Russian Soft Power in France, with Marlene Laruelle & Jean-Yves Camus
June 13, 2018
The project "Russian Soft Power in France" is supported by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with OSIFE of the Open Society Foundations.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Thank you so much for being here this evening. Welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Today we're discussing Russian soft power in France.
Joining us is Marlene Laruelle, who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council and research professor and associate director at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs of The George Washington University.
We're also joined by Jean-Yves Camus, who is a political analyst and associate research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. Thank you very much for joining us. We have two experts in the field.
Professor Laruelle, I want to start with you. What are the kind of structural components of the Franco-Russian relationship? This is going back a long time. We're talking Charles de Gaulle.
MARLENE LARUELLE: Exactly, yes.
Let me just begin by saying that this question of the Russian influence in Europe tends to be very often inflated or very hyped because it is a very sensitive topic in the United States, and so what we try to do in the research that we have been doing here at the Carnegie Council was to try to be a little bit more sober and less emotional and look more in detail on the nature of the Russian influence and especially Russian soft power in the case of France.
It is true that it is really important to realize how both countries have a very long relationship and a quite good relationship historically, of course not if you remember the Napoleonic Wars, but that was a really long time ago. But since then the relationship has been quite good, contrary to some other European countries.
Cultural relations are very much developed. There are really a lot of things in [both French and Russian culture]. Economic exchanges are also very much developed, and a lot of big French firms in very strategic sectors like high tech and the kind of military-industrial complex are involved in Russia, so you have a lot of objective factors to explain why it is really important for Russia to be sure that it is securing connection with the different layers of the French society and the different French political parties, so just to try to put that in a kind of objective framework of relations and influences.
That is true, Magalie, as you mentioned, there are several layers of influence, kind of structural ones. What I think is one of the central ones is the legacy of de Gaulle and Gaullism, which is still quite important in the French political culture both on the right and on the left, and that's why it is interesting that it is kind of across the political spectrum.
There is still this notion that in fact France and Russia share a lot of common geopolitical interests. De Gaulle always thought that Russia was part of Europe. He was always cautious toward the United States and toward trans-Atlantic institutions. You remember that it is during this time that the French left NATO integrated military command. He was always praising the "eternal" Russia, so there is this tradition in the French global political culture to be kind of distrustful toward the United States and the trans-Atlantic relationship and to consider that there is something that makes Russia a legitimate actor on the European scene. So that's a very general framework.
Another structural element which is in fact linked also to this legacy of Gaullism is the notion of sovereignism, which is also something that he shared both on the right and the left of the French political landscape—maybe more on the right than on the left—and that is this belief that the nation-state is still the main and best framework for expressing democracy and strategic national interest.
So there was this kind of distrust toward European institutions, this narrative that Brussels is imposing its political choices and economic choices on nation-states, and also denunciation of multilateral institutions and all this kind of sovereignism of the nation-state that is very visible in the French political culture, it's totally in resonance with Putin's narrative and Russia's geopolitical positioning about the sovereignty of the nation-state against the so-called "Western liberal order." That's also a layer where they have some kind of ideological connection.
A third important element that I think we tend to not really realize—and even I think for us it was really interesting during the research to realize it—is that both France and Russia see themselves historically, and that is also a kind of long history, as protecting Eastern Christians in the Middle East. That is something that in France comes from the 17th century. Of course, in Russia it has always been very present because of the Orthodox legacy because Russia sees itself as heir of Byzance. On the French side, you have a French colonial past in the Middle East, in Lebanon, for example, a very deep kind of long-term historical and cultural relations. There are a lot of Eastern Christians who are now living in France.
What is really interesting is that since the Syrian War and the Islamic State's violence against Eastern Christians, there has been this kind of confluence of French and Russian interests in promoting or safeguarding and rescuing Eastern Christians in the Middle East. Thanks to that kind of ideological connection there have been several lobbies or networks or groups of influence both inside the Russian state and society and in France mostly among Catholic groups, so mostly on the right side of the political spectrum, that have been saying, "Well, both France and Russia share some joint geopolitical interests in the Middle East." All these kinds of Catholic groups in France and very often also several Lebanese associations have been pushing and promoting a quite favorable narrative about Russia.
