France has a passionate relationship with Russia: the French love Russia… but they also love to hate Russia. This has been the case at least since the Napoleonic Wars, the Berezina trauma and the unexpected alliance of 1892 between the young French Republic and Czarist Russia.
Today, those contradictory passions are very much alive: in the French political debate, Russia has acquired an importance that goes far beyond foreign policy. Since 2014, Russia has become a topic of debate for French domestic policy. The annexation of the Crimea, the role of Russian television channels abroad, sanctions, the nature of the Putin regime, etc. all these issues divide the French political elites. The question « Should we let Russia be Russia? » has become an domestic political marker.
Here is the column: Bret Russia France
Putin’s Russia, a model for France?
For many French political movements, improving bilateral relations with Russia is a diplomatic, military and political top priority. According to them, the French economic interests on the continent are at stake. In several sectors pharmaceutical industries, luxury goods, energy or banking institutions, the sanctions are, according to them, to be dismantled quickly. Sanctioning Russia would undermine French growth. This is the line of arguments of some parliamentarians who regularly propose resolutions in the National Assembly and the Senate.
The political inspiration of those movements is very heterogeneous. Of course, Marine Le Pen’s far-right shares with contemporary Russia a cult of authority, a vertical conception of power, a distrust of Islam and a fascination for the Russian president. The authoritarian and nationalist French political tradition believes that Vladimir Putin is the international leader of their national branch. But the sovereignist left of a Jean-Luc Mélenchon also finds today’s Russia attractive: is it not the only country in Europe to resist the United States and NATO? Does it not show the way to sovereigntists by criticizing multilateralism from the 1990s? That deeply rooted French political tradition finds a source of inspiration in Russia. Even some of the classical conservatives plead for a rapprochement between France and Russia. They share with Russia the goal to protect Christianity in the Middle East. For them, President Putin has the same goal in Syria as the French King Francis the 1st and Napoleon the 3rd.
For all these political leaders, restoring bilateral relations with Russia is a way to challenge the « politically correctness » they loathe in France. For all these very heterogeneous currents, France should let Russia be Russia. Moreover, France should be inspired by Russia….
Taming the bear
Among the French elites, an opposite current enjoys great influence. Atlanticists and Liberals are the main hardlines towards Putin’s Russia. They have long been active in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the establishment press and in the think tanks. Putin’s Russia is a direct and immediate threat to the security and stability of Europe, as demonstrated by Georgia, Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the intervention in Syria and Vladimir Putin’s close relations with Viktor Orban.
But Russia is, in their view, dangerous for the very identity of Europe. They criticize the centrality of the Orthodox Church in Russia, in the conflict in Ukraine and in the Middle East. To them, it the religious soar in Russia undermines secularism and modernity. They are concerned about conservatism in morals. They see Russia a land of persecution for feminists and equal rights activists. Russian domestic politics, with its vertical power, is a synthesis between post-Soviet totalitarianism and tsarist authoritarianism. For these movements, Europeans must not allow Russia to conquer Europe, if not territorially or at least politically.
In this perspective, letting Russia be Russia would be naive and even suicidal. The goal of today’s Russia is nothing less than the destruction of Europe, of its values and its democracies. For the sake of Europe, Russia should be prevented from being Russia.
Macron on Russia: a new De Gaulle or a pragmatist?
Those two positions are deeply rooted in the French political traditions. The Pro-Russian authoritarian far right leaders, the sovereignist lefists and the Chrisitian Conservatives use the “Russian question” to reinforce their statesmanship. Russophobia is also very well established among the French elites: the moral high ground always belongs to those who criticize Russia absolutely.
Last August, President Macron seemed to renew the Pro-Russian trends in the French diplomatic line. And, in October, he bluntly branded NATO as “brain dead”. Does he want to pose as the heir of the De Gaulle’s presidency? Is he planning to reshuffle the alliance network and to restore the Franco-Russian Alliance of the 19th century?
A few days before the G7 summit from which Russia has been excluded since 2014, the French President staged a relaxed and friendly moment with the Russian leader on the Riviera. I would contend that his rapprochement with Putin’s Russia is much more modest. On a few issues, France and Russia have the same goals. On nuclear proliferation, both States want to preserve the 2015 agreement on Iran nuclear programme. Yet they explicitly diverge on the implementation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces. On international terrorism in the Middle East, they share the fear or the “returnees” i.e. the ISIL fighters recruited in Europe. Yet, even after the 2015 Paris attacks, they never managed to co-operate on the ground. A common French-Russian front against terrorism will remain a motto. On Ukraine, France has promoted the Normandy format. Yet it never ceased to promote the renewal of sanctions against Russia.
In other words, the current French President does not seem to be interested in the destiny, the essence or even the future of Post Putin Russia. To him, Russia is a power of the past. A legacy of the 20th century. But it cannot be the useful partner the USSR was to De Gaulle’s Great Vision for France.