French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Russia, for the first time after inauguration, to attend the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, scheduled for May 24-25. According to Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Mr. Macron will have a clear-cut, open, and demanding dialog with the Russian leader. In the latest interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, Mr. Macron voiced his support for Russia’s integration with Europe, adding that he wanted to “align Russia with Europe and not to allow Russia to retire into itself,” that he saw it as “part of Europe, even if Russia has almost never known the democracy in which we live.”
France is obviously prepared to cooperate with Russia, even if within the limits of an apolitical civil social environment. Russia is de facto an entirely politicized one where young people want to build well-paid bureaucratic careers and where no institution can regard itself as “independent” without being approved by the authorities, let alone above politics.
The Day asked Ms. Valeria FAURE-MUNTIAN, President of the France-Ukraine Group at the French National Assembly, and Ms. Cecile VAISSIE, French analyst, for comment on France’s current diplomatic course, President Macron’s visit to St. Petersburg, and prospects for better cooperation between Ukraine and France.
COOPERATION IMPEDED BY RUSSIA’S POLITICIZED SOCIETY
Valeria FAURE-MUNTIAN: “Russia is a big country, considering its territory, population, and weapons. We have to speak to one and all. Diplomacy is France’s calling card. Historically, we have abided by the principle of balanced dialog, holding discussions with various parties despite their policy or stand in a certain matter. In view of this, we’ll obviously continue our dialog with Russia, and President Emmanuel Macron is stressing the fact. However, after his meeting with Mr. Putin in Versailles, it became clear that this should be a dialog between civil societies, rather than government or members of parliament.”
Cecile VAISSIE: “I believe that all of this is verbiage. We usually meet to discuss joint projects or other ways to cooperate. That’s standard practice. In Versailles, President Macron explained that it was cooperation between societies, that Russian students should be encouraged to study in France and vice versa. How to cooperate with Russia’s politicized society is a different story. One has to bear in mind Europe’s determined stand against Russia after the nerve gas poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK. On the other hand, I think that maintaining a dialog with Russia is a good idea. We’d have an opportunity to talk about the Skripal case face to face.”
GETTING PREPARED FOR WHAT WILL HAPPEN AFTER PUTIN
Mr. Macron will attend the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg at the end of May and will meet with Vladimir Putin. What’s the actual purpose of his visit to Russia?
Valeria FAURE-MUNTIAN: “As a matter of fact, Emmanuel Macron was invited to visit Russia by a non-governmental organization that’s not funded by the French or Russian government. It is made up of representatives of a civil society. That was why our President decided to visit Russia, despite the strained geopolitical situation. I don’t know what Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin will discuss in Russia. All I know that the purpose of his visit is attending the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg.”
Cecile VAISSIE: “I think that Emmanuel Macron wants to maintain a dialog with Vladimir Putin. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, he’d like to represent Europe and the European Union in that dialog. This doesn’t mean that Mr. Macron approves Mr. Putin’s policy, or that he is prepared to surrender the interests of his country. He is as open for discussion with Mr. Putin as he is with Mr. Trump, considering that he disagrees with the latter’s stand in the matter of Iran and US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. He will have a dialog with Vladimir Putin in regard to specific issues. This became clearly apparent after the Russian President’s visit to Versailles and a several off-the-record telephone conversations. While in St. Petersburg, they will discuss Syria, human rights in Russia, and Ukraine (hopefully). I don’t think that a dialog with Russia is uppermost on the French political agenda. Rather, a desire to conduct a political dialog with all who wish to join it. I don’t think that any agreements will be discussed or actually made [in St. Petersburg] – although that’s precisely how this dialog between France and Russia could be interpreted in Moscow and even, partially, in Ukraine. I believe that Emmanuel Macron’s policy is pragmatic. He wants to leave the dialog with Russia an option, considering that there is no way to change the Russian leader’s stand. By doing so, he is getting prepared for an era after Vladimir Putin without acting counter to his principle.”
