Despite major differences on Ukraine and Syria, there is still the potential for Russia and France to develop new bilateral economic, cultural, scientific and educational projects.

Pictured left-right: Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande at the meeting before the peace talks on Ukraine, February 11, 2015. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to France, which was scheduled to happen on Oct. 19, is now postponed. Reports say that the agenda offered by Paris, which exclusively focused on the Syrian crisis, did not suit the Kremlin.

However, the leaders of France and Russia are likely to meet on Oct. 19 in Berlin at the invitation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the Ukraine issue in the Normandy format. Quite possibly, Vladimir Putin and Francois Hollande will have time to discuss other aspects of Franco-Russian cooperation during that visit.

Even if the original agenda for Putin and Hollande appears to have been downsized, it is still important to analyze the prospects for future improvement of their relations. After all, since 2012 both leaders have met no less than 14 times. Such a high frequency of meetings between the two leaders is the result of the perceived need by both sides to continue the Russia-France dialogue. 

The current agenda for the relationship between Moscow and Paris is defined mostly by the international context. There are two key aspects of this agenda. First, as an outcome of the Arab revolutions of 2011, Libya has become another permanent pocket of instability and Syria has been swallowed by civil war. Second, improper regulation of the security questions in Europe led to the 2014 Ukrainian crisis. As a result, Russia and France took opposite sides on both issues, although they maintained common interests. Among those are both global issues (multi-polarity, anti-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation) and regional issues (support of Palestine, Nagorno-Karabakh settlement).

Taking into account the traditionally deep respect for each other’s cultures, development of cultural, scientific and educational cooperation between Russia and France is also of a high priority. The main success here was achieved on June 29, 2015 when the agreement on mutual acknowledgement of educational and scientific qualifications and degrees was signed. Currently, France is the only EU country that has such an agreement with Russia.

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Unfortunately, today’s Russia-France relations are dominated by disputes. In 2012 the main French criticism of Moscow was centered around democracy and human rights issues. In 2013 it was replaced by sharp differences over Syria, and in 2014, the Ukraine issue became front-and-center. France joined the anti-Russian sanctions, did not recognize Russia’s incorporation of Crimea and viewed Russia as being responsible for the military escalation in Donbass. As for the Syrian crisis, Paris insists on Syria’s future without its current President Bashar al-Assad, criticizing Moscow for supporting him, and backs so called “moderate” Syrian opposition.

However, over the last two years, ever since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, the French stance on the key issues has softened in certain nuanced ways, although it did not change fundamentally. There are several reasons for that. First, after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) carried out the terror attacks in Paris and Nice, a common enemy appeared. Serious disagreement on the future of Syria is not an obstacle for Russia and France to declare their unity in the fight against ISIS and to work together within the framework of the Syria International Support Group.

Second, the creation of the Normandy Four format of talks on Ukraine significantly decreased bloodshed in Donbas. Therefore, constant contact on these key issues explains the high frequency of the phone talks and meetings between the two leaders. According to the French Ambassador to Russia, Jean-Maurice Ripert, both presidents talked 25 times during 2015.

Third, a certain part of the French elite understands the necessity to continue constructive dialogue with Russia. In 2016, two years after the EU imposed sanctions on Russia, France became the first EU country where both chambers of parliament adopted resolutions calling for the lifting of sanctions and restoration of full-scale cooperation. It is also indicative that in two years not a single French business left Russia.

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Recent developments in the European Union itself and the fact that it is experiencing a difficult political period have direct influence on Franco-Russian dialogue. Brexit played a very important role here as the United Kingdom traditionally supports the EU hard line towards Russia. Thus, in case the UK ultimately leaves the EU, France, as one of its biggest and strongest states, would get more influence on designing the European Russia policy. That might help to fill the Russia-EU dialogue with more constructive substance.

Officially, Putin’s visit to Paris was tied to the opening of the Russian Cultural and Spiritual Orthodox Center. However, the main focus was expected to be on Syria and Donbas, along with the bilateral ties. It is important to remember that in 2017 France will have presidential elections. Thus, the October meeting between the two leaders might well become the last one in which both are still president. In case of a significant compromise with Russia, Hollande will try to use his international success for his domestic political purposes, which further adds importance to their meeting. 

Considering the differences between Russia and France on Syria, it is hard to imagine that the leaders can reach any type of breakthrough agreements, although organizing a humanitarian corridor in Aleppo under UN auspices would, in principle, be a positive indication of Franco-Russian cooperation in the Middle East.

As for Donbas, even if the parties reach some agreement, it will be hardly implemented, taking into account that there are two more countries participating in the Normandy format while the U.S. conducts its own policy in Ukraine. This is why, most likely there are going to be some selective agreements in the economic and cultural fields.

Despite the current situation, it is only a matter of time before new opportunities for cooperation between the two countries will appear. The best-case scenario, then, is to be ready to fill this cooperation with constructive and detailed substance in all possible areas. France has already announced that once the Ukrainian crisis is settled, it is ready to work with Russia on creation of the common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok that will take into account everyone’s interests. If that happens, the most promising part could be the participation of French business in selected projects involving Russia – including French participation in the construction of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline and discussions about Franco-Russian technological projects in third countries.

However, the best opportunities appear to be based around scientific, technological and cultural cooperation between the two states. Despite political disagreements, Moscow and Paris are developing space cooperation and the Franco-Russian Observo center has already announced its readiness to launch a discussion platform for the two countries’ businessmen to exchange their experience.

Meanwhile, the 300th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and France, which were established in 1717, can serve as a great catalyst to create new channels of communication. Organization of regular youth and student exchange programs, summer schools, sporting events, and the production of joint books and movies, as well as attractive web products, will improve mutual understanding between the French and the Russians, especially youth, thus contributing to the development of future dialogue and to the fundamental basis for real cooperation.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.