France’s Auto­cri­tique of Its “Russia First, Ukraine Second” Policy

Foto: Imago Images

French policy towards Russia was based on self-serving delusions that led to dangerous failures and exac­er­bated Putin’s paranoia. The West needs to overhaul its policies and build a strong security system in Europe and beyond, writes Marie Mendras.

This paper is part of our Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia. Its publi­ca­tion was supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Lesen Sie dieses Paper auf Deutsch! Download the PDF Version of this paper.

What did we get wrong? This is a daunting question for the govern­ments of France, Germany and several other European countries. When the Ukrainians are liberated from Russian occu­pa­tion and start recon­structing their country and their lives, it will be high time for us to engage in a serious overhaul of our concep­tion and practice of security-keeping on our continent. We will need to define a common strategy toward a defeated state and a despon­dent society in the Feder­a­tion of Russia. Only with a thorough analysis of wrong assess­ments and failed policies shall we be able to build a strong, compre­hen­sive security system in Europe and beyond.

Portrait von Marie Mendras

Dr Marie Mendras is a professor at Sciences Po and a researcher with the National Center for Scien­tific Research in Paris.

Self-serving delusions at the expense of European security

In Germany, as Ulrich Speck under­lines in his paper, the illusion was to “modernize” Russia. In France, the illusion was to build a new “security archi­tec­ture” with Russia that would coun­ter­bal­ance American power and prop up our political lead­er­ship in Europe. Both ambitions were out of reach and danger­ously miscon­ceived because they presup­posed that Vladimir Putin was eager to meet them.

The posture was ambiva­lent and contra­dic­tory: to carry out an exhausting dialogue of attrition with Putin and defend our economic interests and energy imports, while at the same time imposing more sanctions against Russian top economic actors. This combi­na­tion led to a blatant failure in smart deter­rence. Worse, we exac­er­bated Putin’s obses­sions and contra­dic­tions. The Russian leader assumed that Europe was weak and subju­gated to US ambitions, yet a devilish enemy that directly threat­ened his own power and “sphere of priv­i­leged interest”.

We exac­er­bated the man’s paranoia, as he misread most of our messages as manip­u­la­tion, or weakness of purpose. For instance, in 2019–20, when the French President was urging the Russian leader to talk to his Ukrainian coun­ter­part and come to some compro­mise in Donbas, he rein­forced Putin’s belief that Paris was ready to see Ukraine stay under Moscow’s partial occu­pa­tion and control. The Macron-Putin meeting at Fort de Brégançon in late August 2019 was followed by the unsuc­cessful Normandy Format summit in Paris over the Minsk agreement on 9 December. In March-April 2021, Putin set up a big war scare with 100,000 men and heavy weapons deployed at the border with Ukraine.[1]

Emmanuel Macron was never candid about Vladimir Putin’s eagerness to fight on foreign soil. He holds a big grudge against the Wagner merce­naries in fran­cophone Africa, notably Mali, where they have pushed out the French anti-terrorist Barkhane mission. In an interview on 19 November 2022 in Tunisia, Emmanuel Macron denounced a “predatory project” that combined disin­for­ma­tion and armed disrup­tion: “A number of powers, who want to spread their influence in Africa, are doing this to hurt France, hurt its language, sow doubts, but above all pursue certain interests.” France’s influence in Africa has dimin­ished in recent decades.

Never­the­less, the French President wanted to convince Putin not to wage a full war against Ukraine. Before and after the Russian aggres­sion of 24 February 2022, he invested much of his time and authority in lengthy dialogues of the deaf with his Russian coun­ter­part. Even after the horrific crimes in Bucha and elsewhere, the destruc­tion of hospitals and resi­den­tial buildings, he was hoping to maintain a line of commu­ni­ca­tion with the Kremlin and would not set up a date to visit Kyiv.

On 10–11 March 2022, Emmanuel Macron convened his European partners at the Versailles Palace. The final decla­ra­tion did not mention arms deliv­eries to Ukraine, nor the possi­bility of granting EU candidate status to Ukraine. Macron proposed a “waiting room” alter­na­tive, a European Political Community composed of the 27 plus 14 neighbors, including Turkey.[2] A few weeks later, he reversed his position. In Mid-June, he traveled to Ukraine with the German Chan­cellor, the Italian Prime Minister and the President of Romania. And on 23 June, a week before the end of the French EU pres­i­dency, all 27 countries voted to give candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. Around the same time, Finland and Sweden confirmed their will to join NATO.

Emmanuel Macron’s path

France’s ambiva­lent position cannot be merely explained by pressure from indus­trial lobbies, conser­v­a­tive media, or pressing demands from segments of the political spectrum to “go back to normal” (Retour à la normale). As early as March 2022, it was crystal clear that no business as usual would ever be possible with Putin’s men, some of them already suspected of war crimes. Most companies had left Russia, all univer­sity exchanges had stopped, and most European and North American expa­tri­ates had gone home.