Those are the three elements I think are pushing for some political affinity between some part of the French political landscape and the Russian one that are quite specific to France and that you don't find in the other European countries, so each of them having really a specific vision of their relationship to Russia.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It's interesting to hear about this synergy, which I'm going to ask you about, Mr. Camus. I want to touch on the topic of the far right because it seems as though Russia has become, as titled in one of the papers, the "Promised Land of the French Far Right." If so, why? Explain that.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: First of all, I think that the extreme right has always been very interested in the capacity of the Russian people to maintain their traditions and I would say the specificities of Russian culture even in the times of the Soviet Union, this feeling on the extreme right that the Russian people are really so strong that they have succeeded in keeping their faith, their Christian faith, and retaining many of their customs in spite of communism. The extreme right is very impressed by the capacity of the Russian people to stay true to the traditions of the West while they say at the same time that Western Europe is in a state of decay.
They mostly oppose Russia as the driving force that succeeds in keeping Western values alive, and at the same time the extreme right is describing France and other Western countries as countries with no future and no hope of retaining this past and those customs.
MARLENE LARUELLE: Its tradition.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: Yes. That is the first reason why they I would say—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: They're comfortable.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: At least comfortable with Russia.
It's not a matter of Putin or not Putin. It's about the Russian people. In a forthcoming book, I will have an article about those French volunteers who fought alongside the Nazis in Russia in what is now Geragos [phonetic] during the Second World War. You had thousands of French volunteers fighting alongside the Germans against the USSR, and some of them spent two-and-a-half or three years on the Eastern Front fighting the communists and fighting the Red Army. They left a lot of books of souvenirs, memoirs.
What is really interesting and what I try to describe in this article is that at the same time they were fighting the Red Army and really hated communism, and the reason why they enlisted was this hatred of communism, but they came to know the Russian people, those I would say "average" Russian people living in the small villages, and they were very impressed by the fact that for most of those villagers life was like the Russian Revolution did not abolish anything except private property. They still clung to the old values. So they were fascinated by the Russian people.
The second point is that especially after 1945 the French extreme right, as in many other countries, very much despised everything American because America was associated with the defeat of the Axis, the defeat of the Vichy regime. It is also a kind of hatred against America and what the extreme right says is in some way the end of Western civilization.
When you hate America and it's the Cold War era, you cannot support the USSR, of course, because you belong to the extreme right, so you are also very anti-communist. But when the USSR collapses, obviously your opinion can change quite quickly. The extreme right in all countries in Europe very much stands against any kind of unilateral order in international relations.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: They stand against any kind of unilateral—
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: Yes, against NATO and the United States being the only power in the world with the military capacity to tell the French or Italian or other people what to do.
Starting not in the years immediately following the collapse of the USSR because obviously Yeltsin was not their man, but as soon as Vladimir Putin became president both the man and the fact that Russia became some kind of a counter-power to NATO and America was met with I would say some feeling of revenge at everything that happened at the end of the Second World War.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Going all the way back there, that was still—
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: Going all the way back there because many people—not the voters, but those activists on the extreme right—really belonged to a tradition that sometimes it's passed down from generation to generation, so maybe their grandparents had something to do with one or another political party of the extreme right in the 1930s or 1940s, and they were raised in this state of mind that the so-called "Libération" was in fact the end of the world.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: That was like a turning point?
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: That was a turning point. But what I want to really say is that obviously the reason why the extreme right supports Vladimir Putin and the regime in Russia is not because of money. Money is something very important, and when the National Front, for example, gets money from the Russian bank in order to finance their political campaigns, of course, money is important. But why would the Russians give money to a political party polling around 20 percent if it were not for ideas?
It goes both ways. The Russian state certain believes that today the National Front is the closest to the kind of political model they think is fit both for Russia and for Europe. On the other hand, not only is the French National Front happy about receiving money, of course, but they also think that the model of Russia is something that they should adapt to Western Europe in terms of family values, strong leadership, opposition to Islamicism, opposition to America, opposition to NATO, patriotism, and so on. So it's mostly about ideas, and it is because they have common ideas that the money can flow and not the other way around.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: I see. Those are very interesting points.
