Why does France have a deadly infatuation with Russia?

Why Paris has found it difficult to entirely separate with Russia is explained by a lengthy history.

Voltaire wrote adoring letters to Catherine the Great as a result of his fascination with the burgeoning Russian kingdom. The French Enlightenment scholar and the Russian empress exchanged 197 handwritten letters in French, a language favored by the Russian nobles, throughout the 1760s and 1770s. By calling Catherine a “enlightened dictator,” Voltaire lauded her and remarked, “If I were younger, I would turn Russian.” In the Palace of St. Petersburg in 1773, she hosted another silk-socked philosopher, Denis Diderot. As a result, Russia began to represent the triumph of civilization over disorder in the French consciousness as a like-minded sanctuary of the arts and literature.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted Germany’s economic dependency on Moscow, but it also showed France’s fatal obsession with Russia as a different kind of dependence. This is a holdover from the Bolshevik revolution, anti-Americanism, and communism on the extreme left. The French Communist Party, which throughout the Cold War looked to Moscow, only removed the hammer and sickle from its membership card in 2013. It comes from love for authoritarian rule and nationalistic nationalism on the extreme right. A Russian bank has contributed to part of Marine Le Pen’s political activities.

The influence of Russia on French imagination extends beyond its extremes. The Paris establishment’s parquet-floored salons are well within its grasp. Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” was translated into French while Jacques Chirac was a young man. Chirac was a former Gaullist president who favored a multipolar world to counteract US hegemony. Vladimir Putin gave Chirac Russia’s highest honor in exchange for giving the légion d’honneur. A frequent visitor of Mr. Putin’s was the center-right prime minister François Fillon. The day after the tanks arrived, Mr. Fillon resigned from board seats at two Russian companies. It seems that he did not consider the 2014 invasion of Crimea to be a barrier to assuming the positions.

Individuals drawn to this culture found solace in the idea that France’s tropisme russe was the result of a unique cultural understanding rather than being harmful or filthy. The Russian ambassador to Paris at the time, Alexandre Orlov, entertained Paris’ elite for over ten years starting in 2008 and oversaw the building of a gleaming Russian Orthodox cathedral on the left bank of the Seine. The prologue to Mr. Orlov’s memoirs, which were published in 2020, was written by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the Académie Française’s “perpetual secretary.” She said that reading his book will enable people to comprehend “the chaos” experienced by Soviet Russians at the time of their nation’s dissolution.

Of course, competing geopolitical strands clash in France’s raucous political discussion as much as in the quiet corners of the diplomatic service. There is neither universal nor overpowering affection for Russia. As Russia invaded Crimea, outgoing president and socialist François Hollande canceled a deal for France to provide two Mistral-class warships to Moscow. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who visits every battlefield and irons every white shirt, has long encouraged France to take more action against Russian aggression in Ukraine; his most recent film, “Slava Ukraini,” will be released on February 22.

Even France’s post-war narrative of strategic parity between the United States and the Soviet Union contains some fantasy. “Geopolitical infatuation for Russia is partially recreated with hindsight,” says Benjamin Haddad, one of Emmanuel Macron’s lawmakers, noting that Charles de Gaulle stood with his transatlantic friends during a crisis. According to studies, three-fifths of French respondents have a favorable impression of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, whereas less than one in ten say the same about Vladimir Putin.

This is the context in which Mr. Macron’s diplomacy in France should be seen. The newly elected Mr. Macron extended his first grand invitation to Mr. Putin to Versailles, where Peter the Great had traveled, while praising “the Russia that wishes to open up to Europe.” The moderate French president believed more than any other European leader that he could convince Mr. Putin not to start a conflict, despite the fact that he had positioned tanks along the Ukrainian border and that American spies had warned of an impending assault. Almost alone, Mr. Macron saw a day when Russia would be included into a “new European security architecture” in order to prevent it from entangling itself with China. Over time, the unimaginable atrocities of Mr. Putin’s war—the invasion, the killings, the bombing of people and children—have compelled the French president to experience a type of grief. His charm campaign was a resounding failure.

For Mr. Macron, this is a crucial time. He continues to pay attention to both the customary voices of caution and moderation and the voices of those pleading with him to adopt a more proactive stance on Ukraine and to shatter whatever illusions he may have about a Russian future. His attempt to understand the complexities of war and peace will undoubtedly result in further uncertainty. Despite not having talked to Mr. Putin since September 2022, the French president claims that the channels are still open. He was talking about post-war “security guarantees” for Russia just two months prior. Mr. Macron aspires to be a peace mediator at the negotiation table as well as a supporter of Ukraine in conflict.

Nevertheless, Macron hasn’t sounded as unambiguous in recent weeks, saying that France is backing Ukraine “all the way to victory” and supplying an increasing amount of heavy weapons—though, unlike many of his friends, he hasn’t yet promised combat tanks. On February 8, when he arrived in Paris by plane from London for dinner, Mr. Zelensky himself declared in Le Figaro, “I think he has changed, and this time for real.” Who should be at the airport for a conversation the next morning when the two presidents boarded the French presidential jet destined for Brussels except the white-shirted Mr. Lévy? Mr. Macron is listening. Yet in the end, he serves as his own advisor in all issues, even diplomacy. Even while it might be unrealistic to expect the French president to completely lose his interest in Russia, he is making progress.

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