Macron, Putin hold ‘frank’ talks on Syria, Ukraine
France’s President Emmanuel Macron and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin sought to improve their countries’ strained ties Monday during talks at Versailles palace the French leader described as “extremely frank.”
Their first meeting since Macron took office provided another test of the Frenchman’s diplomatic skills after his memorable vice-grip handshake last week with U.S. President Donald Trump.
This time, the handshake was warmer but the tone guarded after an hour of talks on the 300th anniversary of a visit to Versailles by tsar Peter the Great.
Putin admitted to some differences of opinion in the talks, which covered issues including the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, but insisted that Franco-Russian ties withstood “all points of friction.”
“We disagree on a number of things but at least we discussed them,” Macron said.
“Our absolute priority is the fight against terrorism and the eradication of terrorist groups and Daesh in particular,” he said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that has claimed several deadly attacks in France.
The newly elected French leader said he wanted to work more closely with Russia to try resolve the six-year war in Syria, one of the sticking points in relations between the West and Moscow, which backs Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Calling for “a democratic transition that preserves the Syrian state,” he warned that “failed states” in the Middle East emboldened terror groups and posed a threat to the West.
But in an apparent warning to Assad and Russia, he said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would draw an “immediate response” from France.
The pair also discussed the Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its encroachment on neighbouring Ukraine as well as allegations of Russian meddling in France’s presidential campaign.
The Russian strongman defended hosting Macron’s far-right rival Marine Le Pen -- seen as the Kremlin’s favourite -- for a visit during the race, saying he had no cause to deny her request for an audience.
He also shrugged off allegations that Russian hackers infiltrated Macron’s campaign.
“Maybe they were Russian hackers, maybe they were not,” he said.
A more candid Macron let fly when questioned about two pro-Kremlin media outlets that were barred from his campaign headquarters after being accused of a smear campaign.
The RT broadcaster and Sputnik agency are “organs of influence and untruthful propaganda, nothing more, nothing less,” he declared.
RT’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan, in a statement, dismissed Macron’s comment as “baseless accusations” for which “not a single piece of evidence” had been provided.
Macron also took the bull by the horns on human rights, saying Putin had promised him “the whole truth” about an alleged crackdown on gay men in Russian-controlled Chechnya and warning he would be “vigilant” on the issue.
France’s youngest ever president made a successful debut on the world stage last week, holding his own against Trump at a NATO summit in Brussels and winning plaudits from his peers at a G-7 summit in Italy.