by John Lichfield
Monday, 28
March 2022
Analysis
17:21

Is Emmanuel Macron frightened of Vladimir Putin?

Fear is one explanation for the French President's diplomatic efforts
by John Lichfield
Both cheeks, s’il vous plait. (Chesnot/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden’s suggestion over the weekend that Vladimir Putin was a “butcher” who should not be allowed to “stay in power” has been widely criticised. But President Emmanuel Macron was the only Western leader to suggest that Biden’s ad-libbed words were dangerous. “I would not use this kind of language because I continue to talk to Putin,” Macron told a French radio interviewer yesterday.

“We want to stop the war that Russia has started without starting a war ourselves. That’s our aim and we cannot achieve that aim if we escalate either in words or deeds.” His comments will re-launch the debate on President Macron’s performance as a would-be middleman or Western envoy to Vladimir Putin before and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For whom is Macron speaking exactly? There has been strong criticism of his role in Poland and other eastern European countries, and in parts of the US media.

Macron’s efforts have been praised and encouraged by the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Macron has had ten phone conversations with Putin since the war began — several of them at Zelensky’s request — and the French and Ukrainian presidents speak on the phone every day.

And yet Zelensky was also critical in an interview with The Economist yesterday of the reluctance of Macron and some other Western leaders to give Ukraine tanks and other heavy arms. He said they were “frightened” of Russia, to which French officials reply: “frightened of Russia, no, frightened of a nuclear war, yes.” 

It has to be admitted that the Putin-Macron conversations, before and during the war, have achieved nothing (so far). Putin has lied to Macron continually and Macron has continued to speak to him. Another phone conversation is expected today or tomorrow. Macron hopes to persuade Putin to declare a ceasefire in the besieged Black Sea port of Mariupol for long enough to allow a French-Turkish-Greek humanitarian evacuation of civilians by sea and/or air.

If Macron succeeds, which is far from certain, his not-quite-one-man diplomacy will have borne its first fruits. But what is driving Macron? It’s wrong to suggest that it’s the French presidential election in 13 days’ time. Macron would have done exactly the same thing if the election was two years away.

Macron’s people say that his approach is shaped by logic and common sense. The West is not prepared to risk a nuclear war by joining in the conflict on Ukraine’s side. In those circumstances, only sanctions, plus arms supplies, plus the courage of the Ukrainian people — and then ultimately diplomacy — can bring the crisis to a tolerable solution.

The hawkish counter-view held by Zelensky, Poland and the Baltic states — that Russia must be defeated and must be seen to be defeated — is a logical one, French officials concede. It is also dangerous. What is not logical is to suggest, as President Biden briefly did, that Vladimir Putin should be removed without any direct Western engagement in the conflict.

Macron is, however, also sometimes guilty of straying off the Nato script. His other comments to French radio yesterday — less quoted by English-speaking media — are a case in point. “We Europeans must not cede to some kind of escalation,” he said. “We must not, we Europeans, forget our geography and our history. We are not at war with the Russian people.”

Behind those comments are Macron’s belief in a stronger, more “strategic” sense of the European Union: the long-term need to assert a European political identity and stand up to Russia and China, but also to become more militarily and technologically independent of the United States. He is once again being logical. But he is also inviting, or deepening, the suspicion among some in the US and some in Europe that he does not always play on the Nato team.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
4 months ago

the long-term need to assert a European political identity and stand up to Russia and China, but also to become more militarily and technologically independent of the United States.
I suspect that’s at the core of Macron’s strategy. Europe can no longer rely on the US because US politics and society is in a state of turmoil and both democrats and republicans have signaled a desire to turn the US’s attention away from Europe and toward the Chinese threat.
Europe is an economic superpower but a military pygmy. The EU, in particular, will have to develop a combined military strategy and increase military spending if it wants to be a global player in the 21st century.

