A Tale of Two Mistrals: Sea Change in France?

Prior to the eruption of the Ukraine crisis, France enjoyed a friendly and increasingly extensive economic and political relationship with Russia. French relations were among the best of any EU member-state. Now however, as the war in Ukraine continues and Moscow attempts to bring other former Soviet states back under its influence, that relationship has stalled. Hollande’s evocation of France’s contract to supply Russia with two Mistral warships is the first explicit sign of a schism that appears to be growing between French and Russian political elites. France’s precarious domestic political situation leaves the future far from certain, but relations between Paris and Moscow serve as an important indication of the Russo-European relations as a whole.

 

Background

France and Russia have long been among the premier powers on the European continent. Both helped determine the balance of power in the West and created empires which shaped the course of human history. Both developed high cultures which were emulated internationally, including some of the greatest authors, philosophers, and scientists the world has ever known. The two have also long been intertwined. The French language was the language of choice in the Tsarist courts, with many of the country’s aristocracy speaking it better than Russian. French culture was long held in high esteem, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Westernizing Russian elites saw it as an example for their own country to emulate. This began to change following the Napoleonic Wars, however French influence in Russia persisted well into the modern era.

Paris and Moscow were allies during both World Wars, primarily as a result of the shared threat which Germany presented. After World War II however, many in both capitals were uncomfortable with a Europe dominated by the United States and Great Britain. Charles de Gaulle stressed the need for an independent nuclear deterrent, separate from NATO, which would ensure France’s status as an independent great power. It was largely this desire for sovereignty which prompted France to leave the North Atlantic alliance in 1966.

Throughout the Cold War Soviet agents actively sought to penetrate the French political and economic elite. Leftist political circles were particularly susceptible to Soviet influence, though they were far from the only targets. The controversy surrounding the Farewell Dossier for example revealed the great extent to which Soviet spies had penetrated French industry.

 

Post-Cold War

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR, the Franco-Russian relationship began to change. There were no longer any ideological or significant geopolitical barriers dividing Paris and Moscow, and economic and diplomatic ties began to grow stronger as a result. During the 2008 Georgia-Russia War, French President Sarkozy did not insist on the territorial integrity of the Georgian state and there were no major French protests against Russia’s actions.

 

Post-Maidan

After the fall of the Yanukovich government in Ukraine however, the mood quickly changed between Russia and France. In 2013, Hollande and Putin were engaged in talks that would enable visa-free travel for citizens, the nations intended to cooperate in space and nuclear development, and French entrepreneurs sought opportunities to invest in Russian infrastructure. Now, these talks are shelved until conditions regarding Ukraine are agreed to, namely until all sides observe a ceasefire and tangible evidence of a political settlement over the conflict is present.

The French government is now actively pursuing the elimination of internal connections to Russia, even to the point of demanding prominent businessmen and women cut ties with Russian interests. Meanwhile, France has agreed to spearhead Ukraine’s efforts to transparently privatize many of its industries, and private investors are preparing to take advantage of France’s low interest rates and make massive investments in the country.

Until recently, Hollande fell in line with EU policy while at the same time often being the first to suggest discussions that would lift sanctions. Now, indications that France is ready to stop pursuing a thaw have begun to arise, visible by Hollande’s choice to visit Cuba rather than attend the World War Two celebrations in Moscow. More importantly, the decision to not fulfill a contract that would have sold two Mistral-class Helicopter Carriers is a sign that France is not only putting its relationship with Moscow on hold, but is also willing to accept heavy financial losses rather than renegotiate.

These policies have not met without dissenters however. Prominent conservative politico Philippe de Villiers has advocated for continued French investment in Russia, even going so far as to plan for a theme park to be built in Crimea. Particularly interesting is that de Villiers’s brother just so happens to be Chief of the French General Staff.   

 

France and the Greater EU Context

Germany currently stands at the forefront of the EU’s engagement with Russia, a position that is no doubt uncomfortable given their relationship over the last century. A decade ago, the relationship between the nations was at the highest level it had been since before World War One. Now, the German political establishment is deeply divided over what Russian policy to pursue.

The domestic political agenda cannot be ignored, and it is in Hollande’s interests to guide France’s Socialist Party further to the left, as well as further from Russia. The Socialist Party is currently under political siege by the National Front, a right-wing party with sympathy toward Russia, which won a historic 26 percent of the vote during the March 2015 elections for the European Parliament, making it the most popular party by a 5 percent margin. The two ruling parties were stunned by the results, calling them “a shock” and admitting they were a “a severe defeat.” Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, now intends to use the party as a springboard to the Presidency in 2017. Hollande, who has been voted the country’s all-time least popular president with an approval rating of just 18 percent, is now scrambling to shore up his vote with left-leaning groups. Given the pressures being felt by the Socialist Party following the elections and timing of Hollande’s cold shoulder to Russia, it’s easy to speculate that France’s foreign policy and stance towards Russia will largely depend on the domestic political situation until at least the upcoming 2017 presidential election.

 

Looking Forward

As France continues to face severe demographic challenges and the very real threat of radical Islamism domestically, many in the French electorate will no doubt become sympathetic to Kremlin talking points. Russia has made no secret of its intentions to draw the support of right-wing groups by appealing to traditional values, and the opportunity to influence the National Front’s rise to power in the EU’s second largest economy is no doubt a top priority for Moscow.

Like their counterparts in Germany, the French elite appear to remain divided over which Russia policy to pursue. Political and economic interests often intersect, and vary wildly from party to party. Unless one faction can form a majority in the French government, it is likely that the country will remain indecisive in relation to both Moscow and the EU. Domestic concerns may well trump foreign policy, at least as far as Eastern Europe is concerned. As Eurosceptic and Identitarian forces become more influential, France may begin to pursue an independent foreign policy; one that is not necessarily aligned with the EU, NATO, or Russia. Until such a time, the Paris-Moscow relationship serves as an interesting indicator of what broader global course the country may pursue in the near future.

 

 

Photo courtesy of The Kremlin