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Inside Emmanuel Macron’s failed one-man diplomacy mission on Ukraine

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron is on the line with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in a last-ditch attempt to kickstart talks four days before the invasion of Ukraine. It’s February 20 and Macron and his team of advisers believe they have convinced Putin to agree to a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva. But instead of confirming the rendezvous, the Russian leader starts stalling and turns the conversation to sports.

“It’s a proposal that merits to be taken into account,” says Putin, in a flat voice. “But if you want us to be aligned on the way it should be formulated, I suggest we ask our advisers to call each other as soon as possible … but understand that I agree in principle.”

“Very well, so you confirm that you agree in principle, and I suggest that our teams … try to work on a joint statement after this call?” responds Macron.

“To be perfectly frank with you, I wanted to go ice hockey, because right now I’m at the gym. But before starting my workout, I promise I will call my advisers. … Je vous remercie, Monsieur le President,” concludes Putin in French.

Macron hangs up, laughing.  

After the call, Macron’s diplomatic adviser Emmanuel Bonne is filmed doing a little jig, while another says: “Frankly, that’s very good.” The Elysée statement released after the call announces both Putin and Biden agreed to a summit on Ukraine.

But the summit never happened. The day after the call with Macron, Putin officially recognized two separatist provinces in eastern Ukraine. And on February 24, he launched a full-scale invasion.  

Scenes like this feature prominently in “A President, Europe and War,” a documentary released late last week that sheds light on Macron’s failed approach to diplomacy with Russia. It’s a topic that dominated headlines for weeks as Macron logged hundreds of hours of calls with Putin, resulting in little more than false promises in the best-case scenario — and being outright taken for a ride in the worst case.

For former ambassador and adviser at the Montaigne Institute Michel Duclos, the clip of the conversation between the two leaders shows the Kremlin was running rings around the French president.

“Knowing Russia, this shows me how Putin enjoyed leading a great western leader up the garden path,” said Duclos. “You see glimpses of him almost mocking flippancy.”

Inside the Elysee’s diplomatic team

The documentary is stunning for its fly-on-wall access to the Elysée, which is notoriously tight-lipped and wary of the media.

The director, Guy Lagache, was able to film Macron’s calls to foreign leaders — it is unclear whether the other leaders were aware of this at the time — and his advisers commenting on the Ukraine war as it happened.

It makes for gripping viewing, with a long sequence in which you hear a tough-talking Macron telling Putin that “we don’t give a damn about the proposals from the separatists” and haranguing the Russian leader about his poor choice of legal experts. But it also sheds a cruel light on the shortcomings of Macron’s diplomatic efforts to stop the war.

The film confirms what Elysée hacks have known for a long time — that Macron runs France’s foreign policy single-handedly with a small team of advisers. During the 115 minutes of the documentary, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian makes an appearance just once and is never filmed speaking. It’s Macron’s diplomatic advisor Bonne who discusses with Macron the French president’s phone calls with Putin, who listens in on the calls and discusses the Elysée’s official statements on the subject. Macron’s advisers aren’t seen challenging the president in any meaningful way.

“[The film shows] a diplomacy that is operated by a handful of people, as if they were running a start-up, as if everything could be resolved with the mobile numbers of ‘Olaf’, ‘Volodymyr’ and ‘Vladimir’, (without neglecting the importance of direct contacts of course),” Le Monde’s Washington correspondent Piotr Smolar wrote on Twitter.

French presidents traditionally have more control over their country’s foreign policy than other western leaders who have to wrestle with strong parliaments or foreign affairs ministries. But for Duclos, the documentary exposes the weaknesses of a hyper-centralized diplomatic machine.

“Foreign policy has never been more individualized than today,” said Duclos. “The film confirms that this model of foreign policy, which is completely centralized at the Elysée, has reached its limits.”

In particular, there is Macron’s unerring commitment to diplomatic efforts with Russia and exchanging calls with Putin, though with a lot less frequency after the discovery of war crimes in the Ukrainian city of Bucha in April.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow, on February 7, 2022 | Thibault Camus/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In the documentary, Macron admits he knows his diplomatic efforts to stop Putin have failed on his return from a long-awaited visit to Kyiv last month.

“We talked, we spent a lot of time trying to stop [the war], to involve others. I thought we could find a path with Vladimir Putin based on trust and intellectual conversation,” he said, concluding that there is still “so much to do.”

The home front

The documentary director rarely challenges his interviewees over the Elysée’s approach to Putin, despite skepticism in the Western press and public criticism from the Polish prime minister, who likened Macron’s efforts to negotiating with Hitler. Instead, the film, which was initially meant to be a documentary about European affairs, offers great insight into Macron’s motivation, both on the international and the domestic fronts, for his diplomatic efforts.

In a filmed phone debrief with his advisers over Putin’s commitment to a summit with Biden, Bonne says he was worried the initiative could fail given the information the Americans were giving on Russian military deployments. Macron responds that the Elysée should go ahead with announcing the summit because “it shows we made our best efforts” and that France “wasn’t dragged [into the conflict] by the allies.”

“I think it will put [Putin] in a much more difficult position if he screws up, in terms of his credibility …  If he goes against [the summit initiative]. I’m very coherent, I can say the guy lied to me and here is the proof,” he said.

A poll conducted last month by the agency IFOP showed support for Ukraine was still strong in France, with 79 percent of the French saying they had a favorable opinion of Ukraine.

But while Macron’s diplomatic strategy might have convinced many at home, it’s not the case for his allies and EU partners in Eastern Europe, who have long looked askance at Macron’s endeavors.

“What Macron does not seem to see is the cost for him and for France, in terms of credibility with the allies and with his European partners,” said Duclos.

“Also what’s the damage for Macron in his relationship with Putin? He looks like a rebuffed applicant, that’s not the way to be taken seriously,” he said.

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