Looking to the East – Macron’s new opening towards Russia

Independence and assertiveness became keywords of French foreign policy under the leadership of President Macron. A rapprochement with Moscow represents an important manifestation of that policy. According to Macron, it is feasible and will give France better chances to compete with other global players, hence balancing China or the United States and even Germany in the context of European leadership. France also believes that it would help make Europe safer in the long term through the establishment of a renewed and extended security architecture. However, such a strategy could also have serious negative consequences for France due to a likely undermining of its relations with key European partners (especially the United Kingdom, Poland and Romania) or meet with dissatisfaction among French public opinion. Moreover, such rapprochement will not be easy as French-Russian relations — especially economic — remain underdeveloped today and because Russia seems to prioritize a strategic relationship with China (even if it becomes more and more unfavorable to Russia) instead of Europe.

President Macron has shown great interest in rebuilding France’s relationship with Russia in recent weeks. He called for a « frank and demanding dialogue » with Russia during his annual speech to French ambassadors on September 9th. This attitude – in addition to a meeting with Putin a few weeks before – has raised high scepticism both in France and across Europe. Fears are high that Macron is going to build naive rhetoric towards Putin’s Russia contributing to a deterioration of French relations with its main allies and more generally to a dangerous destabilisation of an already limited European unity. Macron justifies his diplomatic initiative by a window of opportunity to re-engage with Russia providing benefits for France but also for the whole European continent. In this perspective, the need to counterbalance the Chinese challenge is strongly emphasized in Macron’s rhetoric.

Russia and France have developed multi-vectorial relations (political, economic or cultural ones), even if they remain underdeveloped to this day. It is particularly true concerning economic relations as Russia is not an essential economic partner for France (15th destination representing 1,4% of its exports) and vice versa (France is the 16th destination for Russia representing 1,8% of its exports). However, it is true that several big French companies – the best example being Total – have strong interests in Russia, contributing to the fact that France has gradually become the most important investor in Russia. This economic relationship will not dramatically improve in the foreseeable future and thus the economy does not justify this reset of France’s relations towards Russia; geopolitical and strategic reasons are presented as standing behind it.

President Macron – known to be close to eminent Russophile personalities such as Jean-Pierre Chevènement or Phillipe De Villiers — perceives Russia as a necessary interlocutor in the context of French strategy reassertion. He advocates for an updated strategy based on General De Gaulle’s principles of independence and assertiveness. Evoking Europe as stretching from “Lisbon to Vladivostok”, Macron is undeniably assuming this reference. Two significant objectives are at the heart of this strategic inflexion towards Russia: the counterbalancing of rising Chinese power and the reinforcement of the EU’s power through a French leadership and vice versa. Indeed, Macron believes that pushing Russia out of Europe is a “profound strategic mistake” as it contributes to a stronger alliance with China and/or to its isolation (which is also harmful to European interests). An essential aim of the new French opening towards Russia is owing to France’s competitive geopolitical relationship with China (in addition to asymmetrical and unfavourable economic relations). Indeed, France has to compete with China in two strategic regions: Indo-Pacific and Africa. And this competition will probably continue for decades. In the meantime, China is undermining France’s position with its economic (Belt and Road initiative in Indo-Pacific, infrastructure investment and land buying in Africa) and even military deployment (militarisation of South China Sea, a military base in Djibouti). On the other side, Macron prioritizes the revision of the European security architecture as an essential task. In this regard, he believes that Russia should become a part of it in the longer term. More generally, this issue of European security reformulation is also perceived as an opportunity to increase French leverage versus German leadership in the EU. Indeed, Germany will most likely remain rather passive until the end of Merkel’s era whereas France seems finally able to take the lead on several EU issues. In this context, Ukraine could become a new card to play, and the recent prisoners’ exchange with Russia tends to confirm it. With Zelensky, new momentum in peace talks seems reachable and France would like to play a crucial role in it, assuming the leadership of the European Union in talks with Russia. Finally, Russia is more and more seen by France as an unavoidable interlocutor when it comes to Middle East developments due to its large involvement in Syria and its extended relations with Iran.

It is certain that France’s strategic ambitions are a bold move due to its high potential benefits. However, it should not hide that elevated risks exist. Above all, there is a danger to concede too much and too easily to Russia. Certainly Putin as a cunning and experienced “trickster” will try to make conditional the so-called rapprochement with the gradual end of economic sanctions (which are increasingly contested by some European politicians, especially in Germany and Italy) and finally to achieve the international recognition of Crimea as Russian territory. If France decides to operate diplomatic initiatives towards Russia, it has to be done in concertation with its European allies. Without that, some of its allies – Poland, United Kingdom and Romania especially – will react with strong opposition. It presents a dangerous trend as relations between France and the UK –and Poland and Romania to a lesser degree – are of crucial significance for future European security. It is worth reminding that France strengthened its cooperation with Romania substantially, engaging successfully in the promotion of Romanian candidates to important posts in the EU and NATO. The last risk is linked to French internal politics. Macron’s openness towards Russia could lead to a closer personal relationship with Putin. Meanwhile, this past summer’s pre-election period in Moscow was marked by violent repression against demonstrators. In the case of a repeat of such events, Macron could be criticized in France for supporting a Russian “Tsar” that is cracking down on protestors, and thus lose some political support.


Romain Le Quiniou

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