By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The meeting between presidents Macron and Putin was a demonstration of cultural diplomacy at its best. Culture and history provided a key background to this first meeting between the presidents of two countries whose diplomatic relations had suffer of the general Western distaste towards Putin’s Russia.

There were also specific bilateral damages under president Hollande (boycott of the Sochi Olympic games, cancellation of the Mistral contract, French role in the EU sanctions against Russia after Moscow’s interventions in Ukraine and in Syria) and lately, Russian alleged interference in the presidential campaign of Macron.

President Macron had invited Vladimir Putin for the inauguration of an exhibition marking the 300 years of the visit by Peter the Great to Versailles, a symbol of the centuries-old links between their countries. But president Macron discovered quickly than History can have different interpretation: when, during his press conference, the French president emphasised how the Russian tsar came to Europe to learn how ways to modernise his country, being in contact and inspired by French values as well as technics, Putin was quick to introduce nuances in this classical vision of a backyard Russia looking for model abroad. This vision of pupil is just the opposite of his obsession for having Russia treated as an equal and a source of civilisation. He dated back the Franco-Russian relations to the marriage of the King of France with Anna, the daughter of the “Russian prince of Kiev Iaroslav” and that the marriage produced the Valois and the Bourbons ‘still reigning in Spain’. It offered the double advantage to tracing the links between the two countries far beyond 1717 but also of remembering that, contrary to the new Ukrainian narrative, Kiev was Russian at the time.

But even in the décor of Versailles, cultural diplomacy has its limits. Enough to remember that a visit to Paris by Putin was cancelled at the last minute in October last year due to political disagreement about Russia’s intervention in Aleppo. In this case, it was also articulated around a cultural event – the inauguration of the Russian spiritual and cultural centre in Paris; but it was not enough for president Putin to accept the dithering of president Hollande. The Kremlin said flatly that it did not want to put Hollande un at ease by a meeting and sent the minister of culture to the inauguration.

If the cultural diplomacy worked in Versailles, and well, it is because both men wanted to restart a cautious dialogue and believe that, despite divergent national views, they have a common interest on the European continent and in defeating international terrorism. In the air there was an echo of the disasters that hit the continent when leaders were creating of alliances against each – after all the visit of Peter the Great took time at a time when Central Europe was – already – a point of contentious between Paris, Moscow, England, Sweden and Austria with the two first wanting to prevent an alliance of the three others.

In other words, both presidents consider that they have a common interest in reopening the dialogue and to do so on different basis. Putin wants to take profit of the arrival on the international scene of a French president keen to break with the Hollande’s period. Macron has been quick to secure his position on the international scene, from scratch and with brio, helped by the international agenda (NATO summit, G7).

Both men are pragmatics who wants to use the actual window of opportunity opened by president Trump’s election, the context of Brexit, the change in global equilibrium.

Macron behaves in international affairs as he did and does inside his country, wanting to meet all actors on the ground. He sees both scenes in need of fresh impulse, and looking to move beyond the traditional dividing lines (left-right or east-west).

Putin is interested in reformatting his position towards EU members because he would like to see the sanctions partially lifted and because he shares the European worries about the uncertainties of the Trump presidency. He wants also anticipate the reconfiguration that will follow the Brexit.

For Putin the chance of testing the potential of Macron’s presidency, after seeing from a distance the emptiness of the G7 from which Russia was excluded with much fanfare, was a too good opportunity to be missed. It was also a way to deal, during their “frank” private conversation, with the unpleasant soupçons of Russian interference in the French election. And to brush aside the image of the meeting with Marine Le Pen whose publicity is considered now in Moscow as a diplomatic faux pas and a grave miscalculation of the French popular feelings.

The results of the meeting were low key, and nobody expected more. But it has provided an opportunity for clarification and paved the way for a few openings. For instance, the French president does not repeat as was hammered under Hollande, that president Bashar al Assad has to go as a precondition to a settlement in Syria and shared the Russian argument that only chaos could result of a collapse of the state without alternative in place. But Putin has endorsed Macron’s declaration that the use of chemicals would be a red line to be met with strong response.

They both agree on the need for joint fight against terrorism (France recognises Russia’s indispensable role but does not want it to be dominant) and on Ukraine on the need to continue to negotiate on the so-called Normandy Format which preserve the role of France while preventing the Ukrainians to enlarge the discussions to partners they consider sharper towards Russia.

Coming back to cultural diplomacy, the presidents announced the creation of a France-Russia Forum of civic societies to increase dialogue and mutual understanding by facilitating cultural and educational exchanges, on the Germany-Russia model.

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