UKRAINE AS PART OF EUROPEAN CONTINENT
Do you think that France could eventually sacrifice Ukraine to settle another international conflict, like ending the war in Syria, or for the sake of coalition with Russia?
Valeria FAURE-MUNTIAN: “To begin with, Ukraine is a big and independent country that doesn’t belong to anyone. France can’t sacrifice anything that doesn’t belong to her on a priori grounds. Diplomacy? I’d be very surprised if France surrendered her relationships with Ukraine for the sake of cooperation with Russia. This wouldn’t be her style. Our diplomacy has for centuries been marked by flexibility, finesse, and preparedness to have a lasting dialog with all countries. Ukraine is part of the European continent. We know that there is a war underway there, just as we know its causes and consequences. France, like any other European country, would have no reason for disowning Ukraine as a close EU neighbor.”
EUROPE WON’T SACRIFICE UKRAINE
Cecile VAISSIE: “I don’t think that this will ever happen. Everyone realizes that, should this happen, Georgia or Armenia would be next in line. Also, the Baltic states are members of the European Union. Back in 1940, they were occupied by the Soviet Union. France and several other countries have never recognized that annexation. Even when those ‘Baltic republics’ were de facto part of the Soviet Union, our diplomats mostly avoided visiting them on an official basis. Add here the gold the Baltic states kept in European banks and which was returned to them after Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia won their national independence, following 1991 events. This makes me reasonably sure that Crimea will regain its right of choice and return to Ukraine – in half a year, maybe later. I don’t believe that Europe will ever give up on Ukraine. Ukraine may not like some decisions made by the West, and the other way around. We’re waging different policies, our national histories vary, as are our relationships with Russia, but the European and Ukrainian approaches to the Russian Federation appear to complement each other.”
EMPHASIS ON REFORM IN UKRAINE
What do you think France – and especially Ukraine – should do to attract French business investors?
Cecile VAISSIE: “Russia keeps accusing Ukraine of ‘fascism,’ so you should take jealous care of your political image. On the other hand, Ukraine has made Europe change its attitude to your country and proved its readiness to have a dialog.”
Valeria FAURE-MUNTIAN: “France is interested in business cooperation with Ukraine and diplomatic relations, within the framework of the Minsk agreements, as well as firm economic times, are on top of our political agenda. However, to enhance this cooperation and settle the Donbas conflict, Ukraine should finally discard [some of its] Soviet standards and show a greater [official] interest in domestic reforms. We could help with a dialog, but we’re in no position to solve the problem. The separatists and the Ukrainian army must settle this conflict between themselves and retreat from the disengagement line – neither side has done this. In other words, neither France, nor Germany should work on settling this conflict. Ukraine should... With regard to your economy, infrastructure upgrading should come first, you should revise your plans. I think that your transport is still working the Soviet way. I mean your highways and railways. They were all planned and built using Russia’s example. Nothing has been done to meet the European standards. Therefore, you should revise road and railway construction methods, the cost effectiveness of your routes, energy distribution, water and waste management techniques. The level of environmental pollution is one of the world’s highest. I’ve never seen so much plastic garbage. On the other hand, it is important for French companies to invest in Ukraine, and for Ukraine to export its goods to France. In order to attract French investors, you must combat corruption and have the Ukrainian banks prepared to issue loans for businesses at the start of the road. Today, this option is equally inaccessible for Ukrainians and foreigners. It is true that the government and other relevant authorities are working to solve this problem. The agrarian sector is another high priority. There is more to it than raw materials and grain. If and when corruption is subdued, after solving the infrastructure and investment problems, one will have to consider progress of the agro-industrial complex that can actually make Ukraine a thriving country. So far, growing grain and exporting it enriches only those people who are in this business. Energy, IT, mathematics, engineering, and digital technologies are in high market demand in France. Ukraine has a lot to offer to Europe here. Also, cooperation in the military sphere, considering that Ukraine succeeded in organizing an adequate army within a very short period, and that this army may well become an important player in the European field. Summing up, there are obstacles and obvious changes for the better in the relations between France and Ukraine.”