Professor Laruelle, I want to touch on France's long tradition of having Russian immigrants, having Russian citizens or descendants living in France as part of the tradition. You even say in one of your papers that Russian was taught in French elementary school until very recently. But does the presence of the Russian population play an important role in shaping the Franco-Russian relationship?
MARLENE LARUELLE: Yes. The immigration and the children of immigration really play an important role in connecting France to Russia. They also play a role in what Jean-Yves just described, also in this kind of ideological resonance that is created between some part of the French political spectrum and Russia.
So you know that there were hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution all over Europe, and the group going to Paris and several other regions in France was quite important. They settled, and they really played an important role in French cultural life all through the 20th century.
It is interesting to see how they progressively begin playing this role of mediating between France and Russia, and we can see that at different levels. First, we see that all the Russian diaspora associations have been partly retaken control of by Moscow. At their beginning, they were totally indifferent, and then as Jean-Yves said they were—like the French far right—very anti-communist by definition because they fled the country.
But in the 2000s, like 10 years ago, once Putin arrived in power and began courting the diaspora, it really played a role, and Russia began funding a lot of these Russian associations, and they have the notion that they will belong to this Russian world, which is the big theme of the regime in Moscow. So the associations begin really playing a role of representing in a sense Russia's perception with their own nuances and differences.
There are some associations that are really resisting also Moscow's influence, that don't want that really, saying: "We are coming from this immigration. We are not linked to what is happening now in Russia." So there is some room to maneuver, but let's say that globally they became more connected to Moscow.
Among all these associations we also have this tradition of having quite visible Russian aristocratic families playing a role in the French cultural landscape—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Who are accepted there in Russia.
MARLENE LARUELLE: Yes, who are really well integrated into the French system and were also courted by the Russian regime. Several of these aristocratic families were given symbolic recognition by chairing some cultural associations that are funded by Russia.
One of the good examples that we had was in 2014 during the Ukrainian crisis, so after Russia's annexation of Crimea and the insurgency in Donbass and all the tensions between Russia and Europe, there was a petition signed by 100 big names of the Russian immigration in France called "The Russian Bridge," trying to defend the Russian perspective against the Ukrainian one and trying to lobby for this Russian perception of the conflict in the French political landscape. So that's where we could really see them in that case as instruments of the regime.
They also play an interesting role because they are very well connected to French businesses and big firms that are working in Russia. I think it's really important to realize that almost all the big French firms, those who are part of what we call CAC 40, which is the French benchmark stock exchange market index, so all the big French firms, they are involved in Russia. They have businesses in Russia.
The children of émigrés sometimes play an important role in making the connection between politics, business, and Russia. For example, one of the main kind of lobbying associations called the Association Dialogue Franco-Russe, the Franco-Russian Dialogue, was led until recently by children of a Russian émigré who had really impressive connections to some political party but also to the business world.
Something also that we have which is coming from this immigration is that there are two very quite powerful Orthodox charity foundations that are very active in France, both of them led by some oligarchs very close to Putin, one led by Vladimir Yakunin, who was the head of the Russian railways until 2015 and a very close friend of Putin, and the other by Konstantin Malofeev, who is a communications business oligarch, very monarchist, openly funding the insurgency in Donbass. Both of these Orthodox charity foundations are quite active in France. They have Russian émigrés as part of their board. Some of them are promoting this Russian narrative of conservative values and Russia as the savior of the Christian identity of Europe, so they are quite visible.
Linked to that—and that will be my last point—the Russian Orthodox Church is also quite active in France, first because they tried to take over all the Orthodox churches and parishes that belonged to Russian immigrants into the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, so there were during at least a decade several fights with legal proceedings by the Moscow Patriarchate trying to retake control over the Orthodox churches in France. Sometimes they failed, sometimes they succeeded.
For example, the big Orthodox cathedral in Nice in the south of France got retaken by the Moscow Patriarchate—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Because it was held by the—
MARLENE LARUELLE: It belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church abroad. That's why, either independent or under the Constantine Patriarchate.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: I see, and they succeeded in Nice? Interesting.
MARLENE LARUELLE: They succeeded in Nice. They failed in Biarritz, so depending. Each case was quite specific.
