Emmanuel Macron in controversial talks with Russia ahead of G7

David Chazan
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron in St. Petersburg - REUTERS

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, will attempt to defuse tension with Russia over the Iran tanker crisis, Crimea, Syria and the Skripal poisoning in a controversial meeting with Vladimir Putin on Monday.

Mr Macron has faced criticism for inviting the Russian leader to France while Mr Putin is intent on crushing opposition protests in Moscow and remains intransigent over Crimea and Syria.

Mr Putin, who will be received at the Fort de Bregançon, the presidential summer retreat on the Riviera, will not be attending the G7 summit in Biarritz, in south-western France, at the weekend. But Mr Macron will try to persuade him that better relations with western countries could help restore Russia’s place among the group of industrialised nations. It was suspended in 2014 from the G8, as it was then known, over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

By meeting Mr Putin and Boris Johnson this week in the run-up to the summit, Mr Macron hopes to tackle what he sees as two key threats to the success of Europe. But shopkeepers and restaurateurs in Biarritz are demanding compensation for the summit. They say up to half their sales are usually in August but they will lose out because much of the Atlantic resort will be closed to holidaymakers for security reasons. They argue that the 6,500 delegates, support staff and journalists attending will not spend like tourists.  

Mr Macron has promised “unprecedented security” for the Biarritz summit, warning that “violent French and European groups” plan to converge on Biarritz.

France's President Emmanuel Macron will hold talks with Russia Credit: AFP

Anti-globalisation activists will be prevented from holding a planned “counter-summit” in Biarritz, but protesters have been given permission to meet 15 miles south of the city.

Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, said: “We are prepared for counter-demonstrations and if they are violent we will neutralise them.”

Mr Macron will report to his fellow G7 leaders on the outcome of his talks with Mr Putin. But many analysts believe the French president is unlikely to influence his Russian counterpart and some object to the talks. 

Galia Ackerman, a Russia expert, said France would gain nothing from Mr Putin’s visit. “He has given none of the assurances you would expect on human rights, democracy or fair elections. Inviting Vladimir Putin to France will only bolster his aggressive positions.”

But Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, said Mr Macron was right to attempt to re-establish a dialogue. He pointed out that France and Germany had pressed to reinstate Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe in May after its voting rights were suspended over its annexation of Crimea.  Some of the human rights body’s 47 member-states argued against the move, but most agreed that it was preferable to engage with Russia, rather than freezing it out.

“There is a big question about security in Europe, as the Americans and the Russians are abandoning disarmament agreements concluded at the time of Reagan and Gorbachev,” Mr Védrine said. “We will always be neighbours of Russia. So what do we do? Either we stick to a policy of condemnation, sanctions that stupidly push Russia towards China, which is not at all what the Russians want, or we try to restore a neighbourly discussion, even if it’s complicated and we must be very prudent.”

Anthony Bellanger, a political consultant, suggested that Mr Macron might use the possible lifting of sanctions as “leverage over Russia, which has an economy that is only the same size as Spain’s.”