The anecdote would seem harmless if it didn’t reveal the troubled relationship that France and Ukraine have shared for almost a year. When Volodymyr Zelenskyy started a second European tour by going to London on February 8, France didn’t send out an invitation because they didn’t know about his arrival. It was only when the pictures of the Ukrainian President were seen at Westminster Hall in London that the services of the Élysée were activated to hastily organize a meeting with Emmanuel Macron the next day. The French President originally intended to go to the theater with his wife.
This setback – the Élysée planned to invite the Ukrainian president a few days later – highlights the many missed opportunities and misunderstandings that have marked Franco-Ukrainian relations since the conflict began on February 24, 2022.
A moderate position denounced by Kiev
The first misunderstandings stem from Emmanuel Macron’s request to continue the dialogue with Moscow. “Tomorrow we must build peace, we must never forget that. We will have to do it with Ukraine and Russia at the same table (…). , the other or even in humiliation,” stresses the French President on May 9 during a press conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. This moderate speech, pronounced in reference to the “dictate” imposed on Germany in 1919 by the victors of the First World War and will lead to a new world war in 1939-45 goes down badly in Kiev. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kouleba’s response was scathing: “Calls to avoid humiliating Russia can only humiliate France or any other country. Because it is Russia that is humiliating itself. We’d all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. It will bring peace and save lives.”
A hail of bitter comments fell on the misunderstood President from Eastern and Baltic countries. “If the French position towards Russia has been criticized by Kiev and other capitals, it has not been questioned in France, Nuance Arnaud Benedetti, political scientist and associate professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. There is a form of consensus in French opinion and of the entire political class, apart from some Atlantic minorities The French, who are largely anti-Russia, want to prefer the diplomatic route as much as possible This French desire to resort to dialogue rather than armed conflict is partly explained by its past: France, that has experienced war on its territory has retained a form of resilience from its past.
A weak military involvement of France
Driven by the same logic, France has contributed less to arms shipments than other Western allies. With a battalion of 31 American Abrams tanks and $2 billion worth of weapons and military equipment, the US Army is by far Ukraine’s biggest military ally. Closely followed by the United Kingdom, which provided more than 7 billion euros and 14 Challenger 2 tanks in mid-January. Then from Germany, which, under very persistent pressure from Kiev, released 2 billion euros and 14 Leopard 2 tanks. France, still the leading military power in continental Europe, handed over only 1.4 billion euros and 30 Caesar guns to Kiev.
A more modest donation, lagging behind other European donors in terms of GDP share. “Paris’ lower contribution can also be explained by its history. France, more timid in its material commitments, does not have the same history with Russia as the United States and the United Kingdom,” continues François Benedetti. The remnants of the Cold War explain the firmer positions of Washington and London since the beginning of the war.”
If welcomed by Kiev, French efforts do not appear to fully satisfy Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is multiplying calls to deploy more weapons, especially fighter jets, and more quickly. Repeated requests, which in turn meet with the pragmatism of the French President. “I am convinced that in order to carry out these operations, we must prioritize and fight against useful supplies, rather than promises that will arrive very late or very far away,” Emmanuel Macron said on February 9 after Zelenskyy’s visit to Brussels fuels the anger of Ukraine a little.
France locked out of an ongoing London-Kiev deal
Under these conditions, it is not surprising that the UK is favored by the Ukrainian authorities to complete a large-scale order for the manufacture of weapons and military vehicles on Ukrainian soil. If nothing is official at this point, British envoys have already visited Ukraine to investigate the creation of joint ventures that would build weapons under British license, the Telegraph revelations February 11. Such an agreement could further tighten the already strong defense ties between the two countries. And once again to distance France from its relations with Kiev.
In recent days, however, it seems that relations between Kiev and Paris have changed. Emmanuel Macron’s cautious rhetoric has given way to harsher rhetoric on Russia. In his February 8 statements, the French leader mentioned his desire to “ensure Russia’s defeat” and promised to accompany Ukraine to “victory.” “Words that belong to the military register and identify Emmanuel Macron as a fellow fighter,” said the political scientist.
At the same time, phone calls with Moscow have become rare. No telephone conversation between the Élysée and the Kremlin has been reported since September.
Change of tone in Paris
“Emmanuel Macron does indeed appear to be leaving the diplomat’s costume to adopt that of the warlord, Arnaud Benedetti analyzes. Probably because he realizes that Russia has gone too far and that the sources of diplomacy have been exhausted.” And, in a more prosaic way, it is also a way for him to “regain the status of a warlord, to improve the terms of unity around his person around, at the moment France is going through a social movement against pension reform”.
This change of tone did not go unnoticed by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In an interview granted to Figaro and Der Spiegel on February 8, the Ukrainian President even went so far as to confirm that Emmanuel Macron had moved on. “I think he’s changed. And this time he really changed. (…) After all, he was the one who opened the door to tank deliveries. He also supported Ukraine’s candidacy in the EU. I think it was a real signal.” Upon reading the article, the comment “aroused the discreet annoyance of the Élysée,” we report in the Le Monde columns. One more time.