Since then there was this big project organized by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church to build the biggest Orthodox cathedral in Europe in Paris in a very central neighborhood. It created a lot of discussion in France, and it succeeded. It worked, so the Orthodox cathedral was inaugurated in 2016 by the patriarch himself. Putin planned to come but didn't come at the end. It was a moment of tension between France and Russia over Syria. So it was a huge diplomatic success for France and really a sign of Russia's soft power in the region.
I think it clearly shows from the Russian perspective partly because it is symbolically important and because of the Russian immigration past is really a place where Moscow wants to display its soft power.
At the same time, I think we also need to do some comparisons. In Germany, you have about 4 million Russian émigrés, not coming from the White Russian historical immigration, but more recent émigrés, so it's a much bigger immigration and much more—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: What is the population in France though approximately?
MARLENE LARUELLE: It's 200,000 maximum, and they are French citizens now, so now I think it's 50,000 people who have a Russian passport, but these are new people who arrived recently. That is not the children of the immigration, while Germany received really a lot of Russian speakers this last two decades. They are also very much active in promoting the Russian perspective in Germany, so in a sense Germany is facing also another kind of lobbying coming from Moscow through this immigration.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: So while they're all coming, the United Kingdom is kicking them out after—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You were talking about the Front National, the extreme right, the presence in Russia. But what about other mainstream French political parties? Do they have a presence or a role in Russia, a relationship?
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: They have a relationship with Russia because as Marlene said we have this tradition of Gaullism, the ideology of national independence from America and NATO promoted by the president of France between 1958 and 1969, and the mainstream conservative right is still at least nominally in the tradition of de Gaulle. So the mainstream political parties, especially the main party on the conservative right, Les Républicains, has always been close to Russia, and Nicolas Sarkozy used to be close to Russia. His prime minister François Fillon, who was an unsuccessful candidate for presidency in 2017, was very positive about Russia.
On the other hand, I feel that in Moscow many people felt that in some ways this Gaullist tradition was going to vanish, to fade away as time is passing. The legacy of Gaullism is something the young generation does not know. Even Sarkozy was saying—especially after he came to the United States and was so enthusiastic with the United States, he was seen as an illegitimate heir to de Gaulle, leaning much more toward NATO because he decided to go back into the NATO military command.
I think that this was a turning point because certainly at that time in Moscow some people said: "Okay, in the next decade what will be the most important political party on the right? Will it still be the mainstream conservative right or the National Front? Possibly it will be the National Front, and anyway, the mainstream conservative right is moving more toward European integration toward America, so we have to keep a balance and keep France with both sides of the right." But the mainstream conservative right is I would say historically quite close to Russia.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Before we turn to the audience for questions, I have to ask—and you can both answer this—in the mainstream news media here Russia seems to be a daily topic in some form or other. We're not getting into details. But the equivalent in France, is it talked about in the news? Is it part of the daily conversation? Do French people care?
MARLENE LARUELLE: No. Honestly, the comparison is really not a functional one because there is not this feeling in France—you see the specificity of the United States is also, the actual U.S. obsession toward Russia is also because Russia is seen as a kind of constitutive other for the United States, the kind of archetypal enemy, and then Russia is projecting the same things on the United States.
In France it doesn't exist like that. We don't see Russia as a kind of enemy in theory of France. We don't have any kind of energy dependency linked to Russia, which is a big difference from several other countries which are dependent in terms of their energy resources from Russia. So Russia is not the kind of big issue of daily life in France.
There is no big Ukrainian minority, so the Ukrainian issue is there but not so much, so it's much less present than it would be Germany or in Poland. So Russia is kind of far away. It is discussed when there is something big happening, but there is not this kind of obsession. There is some discussion when something happens. Of course, during the campaign and then Macron's election, there was some discussion about possible Russian influence, and Jean-Yves can probably say something about that.
But, for example, when Russia Today (RT), the state-sponsored channel, opened their French-speaking channel in late December, there was some discussion the week it was launched and then nothing else because it's not so important. The real French political landscape is either discussing domestic issues or discussing the Middle East because by tradition that is also where the French foreign policy is really focused, in discussing European construction or difficulties in it, and the Middle East. Russia is quite far away.
Jean-Yves, would you agree with that?