JP Martin
JP Martin
4 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yes, similar calculations are being made in the Middle East where US allies are struggling to absorb the shocks caused by an increasingly erratic and unreliable ally.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 months ago
Reply to  JP Martin

While Europe..which basically means France and German is a model of constancy and stability? One minute they’re bolstering Putin by distancing from the *Anglo-Saxons* warmongers and filling his coffers with Billions of Euros and the next they’re all-in behind the Anglo-Saxons…until suddenly, they’re not again.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Europe is – sadly – not an “economic superpower”. It is certainly a huge market for goods. But it is rapidly losing share of world trade and the industries of the future, while also suffering a shrinking population.
For example, all the largest companies in Europe are many decades old. There are few very large, global technology companies.
Until Europe starts taking the industries and jobs of the future more seriously and stops preferring to “protect” the dying industries and jobs of the past, the decline will continue. But I’ve seen nothing over the last 20 years to suggest that they’ve got it in them to face up to the challenge.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

The list of largest companies in the world 30 years ago and now is telling. After years of laughing at US techs as profitless value destroyers there are whole tech industrial areas of the modern world Europe has virtually no real presence within.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
4 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I can agree that Europe (not just the EU) must increase military spending, and can imagine France would like a cut of that, but do you think it likely that the EU can develop a combined military strategy? It might do, if it evolved into a federal state, but I foresee too much opposition for that.
If it were to happen, then attempts to create a military dimension for the EU would be actively harmful, as it would dilute or divert resources from NATO. And I doubt it would be of the slightest use in practice. Ask yourself; where is Josep Borrell? Most people would answer; who?
Currently, NATO includes military powers outside the EU; USA, Canada, UK, Turkey, and Norway, and two EU members outside co operate unofficially, and could join.
Clearly, the USA is outstandingly powerful, with capabilities lacking in others, so it dominates strategy (a dislike of which is shared by Putin and Macron), but nevertheless, there have been comparatively few problems. (Antipathy between Greece and Turkey is perhaps the biggest.) But if other NATO members were more powerful militarily, the balance would change.

Last edited 4 months ago by Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
4 months ago

“I would not use this kind of language because I continue to talk to Putin.”
Would that he were as diplomatic when speaking about the United Kingdom and the PM.

Last edited 4 months ago by Colin Elliott
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago

Off course Macron isn’t frightened of Putin!
Biden made a complete idiot of himself and it was a pretty obvious ‘chess’ move for Macron to humiliate him as he so richly deserved. QED.

Sam Burton
Sam Burton
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Biden didn’t make a fool of himself. He expressed an opinion that many of us share. Putin started the war with Ukraine by invading a peaceful neighbour, declaring that he wanted to deliver a “regime change”. He is clearly a war criminal judging by the behaviour of those under his command.
Now it is wrong for a Western leader such as Biden to express the view that Putin cannot be allowed to remain in power! How hypocritical!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

By your logic then George W Bush Jnr, d**k Cheney, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are all clearly War Criminals and should be charged immediately * Or is hypocrisy beyond you?

(* Along with the other 410 UK MPs who voted so enthusiastically for the Iraq War.)

Sam Burton
Sam Burton
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I agree. The Iraq war should never have occurred. In my view, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Gordon Brown and his government misled parliament and the whole reason for war i.e. Iraq having “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was concocted and was a lie. They should be held accountable for it, even today. Tony Blair was acting the role of “obedient puppy dog” to Bush. Frankly speaking, Macron is behaving like Putin’s miniature poodle.

Last edited 4 months ago by Sam Burton
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

Totally agree. Macron can’t help it, he’s French.
However I was taught never to mock the afflicted.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

It wasn’t a ‘lie’. This is a 20 20 hindsight opinion, although fashionable for various reasons across a wide range of the political spectrum. The UK government did soup up the intelligence to make it seem to.gullible MPs that the UK was under direct threat, which was nonsense. But most informed opinion and the intelligence services AT THE TIME thought that Saddam Hussein DID possess weapons of mass destruction, including the US rapporteur Hans Blix. Saddam boasted of the same!. And of course this latter day tub thumping moral certitude rather ignores the fact that Iraq had already used poison gas on his own population!

