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Macron-Putin Meeting Focuses on Advancing Cooperation Against Terror

PARIS, May 30, 2017 (Nouvelle Solidarité)—Yesterday's meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and France's new President Emmanuel Macron was clearly just the beginning of a dialogue between both nations, and it will take some time to rebuild confidence, since the relations had reached a bottom low. The decorum chosen for the meeting—the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s visit to France—was very strong symbolically, and can only be interpreted from Macron’s side as a real will to restart the dialogue. The fact that in his entourage there are quite a few people who speak Russian fluently, something on which Putin remarked positively during his intervention at the press conference to the great pleasure of Macron.

However, beyond the symbols, the reality is that disagreements are strong. The only subject of agreement after a tête-à-tête that lasted over two hours—and was, as they described it themselves, a complete tour d’horizon of the situation—was to reinforce their cooperation in the fight against terrorism in Syria. Macron proposed to create a working group to examine the conditions of this cooperation. He also slightly modified France’s previous fully anti-Bashar Assad position, to one by which he agrees to meet figures of the Assad regime. Macron also stated that he wanted to reinforce the French-Russian cooperation on this matter, beyond what France is doing already with the international coalition in Syria and Iraq. That would be interesting. But Putin, in his intervention in the press conference, wondered if he is able to deliver:

"We don’t know to what extent France is autonomous in seeking solutions to operational questions [in the Syrian dossier]. We don’t know, because we don’t know what are the agreements among the allies [of the international coalition]."

However, even in this area in which both agree to reinforce their collaboration, the same old problems remain to a large extent: Macron said he wants to work towards a democratic transition which does not lead to the partition of Syria; Putin restated his position at the end of the press conference:

"concerning the Syrian dossier, our position is clear. We cannot eliminate terrorism by destroying states of the region which are already quite fragile."

Macron also very forcefully defined a "red line" not to cross, or else risk an immediate French retaliation: the use by any camp of chemical weapons, something which Putin is not willing to accept, given the difficulty of the situation.

In his presentation to the press conference, Putin said they had talked about relations between Russia and the EU; discussed the thorny world crisis, and tried to find a common approach. Putin said he is convinced that France’s and Russia’s interests are closer than their differences, and reported on the good economic and trade relations between both countries, despite the sanctions.

"Of the 500 French companies in Russia, not one of them quit Russia because of the sanctions." Last year French direct investment in Russia increased by $2.1 billion; bilateral exchanges increased by 14%, and growth in the early part of this year was up 30%. Putin called for more youth exchanges, people who study each other’s language, history, culture. He also noted that they discussed the Ukrainian crisis, the solutions to the Syrian crisis, as well as the very dangerous and complicated nuclear crisis in North Korea.

However, he, like Macron, believes that

"Our main task for the moment is the struggle against terrorism. The French President proposes the creation of a working group and I want to support the idea that we need to coordinate our struggle against terrorism on a practical level. Concerning the Syrian dossier, our position is clear. We cannot eliminate terrorism by destroying states of the region which are already quite fragile."

For the future, one should also take into account that Macron is trying to run his own game, different from Mitterrand, different from Merkel. During the campaign he viewed himself as close to a group of 20 former foreign ministers who issued a booklet entitled the "Seven Mortal Sins of French Foreign Policy," urging France to recover the independence it had during the Gaullist era. In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche prior to the meeting with Putin, Macron stated, "I have respect for Russia, and I invite Putin in the context of a 300-year-old diplomatic relation." And he also said about Trump:

"Mr. Trump wants to understand and listen. He is more open than one thinks, he likes direct contact and he is capable of changing his mind."

He said he could "build a cordial relationship" with Trump.