18th Jun 2019

Putin picks wrong friend in France

  • Matching ties an omen of Franco-Russian detente? (Photo: kremlin.ru)

It’s curious how the same event can appear different, depending on the vantage point from which you look.

Take last week’s meeting, in Moscow on 28 and 29 October, between former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

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  • Berlusconi in Crimea (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Pro-Kremlin media portrayed it not just as the visit of an old “friend,” but as the visit of France’s next president, who is sure to be re-elected in 2017.

Sarkozy said there’s no sense in Russia's isolation over Ukraine and that Western leaders should team up with Putin in a coalition on Syria.

He endorsed Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia, even though most UN states reject it. “Crimea has chosen Russia and it cannot be blamed for that,” he said.

On Russian TV, the meeting appeared like a new dawn in foreign relations.

One might also imagine that being hosted by Putin, who is, like it or not, a major figure on the world stage, could boost Sarkozy’s election campaign.

But if we look at the event from France, it amounts to little.

For one, Sarkozy is not even sure of running for office.

He first needs to win the primaries in his own party, Les Republicains, and his Moscow trip might sit badly with the French public, which still remembers his controversial “friendships” with the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

According to Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, and a former national secretary in Sarkozy’s party, Les Republicains are split on Russia.

“Russia has become a dividing line inside the French right,” he told EUobserver.

“The most conservative elements, like the Droite Populaire group [headed by Thierry Mariani, which contains about 50 MPs], who adopt tougher stances on moral issues like gay mariage or immigration, take a pro-Putin line.”

But Sarkozy’s main rival inside the party, former foreign minister Alain Juppe, criticised the Putin meeting.

“Juppe said in his blog the problem isn’t whether we should talk to Putin or not, but to make sure we tell him what our red lines are: annexation of Crimea; incursions on allied territory; implementation of Minsk 2 [a recent ceasefire accord]," Haddad noted.

“Juppe is trying to develop a more moderate, liberal, and pro-European line, which could appeal to mainstream voters in an open primary."

According to Cecile Vaissie, a professor of Russian and Soviet studies at the University of Rennes 2 in France, Sarkozy’s murky financial past could also hold him back.

Referring to the eight, ongoing criminal investigations into Sarkozy's political funds, including into alleged donations from the late L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and from Gaddafi, Vaissie said: “As long as these affairs and scandals are not clarified, it will cast a doubt on Sarkozy.”

With friends like these

The Sarkozy-Putin relationship dates back to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, when Sarkozy flew back and forth to Moscow and Tbilisi to broker a peace deal.

“After the Georgian episode, Sarkozy considers Putin as someone he needs to talk to and do business with. Sarkozy has long blamed European leaders for not going directly to Moscow to find a solution to the Ukrainian crisis,” Haddad said.

The former French president, right after Georgia, also began talks on selling two Mistral warships to Russia.

But he doesn’t always treat his friends so well.

He started out, during Putin’s first presidential campaign, by attacking the Russian leader on human rights grounds in Chechnya.

He later attacked Jacques Chirac, during the latter’s term as French leader, by saying: “It’s better to shake hands with [former US president] Bush than with Putin.”

He received Gaddafi in full pomp at the Elysee in 2007 and, allegedly, took the dictator’s money to fund his election campaign.

But in March 2011, he ordered French jets to launch the first air strikes on Gaddafi forces.

It hasn't been proved who shot Gaddafi in October the same year. But there’s no shortage of people who believe French intelligence did it in order to conceal the Sarkozy funding scandal.

Meanwhile, Mediapart, a French investigative website, last year, revealed that the Kremlin paid millions of euros in loans to the National Front, France’s far-right, anti-EU, and pro-Russia party.

Les Republicains also need money.

The party is €69 million in debt, prompting some to ask whether Sarkozy’s Moscow trip was, in fact, a fund-raiser.

“His recent trip to Moscow can only raise questions, taking into account the fact that everybody knows the Kremlin financially supports [Marine] Le Pen’s National Front. And, as the saying goes, whoever pays the piper calls the tune,” Rennes 2’s Vaissie said.

Shirts and ties

In this context, it's easy to see how Putin could be useful to Sarkozy. But it's less clear how Sarkozy can be useful to Putin.

After Ukraine, Putin found himself a pariah, burdened with heavy sanctions, falling oil prices, and a decrepit economy.

His Syria intervention is, in part, designed to rehabilitate foreign ties by making himself central to EU and US efforts to stop Islamic State and slow the flows of refugees.

His meetings with European politicians, whether Sarkozy, or Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian leader and convicted criminal, whom Putin hosted in Crimea in September, are designed with the same purpose in mind.

But his European friends can do little to help.

Russian journalists covering the Sarkozy-Putin meeting even said their choice of wardrobe was an important omen.

“By chance, it turned out that Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy’s shirts and ties were the same colour. So this coincidence set the tone of the discussion,” Russian broadcaster REN TV opined.

But no matter what he said in Moscow, Sarkozy is no longer setting France’s foreign agenda.

Mariani, Sarkozy’s fellow Les Republicains MP, also endorsed the Crimea annexation when he visited the peninsula in July. But his trip didn’t make it any more legal or any more acceptable in the eyes of Western capitals.

For all his old friends, Putin will have to come to terms on Syria and Ukraine with those who actually hold power in Washington, Berlin, London, and Paris.

Their shirts and ties might well be of completely different colours when they meet.

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