View from Paris: The Syrian prism

'Selective engagement' echoes perfectly France's preferred approach to Russia.

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Relations with Russia have been a major topic over the past weeks in Paris, with Moscow’s policy in Syria at its core. France has been active in trying to bring an end to the humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo, and its initiatives led to the recent Russian veto at the UN Security Council.

In its wake, president Hollande publicly wondered whether the planned visit by president Putin to Paris – which would have been his first official bilateral visit to a G7 country since 2014 – was “necessary”. He mentioned “war crimes” being committed and talked about the International Criminal Court. Once it was clear that if in Paris, it would have been for a simple working meeting dedicated only to Syria, Putin decided to “postpone” his coming to Paris.

This visit – which was originally set to include the inauguration of the new orthodox cathedral in Paris, a symbol of Russian soft power – was due to take place on 19 October, only a few days before the meeting of the European Council. President Hollande will likely join his fellow EU leaders bearing in mind a few proposals. Discussions about how to make Russia’s bloody adventure in Syria more costly, so as to force Moscow to consider a political solution, are currently taking place in Paris.

But he will also go to Brussels thinking of the French domestic debate. His stance on Russia is far from fully supported. Although coming from different perspectives, both the Front national and the far-left criticise a policy that aligns France with the US, and insist that staying on speaking terms with Putin is key. And most, if not all, mainstream opposition leaders see fault in the lack of dialogue with Putin at a time when fighting Daesh should trump everything else.     

As a response to his critics, president Hollande argued that “dialogue is necessary with Russia, but it has to be firm and genuine, otherwise it is irrelevant, otherwise it is a travesty”. The same, obviously, applies to Ukraine, with French diplomats informally confirming that a new meeting in the Normandy format would be subject to substantial progress on the ground in the Donbass.

In this context, France will likely agree with the overall balance of the five guiding principles put forward by Federica Mogherini. France particularly appreciates that, for all the importance given to the implementation of the Minsk agreement, and rightly so, EU policy shouldn’t be limited to sanctions. For instance, Paris supported the principle regarding civil society engagement, an important topic in the context of Russia’s suppression of so-called “foreign agents”. But the one element it appreciated the most when those principles were released was the idea of “selective engagement”, which seemed to echo perfectly its own preferred approach to Russia.

Now, the key question for France, as well as for the EU, is how to turn these guiding principles, and selective engagement in particular, into actual policy initiatives that help address the key issues of our time. Otherwise, accusations of posturing will resurface again and could play a role in the campaign for next spring’s presidential elections.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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