Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, visited France at the invitation of Emperor Napoleon III in 1867, three years after the Russian army’s bloody suppression of Poland’s revolt for independence. The French emperor, political establishment, and big players on the Paris Bourse were all eager to forget Poland and embrace a new relationship with Russia. When the Tsar appeared at the Palais de Justice for a pre-choreographed visit, however, a republican opposition leader, Charles Floquet, cried out: “Vive la Pologne, Monsieur!” The incident went down in history as “Le Mot de Floquet” (Floquet’s repartee). It challenged both the Tsar’s policy and his legitimacy (“monsieur”).
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Paris today for a three-day official visit, which is launching a new Franco-Russian “privileged” or “strategic partnership” (Interfax, February 28). More than one modern-day Floquet will undoubtedly speak out about Georgia in the French media. Official French policy, however, has clearly abandoned any pretense of implementing the August 2008 ceasefire in Georgia, which President Nicolas Sarkozy co-signed and France undertook to “guarantee” on the European Union’s behalf, after the Russian invasion of that country.
The issue of Georgia is far too insignificant in official French eyes to be allowed to affect the latest grand design of French foreign policy. Paris is rapidly developing a special bilateral relationship with Moscow, in some respects at the expense of the European Union and ultimately NATO (EDM, February 26).
At some point, which is traceable to fall 2009, the Sarkozy presidency decided to start catching up with Germany in building a special partnership with Russia. The November 2009 Franco-Russian inter-governmental seminar at Rambouillet, co-chaired by Prime Ministers Francois Fillon and Vladimir Putin –and mirroring the established Russo-German format of inter-governmental meetings– was the overt starting point of a parallel Franco-Russian special relationship. That meeting was combined with a naval visit to St. Petersburg by the French warship Mistral, now the centerpiece in a possible French naval rearmament program for Russia. The French decision-makers’ mindset, leading to such a policy, had already emerged with Fillon’s statement at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, with Putin attending. Sounding like a modern-day Theophile Delcasse, Fillon invoked the European balance of power and Russian interests in Europe’s East to reject the Georgian and Ukrainian membership action plans.
Le Figaro, whose editorial pages are an informal outlet of the Elysee Palace, is explicating the thinking behind this policy for the French public. Two editorials in today’s issue, previewing Medvedev’s visit, carry the headlines, no doubt officially inspired: “France Bets on Russia” and “Medvedev Staking on the Franco-Russian Axis.” These analyses encapsulate the arguments for a strategic shift in French policy toward Russia (Le Figaro, March 1).
First, and peremptorily, “this is a strategic choice that has been made.” France and Russia “need each other in a world transformed by the financial crisis.”
Second, “our country [France] intends to profit from opportunities on Russia’s markets and cannot afford to allow Germany a free run there, years after it [Germany] made the choice [special relationship with Russia] that we now make.” With Russia embarking on an economic modernization program, “it may [sic] need German machinery, but also assistance from those great groups that represent the force of our industry.”
Thirdly, this new relationship is being portrayed as an emergency measure, necessitated by the ongoing financial and economic crisis. This argument, however, only seems to justify the jump-start, not the policy itself, which is clearly being conceived for the long term, involving massive business interests on either side. It also borrows from the German concept of a “modernization partnership with Russia” by alluding repeatedly to the Kremlin’s modernization agenda.
Fourthly, the policy is being sold to the public as calculated to help Russian reforms and Medvedev’s “innovative impulses” versus Putin’s “rusty nostalgia for Soviet power.” Medvedev’s figure is stylized as representing a “dynamic, liberal and open Russia.” However, Medvedev is being accompanied by a massive delegation of state company managers and oligarchs, all Putin appointees. The Mistral warship sale is Putin’s initiative on the Russian side, not Medvedev’s, although Sarkozy justifies it to Washington as a gesture to his “friend Dmitry.” In Paris, as in Berlin, the government invokes Medvedev as a benign front for business deals that are actually being driven by Putin and business interests close to him on the Russian side.
Business agreements during this visit are expected to focus on energy and transport vehicles. However, French sales of military and dual-use equipment to Russia are increasingly being discussed as part of this rapidly evolving relationship. The French manufacturer Panhard General Defense is discussing the sale of light, amphibious armored vehicles for Russia’s interior ministry internal troops (Kommersant, February 16; Agence France Presse, February 26). The French Turbomeca is in talks with Helicopters of Russia to sell engines for the Russian Ka-62, a developed version of the Ka-60 helicopter. The Russian side initiated both of these projects (Interfax, February 25). The Mistral sale, however, is not expected to be finalized during Medvedev’s visit.
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