Indifference Threatens Russia–France Relations
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Arnaud Dubien

Head, French-Russian Analytical Center “Observo”.

The interest for Russia seems to have reduced among the French elite, involved in foreign policy making. Leading French media create quite a negative image of Russia. However, the relations framework established during General de Gaulle’s 1966 visit to Russia allowed the countries to withstand the trial by sanctions. Despite the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, the institutional basis for cooperation is still present with economic ties serving as a leading force in bilateral relations.

Arnaud Dubien, Head of the Analytical Centre Observo at the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, talks about the key events in the history of Russia-France relations, prospects for bilateral cooperation, and the image of the contemporary Russia in France.

2017 marks 300 years since diplomatic relations between Russia and France were established. What events have had a decisive impact on Russia–France relations?

The 300-year history of Russia–France relations have seen many events that have had a great impact on their development. Nevertheless, there were no major events in the bilateral relationship for nearly a century after diplomatic relations were officially established in 1717. For decades, talks were held on the signing of a trade treaty which was only completed in 1787 – that is, barely two years before the French Revolution that then “buried” the newly established cooperation format. Russia started to see France as a threat to its own state system and, moreover, as a threat to Europe as a whole. The Napoleon factor played its part, too: war broke out between the two countries, a war that ended with the Russian troops led by Emperor Alexander I entering Paris in 1814. The two countries then went their separate ways once again, until the Crimean War of 1853–1856.

The Germany factor played a significant role in the ensuing rapprochement. After the Crimean War, Germany’s ascendancy on the international stage contributed greatly to the improvement of France–Russia relations. In the early 1890s, Russia and France formed a military and political alliance. It is important to note that arguments against the rapprochement at the time were very similar to the rhetoric that surrounds the Ukrainian situation and the war in Syria today. Back then, the French asked themselves whether republican France could maintain friendly relations with the authoritarian Tsarist Russia.

The October Revolution is another important event in the history of Russia–France cooperation. A new era was born, both in France–Russia relations and in the world as a whole. After Vladimir Lenin came to power, the military alliance collapsed and economic cooperation was cut off overnight. One of the consequences of the October Revolution was massive White emigration from Russia, mostly to Cote d’Azur and Paris.

During his visit to the USSR In 1966, Charles de Gaulle said, “France and Russia have always had a special interest and attraction for each other. Russians have always been popular in France.” Can we say the same about the bilateral relations 51 years after de Gaulle’s visit?

Of course, these words demonstrate de Gaulle’s trademark style. Today, however, few people think that way, at least in France. Interest in Russia persists, and I think it persists more among average people than it does among the elites. As for the French elite involved in foreign policy, particularly after the Cold War, interest in Russia may not have disappeared entirely, but it has waned considerably. Anti-Russian sentiments are observed more often. The popular perception of Russia changes, too, mostly because the leading French media are dominated by an extremely negative image of Russia. As a rule, the French media do not publish patently false information, but the way they present facts and actual events is highly subjective. Bad things can be found in any country, including Russia, and these are the main things the media report about Moscow.

As a person who has been involved with Russia–France relations for many years, I am most concerned with the growing indifference to the bilateral relations. A dangerous prospective scenario is France losing interest in Russia and vice versa. Indifference is a greater threat than negative perception. Negative perception at least testifies to a certain level of interest. The current situation is paradoxical in that we have all-time high numbers of Russian tourists going to France and French tourists coming to Russia. People keep traveling, they keep meeting each other, but, strange as it may sound, there is more indifference and detachment than even during the Cold War. The reason is that people concentrate more on their countries’ domestic problems.

What is the driving force of the bilateral relations today?

The relations framework established during General de Gaulle’s 1966 visit to Russia allowed the countries to pass the trial by sanctions. Despite the Ukrainian crisis and the situation with the Mistrals, the institutional foundations of collaboration and academic cooperation between universities also laid down during de Gaulle’s visit remain. Economic ties are the driving force of the bilateral relations. However, some people both in France and Russia fail to realize this. France has been the biggest investor in Russia for the past three years, with over a thousand French enterprises operating in the country. France is also the number one foreign employer in Russia. Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin have paid attention to those trends and have discussed them publicly over recent months.

Special mention should also be made of the politically “sensitive” aerospace industry; cooperation in this area started at the time of Charles de Gaulle and it is still advantageous for both countries today.

