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French President Nicolas Sarkozy concluded yesterday his first trip to Russia since his election. The visit was important because relations between these two key European countries have recently nosedived. All the indications are that, despite the bonhomie in Moscow, this is how they will remain for the foreseeable future.
Russia has always taken France seriously, not only because of the country’s influence inside the European Union, but also because France’s opposition to America’s global influence suited Moscow.
Relations flourished during the rule of President Jacques Chirac, Mr Sarkozy’s immediate predecessor; the two countries promoted a joint vision of a ‘multi-polar world’, one in which US power would be limited by the emergence of other strong nations or alliances. Pursuing this objective was seen by the French as more important than upholding human rights in Russia. Indeed, as criticism about the gagging of opposition and the media in Russia grew, President Chirac decorated Mr Putin with the highest rank of France’s Legion of Honour; the fact that barely a week before Anna Politkovskaya – a leading human rights campaigner and journalist – was assassinated in Moscow and that President Putin shrugged his shoulder in indifference also did not seem to bother the authorities in Paris one little bit.
Mr Sarkozy, however, has other ideas. Even before his election this May he told journalists that ‘if you asked me which of the two countries France would have closer relations with - the United States or Russia - the US would be my answer’.
And, upon assuming power, Mr Sarkozy quickly defused many disputes with the US. He chose to take his summer holidays in America, a highly symbolic gesture for any French politician. He put a stop to the constant pin-pricking of the Americans, until now a French national sport. And France is just as tough on Iran as is the US.
The French president did not mince his words about the Russians either. Speaking to his ambassadors in late August, Mr Sarkozy castigated Russia for ‘imposing its return to the international arena, brutally using its trump cards, such as gas and oil’.
And only last week, during a visit to Bulgaria – a former communist country - President Sarkozy referred to Russia as a country that ‘complicates the resolution of major world problems’.
Nor is there any suggestion that this is just a passing phase: ‘France will continue speaking openly on things that it doesn't like about recent developments in Russia’, says Jacques Rupnik, a French political scientist noted for his expertise on the subject.
For Moscow, the shift in France’s position represents a serious setback, especially since it is accompanied by cooler relations with Germany, another former close friend. So, the Russians have gone to great lengths to win President Sarkozy’s confidence.
Recently, the French energy company Total became the only Western company to be awarded a contract to develop a huge Russian gas field.
And other juicy deals are being dangled. Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, has ordered twenty-two jets from Airbus, a European manufacturer headquartered in France. The French were also invited to develop a new airliner - the Superjet 100 - together with Russia's Sukhoi aerospace manufacturer.
During yesterday’s talks in Moscow, President Sarkozy hailed all these projects. Nevertheless, the French leader showed no signs of falling in for Russia’s charm offensive.
In an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta – Moscow’s government newspaper – Mr Sarkozy said that a nuclear-armed Iran is not in French interests, warning that this is not a matter on which he will compromise, a sharp reminder of just far apart the two countries remain.
And, in another pointed gesture, Mr Sarkozy also met with the leaders of Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic, just days before his visit to Moscow.
All these countries regard Russia as their main security threat. And all got French reassurances. Indeed, Mr Sarkozy even offered tacit support for US plans to build missile defence installations in central Europe, a project which infuriates the Russians.
In welcoming his French visitor, Mr Putin tried to ignore such difficulties. ‘France has been, is and, I hope, will continue to be one of our main partners in Europe’ he said. And, after the discussions, Mr Sarkozy claimed to have ‘really felt a convergence’ between the position of France and that of Russia.
But the reality remains that the gap between the two nations cannot be easily bridged. For the European Union - which remains France’s first priority - is a changed organization: it contains no less than ten East European countries, suspicious of Russia, their old colonial master.
France realizes that it must accommodate these East European concerns. Mr Sarkozy - the son of a Hungarian immigrant – believes in this task: ‘I am half East-European’ he recently said with pride. So, the old French policy of befriending Russia by brushing aside the concerns of Eastern Europe has gone for good.
Some Russian observers find this too much to stomach. RBK Daily, a Moscow business newspaper, mischievously referred to the French president this week as ‘the American vassal’. Other Russian newspapers poked fun at the French leader’s shoes (he wears very high heels to compensate for his small physical stature) or at his ‘theatrical gestures’. It was all a far cry from the deferential coverage accorded to Chirac.
But Mr Putin was more philosophical. Quoting a verse from a Nineteenth century Russian poet, he told President Sarkozy: ‘One cannot understand Russia with the mind ... One must simply believe in it’.
The French leader smiled, but said nothing. Sarkozy evidently wishes to use the brain – rather than the heart – in dealing with Russia. To the relief, no doubt, of the East European members of the EU.
Director, International Security Studies
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.