Eastern European states, Great Britain, and to some extent Canada is a larger and in many ways more important bloc in all this.”

French officials insist that Paris stands firmly with Ukraine, is committed to restoring its territorial integrity, and is only speaking to the Kremlin after coordination with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. While France’s military support to Kyiv pales compared with what is being provided by the United States and Britain, Macron has sent to Ukraine heavy weapons including MILAN anti-tank missiles and Caesar self-propelled howitzers. Paris has also been one of the loudest advocates of reducing European dependency on Russian energy sources, and it’s largely thanks to French pressure that EU members managed to agree on a partial ban on Russian oil in late May.

Devin of Sciences Po describes the French approach as “limited engagement,” combining active support to Ukraine with efforts to prevent the conflict from getting worse. While more hard-line allies of Kyiv believe that Ukraine can win on the battlefield and Russia must lose—and decisively—countries such as France, Germany, and Italy don’t see a clear military end to the conflict, he said.

“Their idea is making life hard for Russia but without it losing face, which would crush any chance of negotiation and accelerate the military escalation,” Devin said.

In some ways, the gap between Paris and Washington is narrower than it seems. The U.S. stance has been hardly monolithic itself. In late April, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington wanted “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” But in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Biden, while stressing that “every negotiation reflects the facts on the ground,” acknowledged that the conflict “will only definitively end through diplomacy,” quoting Zelensky.

Morcos of CSIS said the Biden administration realizes that Ukraine can’t reclaim all its lost territory only by military means. The disagreements within the pro-Ukraine camp are about the right time to start talking with Russia, Morcos said, with more hawkish governments opposed to opening the door to negotiations too soon—particularly given the recent Ukrainian advances in some areas and accumulating evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces.

The dream of strategic autonomy dies hard. During a trip to Romania this week, Macron insisted that while France backs Ukraine “without any indulgence” toward Moscow, “at some point, when we’ll have done all we can to help Ukraine resist, when Ukraine will have prevailed, as I hope, and most importantly when the fighting will have stopped, we will have to negotiate. The Ukrainian president … will have to negotiate with Russia, and we Europeans will be at that table.”

France, Germany, and Italy want to build a “peace and security framework in Europe, which entails keeping separate European communication channels with the Russians, distinct from the U.S. ones,” said de Gliniasty, the former ambassador. But other EU members such as Poland and the Baltic states do not wish to maintain a separate dialogue with the Kremlin and believe that when the time comes, the talks should be led by the United States, he said.

Since the invasion began, “the concept of strategic autonomy has moved to the back burner; it’s the alliance with the United States that matters in these times of conflict,” de Gliniasty said.

With France and its Western European partners struggling to remain relevant in Ukraine, it’s the more hawkish approach that is prevailing on the ground. Western military involvement has been increasing slowly but steadily. In recent weeks, the United States and Britain both approved shipping long-range missiles to Ukraine. While Kyiv has promised not to use such weapons to strike Russian territory, Putin reacted angrily to the new arms deliveries, threatening “to strike targets we haven’t hit before.”

Macron may be right that the time of negotiations sooner or later will come. But as the battle rages on, too many members of the pro-Ukraine front are still dead set against showing any signs of fatigue that Russia could exploit. On Wednesday, Western countries approved new arms shipments to keep Kyiv in the fight. Macron appears to have bungled the timing of his “humiliation” remarks.

“France may have spoken too soon,” Morcos said.

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

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