Humanitarian cooperation is also an important component in the bilateral relations. French and Russian universities offer a large number of double majors. Many French students go to Russia. Cooperation in the tourism sector is growing rapidly, with France being more popular among Russian tourists than vice versa. I think tourism will continue to develop and thus contribute to expanding bilateral relations and improving the perception of Russia both in France and in the West as a whole; even though, as I have already said, the number of tourists does not “translate” into improving relations right now, it is a matter of time. Further increasing the tourist flow is one of our tasks. If the French or, say, Germans visited Russia as often as they visit Turkey or Morocco, the “critical mass” of positive personal impressions of Russia would rapidly outweigh the indifference. Many people in France and Russia pin their hopes on the “Trianon Dialogue” civil forum, the new cooperation format announced by the Presidents of the two countries.

What influence have the EU sanctions had on Russia–France relations? And what trends will we be able to observe in bilateral cooperation with Emmanuel Macron’s coming to power?

There is, of course, no way that the sanctions could have had a positive impact on the bilateral relations. However, from the very outset of the crisis, since March 2014, France has been trying to mitigate the situation. Together with Germany, it became a moderator in the European debates on relations with Russia. Attempting to assume a neutral stance, France is also acting alongside Germany as an intermediary in the Minsk process. The sanctions delivered a heavy blow to French exports, and a crushing blow to some French enterprises, particularly those working in agriculture. The situation with the Mistrals, by the way, is not entirely linked to the sanctions. It was a political decision. Today, parties to trade relations have adapted to the sanctions and the new economic reality in Russia. The trade turnover has recently started to pick up pace. Over the first seven months of 2017, trade turnover increased by nearly 23 per cent compared to the same period in 2016.

The sanctions delivered a different kind of blow to French companies that had invested in manufacturing in Russia. The first anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the United States perplexed both French and European banks. Everyone in France remembers the BNP Paribas case, when the United States demanded that the bank pay a $10-billion fine for violating the sanctions regime against several countries. Hence the extreme caution demonstrated by French banks, because the legal environment they operate in sometimes holds subtle risks. And that environment manifests itself in lending to Russia-related projects run by French investors and in lending to exporters to Russia. An important example: because of the anti-Russian sanctions, Total had to use Chinese financing to take part in the Yamal LNG project. That is a telling fact.

The latest batch of anti-Russian sanctions approved by Washington in early August may potentially harm the interests of Engie, a participant in Nord Stream 2.

After Emmanuel Macron’s coming to power, bilateral relations will be dominated mostly by positive trends. It is no secret that Russia wanted to see François Fillon become President of France. In his electoral campaign, he spoke in favour of improving bilateral relations. Mr. Macron was expected to be an even greater adherent of the Atlantic policy than his predecessor was. However, the new President publicly condemned neo-conservatism. Mr. Macron’s words shocked many diplomats and were taken as a sign of his intention to alter France’s foreign policy towards so-called Occidentalism. Abandoning ideology, the President proclaimed a return to the pragmatism and traditional foreign policy called a “Gaullist – Mitterrandian” in France. That is, he called for a foreign policy based on the traditions of Presidents Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand.

The new approach had a positive effect on France–Russia relations: on May 29, 2017 in Versailles, Vladimir Putin met with Emmanuel Macron, which set a new tone for the relations between the two countries. Nonetheless, there are still many problems. Of course, this is not about returning to a military alliance. However, a change in France’s stance on the Syrian issue contributes to understanding and collaboration between the two countries in the Middle East. As for the Ukrainian crisis, the situation is more complicated. At the meeting, several ideas on developing bilateral relations were mentioned, including the above-mentioned “Trianon Dialogue.” I will not be surprised if the President of France visits Russia in the near future.

In Russia, France is associated with love, fashion and the Eiffel Tower. What associations do the French have when Russia is mentioned?

For some French people, the word “Russia” prompts no associations at all. For the majority, it is associated with Vladimir Putin. As one eminent politician said at the Valdai Forum, “today, Russia is Putin,” and this is certainly true for many people in France and the West. Russia is identified with its leader. People who have visited Russia or are interested in its history think about other images, for instance, the Kremlin, Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Shostakovich, Dostoevsky, etc. In 2018, associations with the FIFA World Cup may arise. Unfortunately, those ideas and notions are mostly virtual, since the majority of French people have never visited Russia. Associations may change, they are shaped by the media, by events and occurrences. Not knowing anything about Russia, people create an image of it based on the information they receive, and this information is, as a rule, subjective.

French films have always been popular in Russia. What do French people think about Russian cinema?

Today, far fewer Russian films are released in France than 30–40 years ago. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a great interest in the late Soviet cinema. Some films were very popular, for instance, Pavel Lungin’s films or Vitaly Kanevsky’s Freeze Die Come to Life. Of course, these films are not intended for mass audiences, but at least people got to know the names of new directors. Today, people in France most know Andrey Zvyagintsev and Alexander Sokurov. However, the only people who are familiar with the works of these directors are those who are interested in Russian culture.

Interviewed by Alisa Ponomareva, RIAC Program Assistant