Pres­i­den­tial and legisla­tive elections may explain in part Emmanuel Macron’s wavering attitude. On 24 April, he was reelected in a runoff against Marine Le Pen. But two weeks earlier, 55 per cent had given their vote to a “Putin-friendly” candidate.[3] On 16 June, a new National Assembly was elected. The “pres­i­den­tial majority”, composed of several parties, failed to secure a majority of seats.

In mid-October 2022 Emmanuel Macron was asked in a TV interview whether he would continue to reach out to Vladimir Putin. He replied that the time will come to “sit around a table” and negotiate with Russia — on Ukraine’s watch. But this was a contra­dic­tion in terms, as President Zelenskyy had clearly stated his position: peace talks will start with a new Russian govern­ment, when the whole of Ukraine is liberated and war repa­ra­tions are on the table. A week earlier in Prague, the French president had spoken more posi­tively about the European allies’ total support to Ukraine until the aggressor is defeated. This is telling about the different message to a domestic audience, which the Elysée — rightly or wrongly — believes is eager for an end to the war, even if Ukraine remains partly occupied.

Macron still clings to this “yes, but” posture, similar to Olaf Scholz’s attitude. In September-November 2022, the official message from Paris and Berlin was in a nutshell: “Yes, Ukraine must win the war and regain its terri­to­rial integrity, but Russia should not be humil­i­ated. Yes, Europeans must support Ukraine, but we cannot weaken “national defense” by sending too many of our weapons.” Yet, both govern­ments have increased arms deliv­eries that the Ukrainian military badly needs to fight back and protect its popu­la­tion and infra­struc­ture. The emergency of war should take prece­dence over ambiguous political narra­tives, which continue to permeate domestic politics and media coverage.

Why trust an author­i­tarian leader who has long demon­strated his propen­sity to go to war?

“Of course, we do not trust Putin”, Elysée Palace officials would respond in private to jour­nal­ists and experts. But Emmanuel Macron remained confident that he could convince the autocrat to make a deal. He was not fully alerted to Vladimir Putin’s inca­pacity to listen, negotiate, or think ratio­nally. It took a good six months before the French govern­ment started to speak of “Putin’s criminal war”, rather than “Russia’s aggres­sion”. This was the long-awaited step toward acknowl­edging the leader’s ille­git­i­macy, rogue methods, and criminal aims.

On 30 November 2022, The French National Assembly voted a historic reso­lu­tion that sets France’s position very clearly, condemns Russia’s crime of aggres­sion and calls for full support to Ukraine.[4] On the same day, the French Govern­ment confirmed its engage­ment to implement the European Commission’s decision to create a Special Tribunal to judge Russia’s “crimes of aggres­sion”.[5]

Why such a late awakening to Putin’s brutal methods and unhidden obsession to anni­hi­late Ukraine? There had been many signs of unre­al­istic propo­si­tions wrapped up in a revengeful discourse coming from the Kremlin. The political and military esca­la­tion during the year 2021 culmi­nated in the aggres­sive “treaties” delivered by the Kremlin to the US and NATO in December 2021, that called for immediate demil­i­ta­riza­tion of Eastern European member states, and a commit­ment by Ukraine to never join NATO. By that time, the US had warned its European allies that Russia was actively preparing for war.

Encour­aged by the French and German lenient attitudes, Putin was led to believe that he could fool them around because of their irre­press­ible desire to come to some agreement with him. And he repeated his lie to whomever would listen: “Russia will not invade Ukraine”. A good number of French decision-makers wanted to believe that Ukraine belonged to the Russian world, culture, space, language, and “histor­ical post-imperial sphere”. It was conve­nient for them not to care for the security and well-being of Ukrainians, Belarus­sians, Armenians, Georgians. Not to get involved directly was the motto. It would appease the Kremlin’s men, who would stop fearing foreign influence in their former republics.

Worse, many influ­en­tial politi­cians, “experts”, jour­nal­ists, busi­nessmen, simply dismissed Ukraine and its 45 million inhab­i­tants as a promising country, that could bring much benefit to Europe if it could make its way to full inde­pen­dence, good gover­nance, economic pros­perity together with its western neighbors. Political parties from left to right have not done a serious auto­cri­tique about Putin’s Russia. But positions are moving. During a debate at the National Assembly on 11 October 2022, the left-wing party La France insoumise supported the Ecol­o­gists’ call for the govern­ment to augment aid and arms deliv­eries to Ukraine.

The good news is that public opinion is over­whelm­ingly in support of Ukraine and welcoming refugees. Macron’s ambiva­lent discourse unitl October 2022 did not meet much public under­standing, as people were confused about what to expect from Moscow, and what would happen if parts of Ukraine remained perma­nently under Russian occupation.