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: Totally. We had Russia in the news every evening for two weeks before the presidential election because was it Russia Today or Sputnik had some leaks about the Macron campaign, but it faded away very quickly because you have to realize that Macron was elected with 66 percent of the vote, and Marine Le Pen only got 33 percent of the vote. Anyway, if the Russians tried to influence the French election, they failed totally. I think they didn't really play a significant role.
On the other hand, what is the major problem in France today? Is it Russia meddling into the elections? No. Even in terms of soft power, since we had those terror attacks in 2015—and we had another in 2016 as well—we have a problem with the soft power of Qatar, of Saudi Arabia, the soft power of the non-governmental Islamic organizations, and we are much more concerned with those topics than we are with the influence of Russia.
Anyway, we are a country located in Western Europe. We have, as Marlene said, a very long tradition of good relations with Russia going back to the first embassy of Peter I 300 years ago, and so there is an historical legacy that you simply just cannot ignore and say, "Oh, Russia is the enemy, and we have to cut off ties." No way.
We do not only have those big French companies making business with Russia, but anyway in terms of diplomacy I think that Macron believes that it's never good to tell a country you do not agree with, "Okay, we'll just cut off ties." That is not diplomacy.
When our president went to the St. Petersburg summit two weeks ago he was very outspoken on his opposition to some of Putin's policy, but he wants to keep cooperation going, and he wants to keep some kind of channel with the Kremlin. He is also the first president since the beginning of the civil war in Syria to say something that Putin agrees with. Macron says, "Peace in Syria is only possible if you include Assad in the deal."
François Fillon, our previous prime minister, used to say, "Assad has to go, and then we will work on a solution to the Syrian crisis."
No way can we do that, and Macron says: "Assad is part of the picture. He's part of the negotiation." Of course, he very strongly condemns his war crimes, but at the same time he has a much more realistic approach.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Because it leaves a vacuum if he goes.
QUESTION: Bonsoir. We have an interesting president also, as you are well aware. President Trump was just at the G7 summit, and one of the things he proposed on his own volition is to bring Russia back to make it a Group of Eight. What do you think about this from the European viewpoint where these trade negotiations and other relations are so important?
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: That kind of echoes what Macron was saying.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: I think that the answer from the French authorities is quite positive.
MARLENE LARUELLE: The point is that Trump is changing the rule of the diplomatic game so much that in a sense he is also leaving some room for Russia to appear like a normal country with whom you can play and have some diplomatic discussion—not over Ukraine, of course, where it is quite frozen; difficult over Syria, but going on. But any kind of other multilateral and trade discussion, then given the difficulty that Trump is creating in having his own position, it seems suddenly for some part of the political spectrum that you can discuss more easily with Putin on some aspect than you can with Trump.
So I think there is this kind of paradox of Trump having this kind of provocative statement quite positive to Russia, but his own action by what he is kind of destroying what is considered as the traditional Western liberal order is also giving room for Russia to act and to display some kind of—acting according to some rules of the game. So it is quite complex.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: The main problem with the French authorities today with President Trump is not over Russia, it is over trade negotiations and everything that is negative, especially for the steel industry.
MARLENE LARUELLE: And the Iranian nuclear deal.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: And the Iranian nuclear deal.
MARLENE LARUELLE: Because of Trump's position, Russia looks like a very reliable partner who still wants to continue and rescue the Iranian nuclear deal, so that's why you can feel this kind of partly changing atmosphere in Europe toward Russia.
It is also not solving anything on the ground in terms of the Minsk agreement for Donbass and so on, so it is still quite complicated, but there are suddenly new rules of the game that seem to be appearing.
QUESTION: Thank you to both speakers for the very interesting talk.
The French far right has usually been aligned with the Russian far right with Dugin as a main exponent of that thought. We also know that Russia has been sometimes agreeing with Dugin on some of his policy lines but recently has been distancing itself from him. Is the French far right still more close to Dugin or to Putin?
MARLENE LARUELLE: For those of you who don't know, Aleksandr Dugin is one of the main very vocal Russian intellectual new right/fascists depending on how you want to define him who has been one of the first in developing connections with the European far right, to explain the question.
I think it is quite complicated. Dugin always had deep connections with some section of the European far right—French, Belgian, Italian, and before German or Scandinavian—but it was always a small, specific, quite intellectual group that we call the "new right." He never had a huge connection with the National Front, for example, because he was always too esoteric for them, so when the National Front really developed connections with Russia it was at a much more official level than with Dugin himself.
