The ministry website details France’s engagement with Kyiv and Moscow dating from 2013. It lays out a logical diplomacy of “firmness, dialogue, and solidarity with Ukraine.” It lists financial, economic, and individual sanctions. It says that France is helping war crimes investigators, “true to its long-standing commitment to fighting impunity.”

There is just one thing missing: hard power.

The reason may be found in a startling set of statistics in the latest Ukraine Support Tracker, prepared by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. France lags behind its peers on almost every benchmark — on military aid it trails not only its peer powers in NATO, like Germany and the UK, but also Canada and even Lithuania; while both Britain and Switzerland have spent more on refugee costs.

French diplomats point to its significant contribution to a $55bn European Union (EU) package which is to run over seven years. But the Kiel Tracker currently estimates German military commitments to Ukraine at €17bn ($18bn), which is 34 times greater than that of France. To be fair, France has quietly stepped up its security and intelligence work with its NATO allies against the Russians, and Scalp cruise missiles — the French branding of the UK Sky Shadow — have been sent, sympathetic hands in London told this author.

But it is hard to escape the sense that Paris still prefers to focus on the war’s endgame rather than the emergency at Europe’s doorstep. The French argument is that when the time for talking comes, it will need a negotiator who is not seen as a Russophobe bent on regime change. Not surprisingly, policymakers in Washington and Kyiv are suspicious.

So what is the back story here? Like Caesar’s Gaul, it is divided into three parts. First is President Emmanuel Macron’s belief that his undoubted charisma and intelligence can work on people like Vladimir Putin and the Chinese dictator, Xi Jinping. The second is a long-standing French vision of a so-called security architecture across the landmass from Lisbon to Vladivostok. And third, less visionary, is an old cultural affinity with Russia that has blurred into sleaze and corruption.

In 2016, the investigative journalist Nicolas Hénin published La France Russe, an exposé of what he called “the Putin networks.” The book detailed sordid and profitable traffic between the Kremlin and French politicians of both left and right, adding that Russia’s intelligence services were more active in France than in the Soviet era.

With great foresight, Hénin wrote that “Putin’s aim is to destabilize French public opinion, to shatter the core of European solidarity and to help bring a populist party to power.”

This author met Hénin in a café on the Place de la Republique to commiserate: he was a voice in the wilderness back then, and British newspaper editors did not give a fig for the intricacies of French politics.

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Intricate they were, though. Marine Le Pen’s National Front (now rebranded as the National Rally) took a loan from a Russian bank, which it has since repaid. A parade of conservative politicians trooped to Moscow to shake the tyrant’s hand. On the left, memories of the Communist Party’s heyday kept intellectuals in the nostalgic fog of an Alan Furst spy novel, diverting themselves with sectarian disputes even as an ogre built armies of the night.

At first, Macron took a cold line with Putin, but well-informed people say his private attitude changed after the two spent time together at Fort Brégançon, the presidential summer retreat of the Riviera, in 2019. Hence Macron’s futile trip to Moscow to dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine, his phone calls urging reason, and his constant use of the phrase en même temps — at the same time — when speaking of Russian crimes in the same breath as Russian grievances.

In June 2022, the Institut Montaigne, a heavyweight think-tank, published a paper titled Guerre en Ukraine: nouvelle politique étrangere pour la France, arguing that Macron had to change his tone, condemn Russia without ambiguity, get behind Ukraine’s admission to the European Union, boost defense and abandon illusions of a continental settlement. “If we are thinking of a grand bargain, the answer is no,” it concluded.

Macron seems to have heeded this policy advice. He now talks about bleak realism and wants a “European Political Community.” Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for one, says “he has changed for real this time.”

But siren voices linger, as Le Monde wrote last year when Macron made one of his mentors, the former defense and interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a commander of the Legion of Honor. 

It called Chevènement “one of the leaders of the old anti-Atlantic left and an adamant Russophile who was decorated with the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin as France’s special representative for Russia in 2017.”

There are some four years left for Macron to conduct his mercurial diplomacy before ceding the stage to a successor — who may well be Le Pen. If that happens, nostalgia will truly be in order.

Michael Sheridan followed Emmanuel Macron on the presidential election trail in 2017 as Paris correspondent of The Sunday Times.  He is the author of The Gate to China, a history of Hong Kong.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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