What happened to President Macron in Saint Petersburg?
What he said and did not say during his Russian visit amounts to a dramatic change in his foreign policy, a dramatic change which looks like a capitulation, be it temporary or long lasting. It is very difficult to cast this shift in any intelligible account of Macron’s international strategy and ambition.
His presidency began with new and strong messages to EU and to the world: France was inviting its partners, first of all Germany, to acknowledge the crisis and failures of EU governance, the magnitude of the threats faced by EU, challenging its very existence by the accumulation of disintegrating forces. The president’s speeches on the future of Europe in Athens and at the Sorbonne in September 2017 proposed to launch without delay an ambitious program of rethinking and reshaping EU: democratization, a new governance providing effective coordination and solidarity instead of the current system which organizes distrust and opposition of interest between member States, and a more affirmative defence and security policy. Now, this program is also a condition of Macron’s domestic policy of reforms and national recovery: making France great again by making EU great again and vice versa, because none is credible without the other. Russia was pointed at not only as the aggressor in Ukraine, but as a destabilizing force for all Europe. All this seems to have vanished in St-Petersburg.
The word “Crimea” was absent from his speech at the joint press conference.Macron only said that “a peaceful settlement of the Donbass crisis is a key condition for resuming appeased relations between Europe and Russia”. A few weeks ago, France had strongly reasserted that Crimea’s annexation would NEVER be recognized, and that Russia was “clearly the aggressor” in Donbass. The president mentioned sanctions only to say that French companies are the first foreign employer in Russia “despite sanctions”. A strange way to endorse your own policy, and a ludicrous economic argument. Sentsov’s case was raised along with Sebrenikov’s, and but Macron seemed almost to apologize by mentioning the special sensitivity of French opinion to the freedom of artists. Too bad for the Ukrainian hostages who are not artists but just journalists or Crimean farmers. Well, playing soft on Human Rights and political prisoners may be practically more efficient than being tough, but did the French president had to answer to a question on cyber-attacks that France and Russia will cooperate on this problem to establish “shared rules”? Did he had to mention his meeting with Memorial by saying that “Memorial plays an important role in Russian democratic life”? “democratic life” sounds ambiguous if not complacent in this context.
But the most troublesome expression of Macron’s new stance is this seemingly innocuous reference: “I am convinced that both our countries have a calling and interest to define, in Dostoyevsky’s terms (…) a genuine common ground for solving all European contradictions”. Politicians who never read any book like to drop literary references suggested by advisors. But Macron is not like that. In a recent interview (Nouvelle Revue Française, April 2018), he explains that the experience of literature “builds a lasting emotional and intellectual framework which shapes your vision of the world. I did a lot of philosophy, but I was formed by literature above all. (…) Actually, I am the manifestation of French people’s liking for romance: it cannot be put into formulas, but this is indeed the core of the political adventure. (…) Europe is experiencing the return of the tragic in history. A lot of things must be reinvented. And in this adventure, we can recover a deeper breath, of which literature is a necessary component.” So, we should take seriously his quotation of the famous Discourse on Pushkin (1880).
Now, Dostoyevsky’s point is that Russians are the only genuine “universal people”, the bearer of “a new universal Word”: “This faculty is absolutely Russian, national (…) European people do not know how much we love them. (…) Being a true Russian is looking for a genuine common ground for solving all European contradictions; and the Russian soul will provide it, the all-embracing Russian soul which can encompass in the same love all the nations, our brothers”. In his Diary, Dostoyevsky is even more explicit on these “contradictions” and the ability of the Russian people to overcome them: “Moral treasuries do not depend on economic development. The eighty millions of our people represents a spiritual unity, unknown anywhere else in Europe (…) All the wealth amassed by Europe will not save her from falling because in a single moment ‘all wealth will disappear’. And this is this rotten and undermined social organization which is presented to our people as the ideal towards which he should tend!” He celebrates the “reconciliation” of “Occidentalists” and “Slavophiles” thanks to Pushkin, but only provided this reconciliation is on a Slavophile basis, against those who claim, in Dostoyesvsky’s words: “Sorry, we do not want to be in your Orthodoxy, we are atheists and Europeans”.
Obviously, the French president cannot endorse this fierce attack against European liberal values, whose “contradictions” should be overcome by Holy Russia — which the current ideology of the Kremlin. What did he want to say? Is it an encrypted alert for those who still do not take seriously the Russian threat? More likely, he may be overwhelmed by the burden of being on its own the leader of EU in front of Vladimir Putin, left alone by the British after the Brexit, by Italy’s drowning in anti-European demagogy, by Angela Merkel, paralysed by the weakness of her coalition and powerless in front of the pro-Russian lobby? World governance is not an easy job these days: European leaders have to cope with the crisis of the nuclear agreement with Iran after Trump’s withdrawal, with the dilemmas of the Syrian war, where they face a humanitarian disaster, a criminal dictator backed by Russia and Iran, but no alternative. All the more with an erratic US president who cannot be trusted, not because he lies all the time like Putin, but because he changes his mind every second with complete ingenuity.
I assume that, even more than EU’s weakness, Macron’s concern is the critical breach in the Western solidarity created by Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. It does not matter who is right or wrong between Europeans and Americans, what is at stake is the liberal world order which is (was?) based on Euro-Atlantic solidarity. Trump’s erratic behaviour has sent for months contradictory messages on NATO, on world trade, on Syria, etc. Some consider that Trump’s oddities do not jeopardize the fundamental commitment of United States to the liberal world order. Other fear that it is part of a turning point in international relations which, along with other factors may be lethal for the liberal international order (see Richard Hass’s a recent article for Project Syndicate, “Liberal Order, R.I.P.”). Macron seems to agree with the later. His surprising reconciling shift with Putin would be the consequence.
The bitter irony of this performance is that the French president sacrificed decency without gaining efficiency: whatever the soundness of the deal he reached with Putin on Syria, Iran nuclear agreement, or whatever, Russia would more likely stick to its part of the deal with a tough partner. Putin does not consider himself as bound by any commitment he takes, all the more if it was taken with a weak partner. No one knows better than Macron the importance of symbols in politics. Form prevails on content, form is content. A friendly meeting with Memorial, a sharp discussion in private on hostages and human rights are nothing if they are not staged publicly one way or another. It is useless to trade cooperation with complacency. A strong voice and tough position on political prisoners and human right issues would have had better chances to secure whatever joint commitment was decided on Iran or Syria. If Macron has given up because he considers that his strategy of reshuffling and boosting EU has failed, this can be an explanation, but not a justifiable one.