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Why Macron kowtows to the Kremlin

Charles de Gaulle inspecting the troops in Moscow, 1966. Gamma-Keystone/Getty

Was he always close to Vladimir Putin?
No. Before the May 2017 election that brought Emmanuel Macron to power, says Peter Conradi in The Sunday Times, Russia was blamed for spreading rumours that he was having a gay affair and that his wife, Brigitte, was born a man. Putin would undoubtedly have preferred the election of Macron’s far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, whose campaign had been financed by a loan from a Russian bank. In comparison, Macron’s own sentiments towards Russia looked more “hard-headed”.

So why has Macron made such an effort to woo him?
Just two weeks after his inauguration in 2017 Macron hosted Putin at Versailles. Then, in August 2019, Macron invited Putin to the Fort de Brégançon, the presidential residence on the Côte d’Azur, to discuss a new “architecture of trust and security” for Europe intended to bring Russia in from the cold. Sylvie Bermann, then France’s ambassador in Moscow, says Macron’s attempt to reach out to Putin was motivated by one main consideration: “Macron believed that if there was not a European policy towards Russia, then it would fall into the arms of China.”

Are French presidents usually this close to Moscow?
Yes, says Robert Tombs in The Sunday Telegraph. Macron’s persistent efforts to win over Putin have been variously ascribed to vanity, domestic politics and fear of nuclear escalation, but he is really following a “characteristically French script”. Ever since France’s traumatic defeat by Prussia in the 1870s, the French and the Russians have bonded over a shared fear of the Germans. In 1896, after the two nations had cemented a military pact, Tsar Nicholas II visited France and was met by cheering crowds. This closeness persisted through both world wars. Despite Britain’s support for the French resistance during Nazi occupation, Charles de Gaulle – “France’s master national scriptwriter” – always resented les Anglo-Saxons, and even considered moving his exile headquarters to Moscow in 1942.

Did he change his mind?
Not really. In 1966, he made a state visit to Moscow, withdrew France from Nato’s military structure and booted 60,000 US troops off French soil. To de Gaulle and his successors, Russia has remained “indispensable to the security of Europe, and hence of France”. The Americans can’t be trusted, the British will always choose “the open sea” over the continent, and Germany is “big and unmanageable”. Macron’s long and “so far fruitless” conversations with Putin are not just grandstanding. He believes that Russia cannot be allowed to “become once again a permanent enemy and an ally of China”.

So is France out on a limb?
No, says Simon Kuper in the FT. Whatever they say, most west European leaders want the war to end as soon as possible, even if that means “rewarding a bloodthirsty dictator”. It’s different in Europe’s poorer east, where Putin’s threat is “existential”. But to leaders in Paris, Berlin and Rome, Moscow is simply “another neighbourhood’s bully”. Peace in Ukraine, even on terrible terms for Kyiv, would mean “the cost-of-living crisis might dissipate, along with the risk of sleepwalking into nuclear war”. It’s only thanks to pressure from a “gung-ho US” that Macron, Italy’s Mario Draghi and Germany’s Olaf Scholz are sending weapons at all. Even then, they’re doing it “slowly, and not enough, and not many heavy ones”, because they’re afraid of “prolonging the war or encouraging Ukraine’s army to venture into Russia”.

Is anyone in western Europe still onside?
Ukraine’s best friend in the region is the UK. But then Britain has a military tradition, a ruling party “whose voters historically like all wars”, and a prime minister “whose chief justification for clinging to office is that Ukraine needs him”. Other top capitals are waiting patiently for Kyiv itself to decide it wants a ceasefire – though they’d make sure Ukraine keeps control of some of its ports, to protect global grain supplies. But really, with the exception of Britain, western Europe has learnt it can live “just fine” without eastern Europe.

🛢🤑 One reason the Germans may be reluctant to weigh in against Putin, says Kate Andrews in The Spectator, is that even now Berlin pays Russia $220m a day for oil and gas supplies, “more than a quarter of the Kremlin’s daily income from energy”. It isn’t just the Germans – because so many countries don’t have any alternative source of energy, “Putin is on track to make more money from oil and gas this year than last”.