PARIS—Russian President Vladimir Putin, the wily KGB veteran, the intruder into the West’s democratic elections, the smug defender of dictators and would-be ally of Donald Trump, looked like he wanted to hide behind the curtains in the Hall of Battles at Versailles.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is only 39 years old and took office just two weeks ago, was calm, cool, collected, and in complete control at their joint press conference Monday afternoon. He talked about the need for dialogue. But he didn’t hesitate for a second to state bluntly and publicly the priorities of France defending Western ideals, Western democracy, and, when it came down to specifics, he took firm positions on everything from Syria and Ukraine to LGBT rights in Chechnya, as well as the need to defend civil society in Russia.
Which is not to say that Macron was undiplomatic. At every turn—almost—he offered a way for Putin to save face by saying that where they differed there is nonetheless a continuing conversation. Even when asked about Russian attempts to influence the French elections by hacking the Macron campaign, Macron said that was something they had spoken about when Putin called him to congratulate him after his victory on May 7. “Now we are moving ahead,” said Macron.
But when asked why, as The Daily Beast was the first to report in April, the Macron campaign banned from its offices reporters for RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, two of Putin’s pet state-funded media, Macron didn’t hesitate a moment:
“Russia Today and Sputnik have been tools of influence, and they spread untruths about my person and my campaign,” said Macron. “On that point I’m not going to give an inch. Russia Today and Sputnik did not behave like organs of the press and of journalism, but as organs of lying propaganda.”
Putin may have been expecting the fresh-faced French president to give him a warmer welcome. The invitation to come to France and open an exhibit at the Palace of Versailles devoted to the visit of Peter the Great three centuries ago was extended only two weeks back, after Macron became president. The two leaders had not expected to meet until the G20 in Germany in July. But Putin jumped at the chance to take the measure of the ingenue head of state.
He probably could not have anticipated—few people had—that Macron would grow so quickly into his job: wowing the cameras and his counterparts at the G7 in Sicily last week; exploiting a death-grip handshake with Trump by telling a reporter there was nothing “innocent” about it; and strolling through the streets of Taormina with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the image of new (very un-Trumpian) global leadership.
And now this.
Even when Macron made his introductory remarks about the exhibit at Versailles, he took a shot at the aggressive defensiveness of Putin’s attempt to rebuild an empire in spite of European opposition, and to weaken Europe at every opportunity. Peter the Great, said Macron, was the “symbol of a Russia that wanted to open up to Europe.”
Macron, ignoring Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in the early 19th century, said that since Peter the Great’s visit to Paris and Versailles in 1717, the dialogue between the two countries has gone on for 300 years.
Then Macron got down to substance. “On Syria, I have reminded President Putin of what our priorities are,” he said, starting with those general principles on which they can agree: the need to fight terrorism and eradicate ISIS; the desire to “preserve the Syrian state” and open the way to a democratic transition. There was no insistence, as there had been with Macron’s predecessor, that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go. But that was implied, and may have been explicit in private.
Then Macron drew what he called two very clear “red lines”: use of chemical weapons, which would invite “immediate retaliation”; and any effort to impede humanitarian corridors to besieged populations.
On Ukraine, Macron talked about new negotiations, but made it clear his core concern right now is a “de-escalation” of the conflict instead of, as many expect, a summer offensive by one or both sides.
Macron also said he’d reminded Putin of the importance of civil society in Russia, and of human rights, including those of LGBT people in Chechnya who have been put in what some human rights activists describe as concentration camps.
Looking around at the dozens of enormous paintings of France’s most famous battles in the 18th and 19th centuries, Macron cited them as proof of what happens when dialogue fails.
Putin clearly was chafing as he listened, and also when he spoke. Alluding indirectly to the sanctions against Russia imposed after it subverted and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, he noted that 500 French companies are operating in his country and none have left. He mentioned the dangers posed by North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, which Macron had not talked about.
Where Syria was concerned, Putin said his position was known: “It is impossible to fight terrorism by destabilizing a state”—a reason to keep Assad, although he didn’t say so in so many words.
Once reporters started asking questions, the scene heated up. “Meddling in elections?” Putin declared that he and Macron hadn’t spoken about that and Macron was not interested, “So as far as I am concerned the question doesn’t exist.” To which Macron made it clear that they had indeed spoken about that issue two weeks ago, and “moving ahead” does not mean he has forgotten for a moment what went on.
Putin got especially incensed when asked about the obvious support he gave to Macron rival Marine Le Pen, a quasi-fascist ultra-nationalist he received at the Kremlin during the French presidential campaign. He claimed that was perfectly natural since he supported many of the same things that she did, such as national sovereignty (and by implication the destruction of the European Union). She had also been supportive of Russia, he said. (By supporting the annexation of Crimea, in fact.)
Putin said those were the reasons he received Le Pen, not because of any illusion that she might actually win. He and his people read the polls, he said. They were not “children.”
But what Putin could not get around was the fact that he had in fact very publicly backed a loser, his cyber-agents of one description and another had hacked the winner, and he and his policies had failed spectacularly—at least in France.
Of course, much can go wrong with a presidency. This is very, very early in Macron’s term, and he has five years to go. But for a demoralized Europe that only weeks ago seemed to be struggling to defend basic values and clinging to the frumpy charisma of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron is like a shot of adrenaline; a model of youthful energy who appears able, indeed, to put the wunder in wunderkind.