Old habits, new problems

The war against Ukraine has shattered the unstable balance that char­ac­ter­ized the French strategy toward Putin’s Russia. In retro­spect, it is aston­ishing that the final wake-up call needed be the full-scale aggres­sion of a large country in Europe, and the system­atic destruc­tion of civilian buildings, schools, hospitals and vital infrastructure.

Pres­i­dents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy were “friends of Vladimir” and attended his birthday parties. Their successor François Hollande never shared this inad­e­quate person­al­iza­tion of relations with the Kremlin leader. Yet, he did not initiate a thorough – and much needed – revis­iting of the Paris-Moscow rela­tion­ship. President Macron wanted to believe that Putin was a reason­able man, and that he would go along with a pragmatic policy of dialogue.[6]

For years, the “economy first” posture of France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and other govern­ments, contrasted with the “security first” position of the British, Balts, Finns and Poles. Among the latter, the consensus was simple: Putin’s dicta­tor­ship conduced to war, and war meant more arbitrary rule and excep­tional powers for the siloviki (the military, security services and all other agencies autho­rised to use force) and for Putin himself. Their strategic under­standing and vision proved absolutely right.

From early 2021 to the present, the French President has been strug­gling with the Russia-Ukraine issue at a time of disaf­fec­tion from many French to his pres­i­dency, and very low popu­larity of his party. In a 2020 analysis for the Center of Liberal Modernity, I under­lined the miscon­cep­tions in Paris about the benefits of a close rela­tion­ship with Moscow, despite the dangerous nature of Putin’s regime. The French political and indus­trial elites tend to have a soft spot for imperial history, big states, strong leaders, military power, and national “rayon­nement”, i.e. the outreach of the French language, culture, mode de vie, and statist tradi­tions. This attitude blurred the under­standing of crude realities, and dangers to come. Also, there remains an under­lying distrust of the United States’ inten­tions, and of the American-British liberal concep­tion of “The West”.

Since the 1950s, French pres­i­dents have wanted their country to be a central state between East and West, the “balancing actor” between the two super­powers. They had a more positive attitude towards the European community than to NATO and its military structure. Moscow gladly played along the French reser­va­tions in the 1960s and 1970s, as it drove a wedge between Atlantic Alliance. Also, Paris has a lingering problem with its nuclear power status and member­ship in the UN Security Council Permanent Five. This dominant position nurtures a blindness to France’s real place in Europe and the world ‑France no longer is a primus inter pares in Europe- and a counter-produc­tive attitude of preserving a status rather than pushing for new thinking and reforms.

Like the other nuclear powers, the French author­i­ties have long evaded an urgent reassess­ment of the military factor and of nuclear deter­rence in national and inter­na­tional security. They are reluctant to recon­sider the very matter of security, which today encom­passes all domains of human existence and state protec­tion from subver­sion and cyber­at­tacks, economic and energy black­mails, inequal­i­ties and migra­tions, corrup­tion and transna­tional crim­i­nality, tyrannic and revan­chist regimes, merce­naries, and rogue armies. Maybe the Russian fast walk into a mili­ta­rized dicta­tor­ship has encour­aged us to cling to outdated models and strategies.

The shadow of Minsk

Even after the annex­a­tion of Crimea and occu­pa­tion by proxies of Eastern Donbas, the French govern­ment did not fully compre­hend the rules violation that led to dangerous inse­cu­rity in Ukraine and Europe. It took time for French politi­cians to accept that France had become a medium power which had to cooperate closely with other states in Europe. Russia’s inter­ven­tions in Crimea and Donbas in 2014 forced France to acknowl­edge Moscow’s toxic role in the former Soviet republics. At long last, Paris admitted that the security of Eastern European societies could not be trusted to the Kremlin, and that the EU and NATO had to endorse a major respon­si­bility in supporting demo­c­ratic, sovereign states in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azer­baijan. We had neglected the security of the in-between states, vulner­able to Moscow’s subver­sion and military inter­ven­tion. We lacked a smart analysis of the trajec­to­ries of the Baltic States, Poland, and other victims of Soviet brutal domi­na­tion during and after World War II, countries that joined NATO and the EU in 1999, 2004 and 2007, to the satis­fac­tion of all partners.

The French could have fared better as they were not as dependent as Germany on Russian gas. They could have pushed for a strategic overhaul of the EU energy strategy and, beyond gas procure­ment, a compre­hen­sive revision of European security in the face of an unre­li­able Russian regime. In 2017 at the Sorbonne, Emmanuel Macron gave an inspiring speech about the future of Europe. Unfor­tu­nately, domestic issues took their toll, and the French President gave way to short-term national concerns over common European challenges.