Dugin is still there. He has his own network. Sometimes he can benefit from the current wave of connection, for example, through Malofeev, these oligarchs who are trying to push for a kind of monarchist agenda. Dugin can play on that while Malofeev is also a kind of far-right diplomatic figure.
But the connection that the Russian establishment had with some European far right parties is much more official, and it's not really based on Dugin. It has other channels of communication.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: I totally agree. I had lunch with Aleksandr Dugin several years ago, and it was a very interesting experience. He has very good command of French and of French philosophy to some point, but at one stage in the conversation he goes into this kind of esotericism which is not easily understood and is not relevant to a political party such as the National Front.
When he is into geopolitics, that can be of some interest. But at one point he goes into something which is his own esotericism and his own philosophy and references to very unknown and obscure writers and thinkers. Except on the very fringe of the extreme right, it is very difficult to agree with him.
Even within the new right, I happen to have attended one of the last conference of the new right, and Dugin wasn't there because it seems he was denied entry. But he spoke with a satellite link. People in attendance were not so happy with what he said. That was in December 2016, and he was positive about the election of Donald Trump that the new right people, who really are anti-American from the start, said: "What happened? Here is Dugin praising President Trump. Anyway, Trump is the president of the United States, and nothing good can come out of the United States." He has lost ground.
MARLENE LARUELLE: Yes. Also something that I think it is important to realize is that the French National Front was the first far-right party to develop this level of connection with some part of the Russian establishment.
At the same time, if you look now, now that Marine Le Pen lost and lost in a very visible manner in the election last year, Russia has really been developing connections with other parties. So it is not the National Front that is at the center of Russia's attention now in terms of building institutional links with European far right parties. It's Lega Nord in Italy, it's the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO). Those are the two with whom the presidential party United Russia signed an agreement of cooperation with these far right parties. In a lower level, it is Alternative für Deutschland.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: What I also want to add briefly is that the French extreme right is split between a majority of pro-Russian people and a minority of pro-Ukrainian people. Let's not forget that some of those fellows chose a totally different path and chose it to support the most radical nationalist party in the Ukraine.
So you have people from the French extreme right fighting in Donbass alongside the pro-Russian militia, but you also have people from the French extreme right fighting with the Ukrainians in the infamous Azov unit, which today is part of the National Guard of Ukraine. So it's not a one-sided story.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Many layers.
QUESTION: From what I understand, you're saying that there is a concrete interest for Macron and also for France to have somewhat of a close relationship with Russia and that they're able to work on many things. I think many NATO watchers and many Russia watchers, at least from an American perspective, have seen France as one of the strongest NATO partners, especially in relation to Russia, especially since Macron has come into power.
Say Trump is no longer the president in a few years, that he is a four-year president. Do you think that Macron or even just France in general will be—if there is a change in policy in the United States that is more anti-Russia, do you think that Macron and France will be with the United States in that policy or perhaps, maybe they have a closer relationship or take more of a German approach to it?
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Or maintain what they have.
MARLENE LARUELLE: Yes. I think in fact the two are quite dissociated. I think the French relation with the United States is not a bad one. There are some points of tension that have been recently created with trade negotiations and the Iranian nuclear deal. But on Syria Macron was really following the United States on many aspects in the perception of the Syrian crisis, so I think the two things are not related.
My impression is that the French vision of Russia will not change, and if the United States became more anti-Russia than now—I don't know if it's possible—but look at the last sanctions. The last U.S. sanctions on Russia were not followed by Europe and were really interpreted in Europe as being in fact targeting also European firms doing business with Russia, and that was really perceived from the French perspective as being not friendly toward Russia for sure, but also not friendly toward Europe.
I think the French interest because of trade, because of cultural links, and also because of agriculture—French agriculture would really be harmed by Russian counter-sanctions forbidding all agricultural products from Europe. So there are many elements that would push France to be quite moderate and nuanced and always try to keep the channel of communication with Russia open and try to maintain something with Russia.
