Hollande revives memories of de Gaulle by courting Russia

French President Francois Hollande during a minute of silence in the courtyard of the Sorbonne University in Paris, Nov. 16 2015

French President Francois Hollande during a minute of silence in the courtyard of the Sorbonne University in Paris, Nov. 16 2015

The aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 has seen French President Francois Hollande propose that France, the U.S. and Russia work together to combat ISIS. Does the initiative offer real prospects of a reconciliation between Moscow and Paris or is it more likely to be a marriage of convenience?

French President Francois Hollande’s new initiative to forge a trilateral coalition – comprised of France, the United States and Russia – to fight Islamic State (ISIS) in the aftermath of the Paris attacks has raised apprehension in Washington that the Fifth Republic is once again, just as it did under General Charles de Gaulle, making overtures to Russia.

Essentially, Hollande’s call for “bringing together of all those who can realistically fight against this terrorist army in a single, broad coalition” is an echo of the words spoken by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 70th UN General Assembly in New York in September.

Paris seems to have decided to court Moscow in the global fight against the Islamists, who are successfully recruiting followers in Europe, including France and Russia. The first signs of ground and offshore coordination in Syria have been recorded already, while Putin has ordered his military to cooperate with the French, treating them, in his own words, as “allies.”

Notably, military personnel deployed at the Russian airbase in Syria have been scrawling slogans on warheads prior to the sorties against what Moscow says are ISIS targets: either “Avenging our people” referring to the Russian airplane destroyed by a terrorist bomb over Egypt in late October, or “Avenging Paris!”

In fact, this surprisingly bold move by the French government fits into the track record of interaction between the two nations going back through recent history. Charles de Gaulle placed high emphasis on positively engaging the Soviet Union as a strong supporter of the Free France movement in the battle against Nazi Germany. The reformer-general later made efforts to engage the USSR in an aim to forge a new alliance between the countries, with some scholars of the opinion that De Gaulle had in mind an ambitious “grand design” to alter the Cold War bipolar order.

In 1989 President Francois Mitterrand also emphasized the special responsibility of France and Russia to maintain strategic stability in Europe, while Vladimir Putin later admitted that his relations with Mitterrand’s successor, President Jacque Chirac “had been of the highest calibre.” The epitome of this highest degree of understanding was the joint defiance by France, Germany and Russia of the American invasion of Iraq.

Further on, despite the initial tough pro-American and anti-Russian stance taken by the next French president, Nicolas Sarkozy eventually developed a workable relationship with Putin, and came to prominence as mediator in the conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008.

Whether he was motivated by his ego, driven by the traditional requirement to assert France’s “grandeur,” or both, is disputable, but Sarkozy’s “Russian connection” has become a recognized fact, as manifested by his recent lightning visit to Moscow, interpreted almost unanimously as part of his pre-election maneuvers.

President Hollande is currently fully involved in the negotiations to bring peace to Eastern Ukraine. It is a slow-paced, painful, but moderately encouraging process. It can be assumed that this particular experience in dealing with Putin and his team has convinced Paris that Moscow is not a “rogue” counterpart, especially when it comes to dealing with common challenges. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently told France Inter radio, referring to the Russian leadership, that “We think they are sincere and we must bring together all our forces.”

It may be that that the French people are simply witnessing their president acting in a spirit of righteous indignation with an urge for revenge. Hollande’s move could be a self-serving damage-control measure aimed at boosting his own diluted credentials as a bona fide statesman.

However, experts approached by Troika Report disagree on whether this could be a possible first step towards re-instating the “special relationship” between Paris and Moscow that characterized certain periods in history.

Dr. Nadia Arbatova, head of the Center of European Political Studies within the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Troika Report that she saw potential in the recent developments.

“After the explosion on board the Russian aircraft and the terrorist attacks in Paris, there is a common understanding that Russia and France are ‘in the same boat.’ The tragic events, ironically, have raised some cautious optimism about becoming allies in conducting military operations in Syria. The stakes are very high. Much will depend on the outcome of the operations. This interaction in Syria has created a window of opportunity for relations between France and Russia, and between Europe at large and Russia.

“This is a chance to improve relations between Russia and the West. If the operation is successful, there will be a new rapprochement with the West. But if the operation fails, it could create new tension and become a new apple of discord.”

A cautiously skeptical assessment of the Paris-Moscow tandem was expressed in an interview with Troika Report by Sergei Utkin, head of the department of strategic assessment and situation analysis at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“This is hardly the proper moment to speak of any “strategic alliance” between France and Russia. Relations remain pretty tense given the developments in Ukraine.

“The ISIS problem and repercussions for Europe, which became quite obvious for everyone after the Paris attacks, have sent the message to politicians that pushing the Islamists back, depriving them of the resources they have, can be achieved only through major powers working together. So it is not so much a ‘strategic alliance’ but a tactical alliance.”

– Once again, it links Paris and not, for instance, London, with Moscow…

“If we speak about the general atmosphere, in the case of Britain there is much less emotional affection for Russia than in the case of France. The history of our relations has a lot to do with it.”

Moreover, this year a poll conducted by French Institute of Public Opinion found out that 81 percent of respondents thought France should have a better relationship with Russia. It looks like Hollande’s move is in tune with the aspirations of the people. Yet, in doing a de Gaulle by embracing Russia, the French political elites had better not count on a full-fledged alliance. At this point in time Paris and Moscow have erected too many barriers to clear them in one single leap.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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