It also ignores the fact that Iraq was flagrantly breaking resolution s of the beloved United Nations, although there was an argument about whether a further UN resolution was needed to go to war. None of that can be said of Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Iraq war was a geostrategic error, in that it ironically has strengthened Iran. But those who opposed it would have opposed it in whatever circumstances, WMD or no WMD. Fair enough, but that doesn’t make the western leaders ‘war criminals’. And Putin isn’t a war criminal just because he has launched a war, but the deliberate targeting of civilians probably is.

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 months ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

It was mad wasn’t it? The planes that flew into New York and the Pentagon were stuffed with Saudis, so we and the USA attack Iraq?
It has led to such profound effects down the last decade and a half, in many ways it has set a kind of tone for the 21st Century in the way the much (much) larger WW1 did in the last century.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Putin’s an idiot…like Stalin he’s ended up living in a silo he bricked himself into by scourging any dissenting views. Stalin nearly lost the 2nd World war through paranoia and Putin is making a mess of his own one without even that excuse.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

I agree Putin is an appalling tyrant, but here Biden is simply being fashionably culturally ‘woke’. Saying some words doesn’t magically make them come true, which should be pretty obvious stuff for any leader or spokenman.

So far, Biden has endlessly said what the US is not, under any circumstances, going to do. Which includes not introducing a no fly zone, not allowing the Ukrainians to have Polish MiG aircraft etc.

Putin WILL remain in power unless he is militarily defeated.

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrew Fisher
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Its a bit hard to see the benefit of a chess move that involves knocking your own king off the board. But luckily this is not chess and a passionate and strong Joe Biden may turn out a lot more valuable to us than a wheeler dealer Macron, playing both sides for French benefits

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
4 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Have you seen the photograph of Macron finding his inner Zelensky

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Macron was not “knocking his own king off the board “, as you so prosaically put it, but placing him in check.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Hardly. You are not M. Macron under a pseudonym, by any chance?

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

No, but aren’t you the late Gelati Tavis, formerly of this site?

Sam Burton
Sam Burton
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I always understood that chess is played by two opposing sides i.e. white versus black or vice versa.
Are you suggesting that Macron is on Putin’s side, rather than Biden’s?
Chess is a poor analogy, and simply illogical!

Last edited 4 months ago by Sam Burton
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

Really? I was referring to one of the world’s longest chess games: France v Perfidious Albion and her acolytes.
Surely you must have heard of it?

Sam Burton
Sam Burton
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Of course, and tell me: what move was La Belle France making when the largest army in Europe surrendered so meekly to the Nazi invaders and then played the role of subservient appeasers for the rest of WW2?

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 months ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

One of the biggest effects of Putin’s invasion may prove to be the dramatic re-orientation of Germany. Not just in terms of its promises of much larger military spending, but in other ways.
If France, and Macron, thinks that with these changes it will be business as usual within the EU he is as deluded as Tony Blair was in thinking invading Iraq was going to be a smart move.

Sam Burton
Sam Burton
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Hypocritical; illogical; pathetic!

Last edited 4 months ago by Sam Burton
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Burton

Oh dear!
you were obviously not ‘potty trained’, bad luck.
Such anger only demeans you. Cheer up old chap.

Sam Burton
Sam Burton
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

You misunderstand. I am not angry. Purely making an observation on what I am witnessing during the course of our discussion.

James Watson
James Watson
4 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Biden might seem stronger if his own people weren’t continually walking back his passionate statements

Terence Bear Park
Terence Bear Park
4 months ago
Reply to  James Watson

He might seem stronger if he wasn’t a rambling incoherent senile hypocrite.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago

Well said sir!
Back to Ballina with him, where he belongs.

JP Martin
JP Martin
4 months ago

All true but you forgot ‘corrupt’

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
4 months ago

Putin should be left to stew in his own juices. His entourage should be made to realise that the best and only way out of a war hardly any of them wanted is to move against Putin. All this frantic diplomacy, with two eyes on the French presidential election, just maintains Putin as a player so that Macron can pretend he is one.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago

The final couple of paragraphs are the closest to what I think the answer is, although they stop short of actually stating the point, which is that Macron is trying to position and craft a narrative for himself of being a European figurehead. That’s why he continues to talk to Putin – the success or failure of the diplomatic effort is immaterial. Either way, he is being seen to be acting “on behalf of Europe”, which, I believe, plays into a longer term objective: to be the leader of Europe in a more “anchored” manner.
Right from the outset, I thought that this war was more interesting to Macron from the point of view of how he could use it to achieve his own objectives in Europe. Nothing I have yet seen has brought me away from this view.

