Can Macron normalize EU-Russia relations in the post-Merkel era?

With the German chancellor set to retire in 2 years, Macron’s agenda might cohere with Russian interests, if he survives..

Yesterday’s meeting between Presidents Putin and Macron at the French President’s official holiday residence at Bregancon was the 7th bilateral meeting between the leaders since President Macron’s election in May 2017, and may signal a positive new trajectory for Russia-EU relations. Following their one-on-one discussion, which lasted about 2 hours and 30 minutes, they were joined at dinner by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, President Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and his aide on international affairs Yuri Ushakov.

In the interests of fairness, it must be said that the French delegation seemed to have been extremely well prepared for this meeting. The range of topics discussed included the conflict in Donbass and the ongoing military situation in Idlib, Syria. With the liberal universalist geo-political agenda having largely imploded since Donald Trump’s election as US president in 2016, an ailing Angela Merkel set to retire in 2 years, and even the majority of the western world’s political classes by now suffering from chronic “Russia-fatigue,” Macron senses that the time is right for the beginnings of a process of normalization of relations. In a post-Brexit, post-Merkel Europe, that would leave Macron himself in the position of principal EU-Russia broker by default.

That contingency, however, is premised on Macron’s own political survival beyond 2022.

The French Fifth Republic has not produced a formidable, heavyweight statesman since Mitterrand and Chirac. As ideologically different as they were, it could hardly be denied that both were formidable geo-political players. Quite deservedly, neither Nicholas Sarkozy nor Francoise Hollande were re-elected, and from the way that the yellow vests protests have been so badly mishandled by the French authorities, from here Macron’s chances don’t look particularly good. 2022 is a long way away, but the current French president may find it extremely difficult to rebuild the trust he needs to secure re-election within that timeframe. This cycle of political discontinuity is a manifestation of an ongoing malaise in the Fifth Republic’s political system.

Regarding the conflict in Donbass, President Putin stated that he saw no way forward other than a continuation of the Normandy Format meetings (between the heads of state of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France). Diplomatic attempts will be made to revive this format within the next few weeks. President Putin said at the post-meeting press-conference that his telephone conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had given him “cautious grounds for optimism.”

Regarding Syria, there was disagreement, with Macron urging Putin to attempt to restrain the Syrian government from continuing their assault against the terrorist-strongholds in Idlib-province. However, President Putin is in no position to make any commitments whatsoever in this regard, as it is a matter of Syria’s territorial integrity. If the anti-government forces in Idlib were themselves Syrian, then they might have some claim to a modicum of political legitimacy. However, they are overwhelmingly comprised of Wahhabi extremists from the EU, Turkey and the gulf-states. For the Assad government to fail to dislodge them from Idlib would be, in effect, to compromise on Syria’s territorial integrity in the face of a foreign invasion. President Putin can hardly be expected to attempt to persuade President Assad to make a decision which would amount to a dereliction of his first duty as Syrian President.

Of course, it was inevitable that, at some point or another, Macron would play the human rights card. He called for freedom of speech, free elections and freedom of protest in Russia, but these remarks inevitably left him open to President Putin’s riposte regarding the use of excessive force by the authorities against yellow vest protestors.

France has the most draconian online censorship laws and the most excessively violent riot-police in the EU.

To be fair to Macron, his remarks on human rights and civil rights issues seemed strictly pro forma – simply one of those purely tactical rhetorical cards which western leaders are obliged to play when conducting diplomatic discussions with Russia, simply because all inter-governmental diplomatic discussion is a process of negotiation on one level or another, inherently competitive, and as a talking-point, the “human rights” card does constitute a tactical advantage in itself. It’s a cynical, disingenuous talking-point, but from any western political leader’s perspective, still an obligatory talking-point from a purely tactical point of view. President Putin understands that such moves are just part of the game. Another consideration was that Macron had framed these remarks within the broader context of sentiments which were on the whole not hostile – he had supported Russia’s re-instatement to the Council of Europe, and said that he believed in engagement with Russia on civil rights issues because he believed in “a Europe which stretched from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”

Hadn’t this been precisely what President Putin had sought prior to 2008, when he still held out some hope that Russia might be treated as an equal partner within the international community? Within that context of Russia’s failure to gain recognition as an equal geo-political partner prior to 2008, Macron’s wording was almost certainly not accidental. Was Macron perhaps offering contrition?

Another point which should be borne in mind in interpreting Macron’s “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” remark yesterday was that it signals an inheritance from France’s own tradition of geo-political unilateralism. For example, France for a very long time exercised an opt-out clause regarding participation in NATO missions, and has never been quite as ideologically committed to the Atlanticist project as its eastern neighbor. The logic of a Europe which stretched “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” would imply a geo-political re-centering of the world, far away from the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, this has already happened, but it is encouraging that President Macron at least signals that he is cognizant of the new reality.

Padraig McGrath, political analyst

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