Also, what seems to me one of the big issues is that when you see Russia from the European continent, when we are on the same continent there is no way. We cannot be dissociated by geography. We will have to find a way to function with Russia in one way or another, so I think the French perspective will always try to be loyal to NATO commitments and trans-Atlantic institutions but also to keep a certain level of autonomy in defining what should be a European perception of Russia that will not be a U.S. one.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: "Autonomy" is a key word in French foreign policy for several decades, and it will go on this way I think.
QUESTIONER: I just want to clarify. I didn't mean break relations with Russia, just a stronger policy vis-à-vis Russia.
MARLENE LARUELLE: I don't think the French policy toward Russia can be stronger than what it is already. [There are] sanctions [because of] Crimea and on Donbass. What else? The French will not follow the United States on the last round of sanctions. I don't think so.
France expelled four diplomats after the Skripal poisoning affair. France followed the general mainstream of being tougher on Russia, but more than that seems to me difficult given the current—
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: It is very difficult especially since the French oil industry has a lot of contracts going on with Russia, and the French manufacturers of planes and weapons also have a lot of deals going on with Russia, so it is just not possible to cut off ties.
Macron also has a goal, and his goal is to be I would say not the head of the European Union because as you know the European Commission is not elected, but at this time is the strongest head of state in all of Western Europe. Merkel is obviously not that strong any more. Italy is just—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Collapsing.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: No, I do not think they have collapsed, but they are following a path that is really hard to understand. Spain has just switched from a conservative to a socialist-led majority, and so on.
Macron is the only head of state in Europe who can say he has been elected by 66 percent of the people, and: "I'm only 40 years old, and I'm legitimate enough to be the one who wants to carry a common European position vis-à-vis not only Russia but also vis-à-vis the United States more than any other country." It will also depend on what Macron will do on the European level.
MARLENE LARUELLE: If I can just add on. I think, for example, the current debates about Germany signing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, if it's done, it means that Russian energy will go directly to Germany and will not transit anymore by Ukraine, which would really weaken the Ukrainian position for a very long time and really hurt Ukraine a lot.
Germany seems to be ready to sign, and Merkel was quite positive about signing. Macron said he thought it was a bad idea and that it would be better not to sign, so on that he has a tougher position than Merkel.
The point is that the U.S. perception of Russia cannot be replicated in Europe because it is a too tough one for Europe. The United States can afford to cut economic links with Russia because very few U.S. businesses would be hurt. Boeing will be hurt, but it is few of them.
If suddenly Europe became tougher on Russia, we will hurt ourselves, so there is nothing you can do. No country will hurt itself just in the name of some kind of ideological solidarity or something like that.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: No way. That is something very specific involving the extreme right. Every time scholars decide to have a close look at what the extreme right is, they are always associated with some type of police.
The extreme right is a legitimate player in European politics. As long as a group does not engage in illegal activity, as long as it does not want to disrupt the democratic process, it's a legitimate player in politics, and it is totally legitimate for scholars to devote most of their time to the study of the National Front and other such parties.
In Europe today, far-right parties—I do not say "extreme"—or any of the right parties are part of the government in Austria, in Norway, in Finland, and now in Italy. In Hungary it's quite a bit different because Mr. Orbán's party does not belong to this kind of international coalition of extreme right parties.
The Hungarian party belongs to the Croatian Democratic International, to the party of European conservatives. That means that in the Europe environment they sit on the same transnational party with Mrs. Merkel and some of the mainstream conservatives, and that is the same with the Polish conservative party which is now into power.
After 1945 we used to think that the extreme right was dead because of what happened in Europe. We only had fringe movements, some of them undercover or illegal, and they were never in the mainstream, and they never got members of parliament (MPs) and so on. Now it is part of Europe and the European political landscape, so it's totally legitimate to devote time and study to the extreme right, and it has nothing to do whatsoever with—I mean, the state has its police and goes about its own business. I really don't care about that.
MARLENE LARUELLE: It's also because in the French academic system we tend to use "observatory" to define a very specialized research center, but that's why it sounds like a—
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: I don't spend my day watching what other people like to do.
MARLENE LARUELLE: But it is like a research center or—
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: I'm not interested.
MARLENE LARUELLE: It has to do with telescope in the sense that you are really scrutinizing a very specific research object, but it just means research center, in fact.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Thank you, everyone.