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France-Russia, a love-hate history

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 tsarist Russia. Today, those contradictory passions are very much alive: in French political debate, Russia has acquired an importance that goes far beyond foreign policy.

January 28, 2020 - Cyrille Bret - Hot TopicsIssue 1-2 2020Magazine

Photo courtesy of Cyrille Bret

Since 2014 Russia has become a topic of debate for French domestic policy. The annexation of Crimea, the role of Russian television channels abroad, sanctions, the nature of the Putin regime, etc. – all these issues divide the French political elite. The question “Should we let Russia be Russia?” has become a domestic political marker.

For many French political movements, improving bilateral relations with Russia is a diplomatic, military and political priority. According to them, French economic interests on the continent are at stake. In several sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry, luxury goods, energy, and banking, the sanctions are to be quickly dismantled. Sanctioning Russia, they argue, undermines French growth. This is the line of argument of some parliamentarians who regularly propose resolutions in the National Assembly and Senate.

The political inspiration of those movements is very heterogeneous. Marine Le Pen’s far-right, to be sure, shares with contemporary Russia a cult of authority, a vertical notion of power, a distrust of Islam and a fascination with the Russian president. The authoritarian, nationalist and French  traditionalists believe that Vladimir Putin is the international leader of their national branch. But the sovereignist left of 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 criticising multilateralism since the 1990s? That deeply rooted French political tradition finds a source of inspiration in Russia. Even some 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, Putin has the same goal in Syria as King Francis I and Napoleon III.

For all these political leaders, restoring bilateral relations with Russia is a way to challenge the “political correctness” they loathe in France. For all these very heterogeneous currents, France should let Russia be Russia. Moreover, France should be inspired by Russia…

Among the French elite, an opposite current enjoys great influence. Atlanticists and liberals are the main opponents of Putin’s Russia. They have long been active in the ministry of foreign affairs, the establishment press and in think tanks. They see Putin’s Russia as a direct and immediate threat to the security and stability of Europe, as we can see in Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea, the intervention in Syria, and Putin’s close relations with Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Russia, in their view, is dangerous for the very identity of Europe. They criticise the centrality of the Orthodox Church in Russia, and the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. The religious soar in Russia undermines secularism and modernity. They see Russia as a land of persecution for feminists and human rights activists. Russian domestic politics, with its vertical power, is a synthesis between post-Soviet and tsarist authoritarianism. Europe must not allow Russia to conquer it, territorially and politically. Letting Russia be Russia, they claim, would be naïve and even suicidal. The goal of today’s Russia is nothing less than the destruction of Europe – its values and its democracy. For Europe’s sake, Russia should be prevented from being Russia.

These two positions are deeply rooted in French political tradition. The pro-Russian authoritarian far-right, the sovereignist leftists and the Christian conservatives use the term “Russian question” to reinforce their statesmanship. Russophobia is also very well established among the French elite: the moral high ground always belongs to those who criticise Russia absolutely.

Last August, President Emmanuel Macron seemed to renew 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 to de Gaulle’s presidency? Is he planning to reshuffle the alliance network and restore the Franco-Russian Alliance of the 19th century?

A few days before the G7 summit, from which Russia has been excluded since 2014, Macron staged a relaxed and friendly moment with the Russian leader on the Riviera. I would contend his rapprochement with Putin’s Russia is much more modest. On a few issues, France and Russia have the same goals. On nuclear proliferation, for instance, both states want to preserve the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. Yet they explicitly diverge on the implementation of Intermediate Nuclear Forces. On international terrorism in the Middle East, they share the fear or the “returnees” (i.e. the ISIS 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 remains a slogan. Regarding Ukraine, France has promoted the Normandy format for the resolution of the conflict in Donbas. Yet it never ceased to promote the renewal of sanctions against Russia.

In other words, the French President does not seem to be interested in destiny, or even the future of a post-Putin Russia. To him, Russia is a power of the past, a legacy of the 20th century. Yet it cannot be the useful partner the Soviet Union was to de Gaulle’s Great Vision for France.

Cyrille Bret is an associate professor at the Higher Institute for Political Studies (Paris).

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