It took French President Emmanuel Macron almost a year to say that “Russia must be defeated,” speaking to three French journalists on the plane that took him back to Paris from Munich last Friday. But a moment later the clarification, the caution, almost half a step backwards: «I don’t think, like some, that Russia, totally defeated, should be attacked on its territory. These observers want to destroy Russia first. This has never been France’s position and never will be.’
Here we go again. Macron is undoubtedly on the side of Ukraine, but he never manages to break completely – at least in words – with Russia. The President does not give up maintaining his position as a lone knight, which took him behind the six-meter table in the Kremlin a few weeks before the war, on February 7, 2022 (to be told by Putin that Russia would not attack) . If he hopes for a victory for Ukraine and thus a defeat for Russia, Macron feels compelled to add that it shouldn’t be about total defeat, about annihilation, as “some” would like it to be.
But who are these few? No Western country, not Poland and the Baltic States, which are the hard wing in the EU, but not even the UK and the United States have any realistic goal of destroying Russia. So why this desire to underline the difference in the French position? Why the admonition, now so often repeated in various forms, like an obsession “not to humiliate Russia”?
First of all, one can suspect a character reason, both personal and political: Macron is the man of en même temps, “simultaneously”, the formula with which he surprisingly conquered the Elysée in 2017 after a lightning campaign. It is a state of mind that, at its best, leads to being pragmatic and free of ideology, recognizing what is right and “at the same time” good, left, rejecting prejudice and logics of engagement; in its less fortunate versions, en même temps can become a kind of obsession that prevents you from making a clear choice for sides, even if you could (years ago, Macron, who is also a gay rights activist, said he understood the Catholics who felt “humiliated” by same-sex marriage).
Applied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, en même temps means wishing Ukraine victory while specifying that Russia’s defeat need not be total. A somewhat confused position that irritates Ukrainians — “Macron is just wasting time talking to Putin,” Zelenskyy says — and lets other less smoky allies like the British or Americans win the communications battle.
Then there may be deeper reasons, linked to a centuries-old French Russophile tradition that has many contemporary interpreters. On the right, from President Nicolas Sarkozy, who acted as a mediator between Russia and Georgia, traveled as far as Tbilisi to make a big pro-European speech but then sold the Mistral cruisers to Putin, to former Prime Minister François Fillon, who in the 2017 presidential candidate was Moscow’s preferred candidate; and on the left, from former Socialist Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine to François Mitterrand’s former Defense Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, founder of a left-wing sovereignist movement which is the only political formation in which Emmanuel Macron has ever briefly fought and presidential candidate, who was elected by Macron in 2002.
Chevènement, now 83, was the great interpreter of left-wing anti-Atlanticism, the idea that France must maintain its diplomatic and political independence from the United States and maintain a privileged relationship with Russia. In 2017 Chevènement was awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin as France’s “special envoy” for Russia and has remained a key figure in Macron’s foreign policy to this day.
The French president who has most distanced himself from this pro-Russian tradition of French foreign policy in recent years was François Hollande, who stated in an interview with Corriere a few days ago: “In France, there are two badly told stories that influenced ours Relations with Putin in the wrong direction.’
What are these two stories? ‘The first concerns the Gaullist tradition, the search for an autonomous position for France between East and West. It’s diplomacy that makes sense, but then we must remember that de Gaulle was the first to side with Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The second misunderstood story, this one on the left, concerns the efforts of François Mitterrand not to submit. Of course, but we must never forget that Mitterrand then agreed during the euro missile crisis that “the pacifists are in the West and the SS20 missiles are in the East”. If we omit these two crucial decisions, we end up believing that it is the fault of the United States and NATO that Putin is being aggressive. It’s because it claims a world power, just look at Russia’s actions in Syria and now in Africa.”
Hollande, who canceled the sale of Mistral cruisers to Russia, was perhaps the most consistent French president on 21st-century foreign policy and least fascinated by Putin’s strongman. On a visit to Paris, his reception for Putin was stone cold, and the two did not exchange a glance during the borderline awkward press conference at the Elysee Palace.
Macron played – and sometimes seems to play again – on a different register, that of acknowledging Russia’s greatness. Partly because of Realpolitik, partly – one can certainly assume that – because of a certain personal tendency towards protagonism. Hence the solemn ceremony – for Vladimir Putin, but also for himself – at the Palace of Versailles in 2017, or the dozens of unsuccessful phone calls with Putin after the invasion a year ago. Macron wants to leave no stone unturned to get a negotiation, and that is commendable. But the constant effort not to offend Putin too much hasn’t yielded great results so far.