The US attitude toward the Minsk agreement was not helpful, as it created tensions between allies, notably Warsaw, Paris and Berlin. It should not be forgotten that Wash­ington did not wish to be part of the Donbas nego­ti­a­tions in 2014, and that France and Germany repre­sented the OSCE in Minsk.

The US factor

Succes­sive admin­is­tra­tions have not reassured French opinion and ruling circles about American policies. The Trump years were dismal for the Atlantic Alliance, US-EU relations, and other key issues like climate change and anti-terrorism. But already the Obama pres­i­dency was not helpful because European allies felt treated like a “second tier”. Also, the American approach based on the “prior­i­ti­za­tion” of problems according to national concerns compli­cated the framing of Western policies toward Russia, China, Middle Eastern countries. Europeans could not focus on China and leave Russia on the back burner. Nor could they adjust to Washington’s at times inco­herent involve­ment and disin­volve­ment from war-torn countries. In France, and probably more broadly in Europe, there is a sense that the US debacle in Afghanistan in 2021 worsened Moscow’s rest­less­ness to do battle and raised the stakes in Ukraine. One of Vladimir Putin’s vulner­a­bil­i­ties is that he has long hoped for an illusory Wash­ington that would reinstate him as a big statesman at the head of a revamped super­power, on par with the US. Like the French and German govern­ments, US admin­is­tra­tions share some respon­si­bility for Putin’s hare-brained military plans since the aftermath of the war in Georgia 2008 and his 2015 inter­ven­tion in Assad’s criminal war against the Syrian people.

A common platform for ending the war and securing Ukraine

This said about national agendas in France, Germany or the US, state policies no longer matter that much. We are beyond national and personal idio­syn­crasies. As German President Frank-Walter Stein­meier said after his visit to Kyiv in October: “A sham peace would only increase Putin’s hunger”. He publicly expressed what all other European leaders think. Consensus is strong. War is being waged in Europe, and more than fifty countries are supporting the Ukrainians in their resis­tance against the aggressor, and in their recon­struc­tion effort. Russia’s army and her merce­naries will be defeated. The question is when and how the defeat will happen, and what we can do to prepare the end and the afterward of the war.

Our common position must be clearly stated not to repeat the mistakes of the Minsk agree­ments. We will no longer tolerate a grey zone of inse­cu­rity between Russia and us. Ukraine, Moldova, Ukraine, and other in-between countries will not remain in a condition of weak sover­eignty that makes them hostage to the Kremlin.


First, we trust President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s strategy and demands. He is a first-class leader and his strategy has proven right.

Second, the Russian armed forces must leave the occupied and illegally annexed terri­to­ries and agree to an uncon­di­tional ceasefire.

Third, the Ukrainian author­i­ties will accept a nego­ti­a­tion format, and an agenda, including the question or repa­ra­tions paid by Moscow.

Fourth, the Russian author­i­ties will acknowl­edge their respon­si­bility in starting and waging the war and will accept inde­pen­dent inter­na­tional inves­ti­ga­tion into exactions and crimes.

Fifth, all efforts will be focused on Ukrainian recon­struc­tion and return of displaced people. The EU will work closely with Kyiv, Moldova and Georgia on their countries’ successful accession process, and support Belarus­sians and Armenians in their fight for their rights to a demo­c­ratic govern­ment. NATO will engage a process of enlarge­ment to Ukraine.

Sixth, we Europeans and Transat­lantic partners must prepare for a difficult post-war crisis and tran­si­tion period in the Russian Feder­a­tion. Europe will only be safe once that all Russians live in a rule-of-law state. We need a concerted policy towards the Russian alter­na­tive elites and society, inside and outside of the Federation.

Dr Marie Mendras is a professor at Sciences Po and a researcher with the National Center for Scien­tific Research in Paris.

[1] M. Mendras, « Chantage à la guerre en Ukraine », Esprit, May 2021.

[2] The first summit meeting of the European Political Community was held in Prague on 6 October, 2022.  Forty-four countries attended, including Turkey. By then, the political signif­i­cance of this community of states was dimin­ished, as the EU had granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in June.

[3] M. Mendras, « Voter avec la tête à l’endroit », Desk Russie Newsletter, 15 April 2022,

[4] « Réso­lu­tion no 39, affirmant le soutien de l’Assemblée nationale à l’Ukraine et condamnant la guerre menée par la Fédéra­tion de Russie », voted on 30 November 2022. One deputy from La France insoumise voted against, other deputies from the left-wing party abstained, together with the far-right Rassem­ble­ment National.


[6] To keep talking to Vladimir Putin was also Berlin’s position. See Sabine Fischer’s analysis:


This paper is published in the framework of the project „Russia and the West: Europe’s Post War Order and the Future of Relations with Russia“, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views are the author’s own.

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