French and Russian presidents meet in Versailles

French President Emmanuel Macron hosts Vladimir Putin for a first meeting since Kremlin-linked groups hacked the new president's campaign. Russian support for the Syrian regime is a likely topic on the agenda.

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to welcome his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to the Palace of Versailles on Monday for a first meeting full of significance.

Politics | 29.05.2017

It is timed to coincide with the opening of an exhibition commemorating the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great's visit to France, which marked the start of Franco-Russian ties. For Putin, it will be the first one-on-one meeting with a French leader in five years.

Amid strained relations between the two countries, Macron has the opportunity to meet Putin without hosting him officially at the Elysee Palace, which would involve "all kinds of protocolar things," Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the Paris office of the European council on foreign relations (ECFR), told DW.

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Moscow's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and France's role in pushing for sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict have resulted in a certain discord.

After the G7 meeting in Italy, Macron said "we must talk to Russia to change the framework for getting out of the military crisis in Syria and to build a much more collective and integrated inclusive political solution." 

President Trump and President Macron shake hands in Brussels

Some attention will be reserved for the handshake between the two men. Macron said on Sunday that his much publicized, long and strong white-knuckle handshake with US President Donald Trump was entirely intentional. "My handshake with him - it wasn’t innocent," Macron told the French Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche in an interview. "It’s not the be-all and the end-all of a policy, but it was a moment of truth."

Putin's personal approach in politics

Aside from participating in the opening ceremony of the exhibition, the two presidents plan to discuss bilateral relations, as well as the fight against terrorism and settling the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

From KGB to Kremlin

Putin joined the KGB, the former Soviet Union's security agency, in 1975. In the 1980s he undertook his first foreign posting as a KGB agent to Dresden, Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin returned to Russia and entered Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin. When Yeltsin announced that he wanted Putin as his successor, the way was paved for him to become prime minister.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

First presidency

On his appointment, Putin was virtually unknown to the general public. This changed when in August 1999 armed men from Chechnya invaded the neighboring Russian territory of Dagestan. President Yeltsin appointed ex-KGB officer Putin to bring Chechnya back under the central government's control. On New Year's Eve, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and named Putin as acting president.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Tough guy in the media

During an exhibition hockey game in Sochi, Putin’s team won 18-6, with the president scoring eight goals.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Limited freedom of speech

A protester wears a tape over his mouth reading "Putin" during an opposition rally. In 2013 the Kremlin announced that the state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti, was to be restructured and placed under the control of a pro-Kremlin figure known for his extreme anti-Western views. Reporters without Borders ranked Russia as 148 in its list of 178 countries in terms of press freedom.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Putin's Image: A man of action

Putin's image as a man of action, boosted by his having been a KGB spy, has long been part of his appeal in Russia. It is carefully maintained by means of photos where he is seen bare-chested on horseback, or tossing opponents onto a judo mat. In Russia, Putin has earned praise for restoring stability but has also been accused of authoritarianism.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Stifling democracy

When President Putin's United Russia party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in 2007, critics described the vote as neither free nor democratic. Dozens were detained as riot police broke up protests by demonstrators accusing President Putin of stifling democracy. In this rally the poster reads: "Thank you, no!"

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Orchestrated events

In Sevastopol, Crimea, Putin looks through the window of a research bathyscaphe in the waters of the Black Sea. This dive in a mini-submarine was only one of his adventurous stunts; he has also been seen tranquilizing wild tigers and flying with endangered cranes. It was also aimed at cementing his image as an adventurer, and demonstrating his control of the annexed territory of Crimea.

Analysts do not expect any breakthrough at the negotiations as the meeting will, first and foremost, be a chance for the two politicians to get acquainted. Lafont Rapnouil suggested that Putin and Macron would rather repeat their well-known positions on Syria and Ukraine.

However, he added, both the Russian and French presidents need this meeting. "Macron casts himself as the new president, someone who is already kind of a member of the club and someone who is able to represent the interests of France and Europe on the international stage," he told DW.

Earlier this month, Macron met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. He also attended the NATO summit in Brussels and the G7 meeting in Taormina this week.

The two leaders will be meeting at the Versailles Palace

By hosting Putin, Macron is seeking to "underline his new status as one of the leaders of a united Europe," said Tatyana Stanovaya, a France-based analyst with Moscow think tank, the Center for Political Technologies. Meanwhile, for his Russian guest, it is important to "look Macron in the eyes," she told DW.

Stanovaya suggested that Putin will "try to work out his psychological profile, to understand, what kind of person he is and what language one can speak to him."

The ECFR's Lafont Rapnouil echoed this analysis, saying that Putin is interested in this meeting, because he has a "very personal approach to foreign policy."

Macron pushing for more dialogue with Russia

Putin has been a rare guest in EU countries after Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014. In this context the Russian president's visit to France will be a chance for him to show that he is being involved in discussing important international issues, Stanovaya said. She also pointed out that the fact that Putin had found time for his meeting with Macron so fast means that he is very interested in it.

In recent years, the Russian president has visited France several times. In 2015, he attended the Normandy summit along with the leaders of Germany, France and Ukraine and participated in the UN Climate conference in Paris. A year earlier, he also took part in the ceremonies to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings by Allied troops.

However, Putin's last one-on-one talks with the country's president on French territory were way back in June 2012. He canceled a meeting with Macron's predecessor Francois Hollande scheduled for October last year after Hollande called Russia's airstrikes on Aleppo a war crime.

Macron met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin earlier this month

Still, Macron has repeatedly criticized the previous administration for a lack of dialogue with Russia. "During his election campaign Macron repeatedly said that he didn't share Putin's values and that what Russia was doing in Syria and in Ukraine is not just a problem but a violation of international law," said Manuel Lafont Rapnouil. "But despite all that he said that we need a dialogue, a constructive relation so that we can find solutions."

Kremlin support for Le Pen not an issue

Macron's election campaign team accused Russian state-financed media – TV channel RT and news agency Sputnik - of distributing fake news aimed at discrediting the 39-year old presidential candidate and supporting his rivals, the conservative Francois Fillon and right-wing populist Marine Le Pen. RT and Sputnik both strongly deny the allegations.

Putin also hosted Le Pen at the Kremlin a month before the first round of the presidential elections. Macron also blamed Russia for carrying out cyber attacks on his campaign. Moscow denied the accusations.

Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies believes that Moscow's behavior ahead of the French elections affected Macron's attitude to Russia. "In recent months, he has toughened his rhetoric towards Russia, although in 2016, during his time as economy minister, he supported the gradual lifting of sanctions against Russia and developing economic cooperation," she told DW.

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil suggested that Macron is unlikely to forget everything that happened ahead of the elections. "But I don't think that this will be an obstacle for a cold-blooded and hard-headed discussion," he added.

Macron, who prioritizes a strong France inside of strong Europe, understands "perfectly well that he will benefit much more if he finds the right approach to Putin," said Stanovaya.