Last edited 4 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Macron’s certainly a “legend in his own lunchtime”.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
4 months ago

Is Emmanuel Macron frightened of Vladimir Putin?
Hard to gauge. But Macron’s wild-overestimation of his own abilities, and the small matter of a looming election, means that he is DESPERATE to appear a leading player on the world stage.
On President Macron’s much vaunted, yet humiliating summit in Moscow, forced to sit a mile and a half away from Uncle Vlad at the other end of another ludicrous ‘despot-chic’ table, he tried to suggest he’d scored an important diplomatic victory.
I’ve had many names for M Macron, the pound-shop Napoleon, but after watching his return from Moscow (now twinned with Munich), practically waving a piece of paper and declaring “Paix dans notre temps!” (just as Russian tanks started rolling across the border in Ukraine), it became obvious – ….. Nouvelle Chamberlain.

Last edited 4 months ago by Paddy Taylor
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

*Nouveau.

JP Martin
JP Martin
4 months ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Neville, Nouveau, Nouvelle….Maybe we need to confirm their pronouns?

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

False analogy and quite unfair on Chamberlain who knew we eventually had to right Hitler and prepared for it.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

(Deleted – as posted comment twice)

Last edited 4 months ago by Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Peter, I’m not sure that’s unfair at all.
I’ve written before on these pages defending Chamberlain – noting that he was a deeply honourable man who was wrong, but with the right intentions.
But it’s difficult not to make the comparison as Neville and Nouvelle were both hoodwinked and humiliated by dictators who talked peace whilst not breaking stride in their preparations for war.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Was Chamberlain really hoodwinked as Churchillian mythology would have it?
‘We’ were close to bankruptcy in 1939 and at least Chamberlain could do the ‘maths’ which Churchill obviously couldn’t.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

And had been advised by the military that we were in no position to go to war. On 1st September 1939, we still weren’t, but better, and there was no honourable or sensible alternative.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Precisely, and who didn’t enter the cesspit of Parliament until the ripe old age of 50. Good man!

Irene Ve
Irene Ve
4 months ago

There is an important reason why Macron should continue talking to Putin which surprisingly is never mentioned in the UK press. Since the start of Covid Putin has been completely isolated from the outer world of thinking/ideas/reason, his own ideas of the great Russian mission re-creating a slavic super-state being regurgitated and amplified by the very few in his nearest circle, anyone with a different perspective removed from favour into obscurity some time ago.
Talking to Macron is his only chance to hear what the others in the game are thinking, the way they reason, what motivates Western civilisation. Things he might not even want to read about in his daily world-press briefings or dismisses offhand when delivered from an FSB analyst, might start gradually sinking through in a private one-to-one conversation with someone he respects (to a degree).
Consider it as talking therapy. It might not bring definitive results overnight, but it might start a very important process of gradual self-adjustment to the realities of modern world for Putin.
You do not leave a madman (even a functioning one) on his own with his obsession, especially if he has the power to press the button. Just bullying the bully ever harder never works, one should try to gradually open some other possibilities for him, now that he is starting to realise all the unintended consequences of his strategic mistake.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Irene Ve

An interesting point and worth considering.
But Putin needs professional psychiatric help. Not wannabe amateurs like Macron.
Isn’t it strange – the old Soviet Union locked up the sane people in the psychiatric hospitals. Perhaps they still do. Meanwhile Putin is free to walk the streets.
I very much doubt that Putin respects Macron at all.

János Klein
János Klein
4 months ago

I think monsieur Macron is more frightened of Eric Zemmour.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
4 months ago

I’m struck by the intimacy of the head photograph. When was it taken? It is quite a contrast with the one when they were at opposite ends of a table, which at first I thought had been photoshopped. (Did they yell at each other, or use cellphones?)