MOSCOW—Readers of the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda must have thought Russian President Vladimir Putin a very brave man to visit French President Emmanuel Macron at Versailles on Monday. They would have found out just after Macron’s election on May 7 that the new head of state is “a psychopath.”
Given the publication’s penchant for the prurient, also reflected in the pre-election coverage of Macron by state-funded RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, readers would have learned Macron “at the age of 15 was sexually abused by his teacher, who at the time was 39 years old.”
(That Macron fell in love with and many years later married his high school drama teacher, Brigitte Macron, is a fact that no one disputes. She is his constant companion and a key advisor. As for the sex, this is France: nobody much cares if, when, or how that began.)
The Russian tabloid also regaled readers with correspondent Darya Aslamova’s observations on the streets of Paris, filled with black people dealing drugs, it would seem, where she discovered at the newsstands Garçon, a magazine for gays. Macron graced the cover, buff and shirtless, with the headline “Coming Out.” That the photograph was an obvious Photoshop pastiche, and the article a bit of rather winsome wishful thinking, was nowhere noted.
In fact, the Komsomolskaya Pravda piece was a crystallization of the vituperation that pro-Kremlin Russian media had been leveling at Macron throughout a presidential campaign in which he was the only one of four major candidates who was not enthusiastically, and in some cases slavishly, pro-Moscow.
He was also the only one, it appears, targeted by the massive hacking operations of the Russian-speaking technicians known as “Fancy Bear,” which also hit the U.S. Democratic National Committee last year.
All of which led Macron to ban the correspondents of Sputnik and RT from his campaign headquarters after he won the first round of the presidential election on April 23.
At the press conference in Versailles, Macron said those issues had been addressed in private with Putin, and it was time to move on. But when he was asked point blank about the ban on those two Russian media, he answered point blank as well: “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’s organs, in fact.
So the reaction of the pro-Kremlin press after the conference was, if anything, predictable. Margarita Simonian, editor-in-chief of Sputnik and RT, was quoted by the French-language edition of Sputnik: “According to [Macron’s] logic all Western media should be chased out of Russia, because absolutely all the Western media are against Putin and campaign for the opposition, and are certainly looking in this way to intervene in our elections.”
Which brings us to an interesting point: a sense among some Russians that Putin’s performance at Versailles was so conspicuously poor—that he seemed so far off his game—that his image might suffer heading into next year’s presidential elections.
The Putin at Monday’s 40-minute-long press conference was not the same man Russians are used to seeing at public appearances. At 64, he’s a quarter century older than Macron, 39, and he looked lost and frustrated next to the outspoken French president, who has only been in office a little over two weeks. Many in Moscow were trying to figure out what exactly went wrong. Some compared the press conference to a boxing match, as if Putin were punch drunk.
The encounter was “very different from the ones we’ve been used to for a long time,” Moscow’s popular Snob magazine said in the title of its lead article on Monday, concluding that Putin was “unloved” in Paris.
The article listed the attacks on Putin by the French leader, including Macron’s opening statement that “pointed out” to Putin what France expected from the Russian President in regard to a cessation of violent attacks on LGBT people in Chechnya.
“I might be mistaken but nobody has given any orders to Putin before,” wrote the article’s author, Ilya Milshtein.
Putin’s face expressed his frustration, almost sadness, when Macron made it clear that France would bomb Syria on its own if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons again. And during Macron’s riff about RT and Sputnik, Putin looked like he wanted to be just about anywhere but there in the Hall of Battles at Versailles.
During the elections the Kremlin openly supported Macron’s rival Marine Le Pen. Putin received her in Moscow in March and the two showed a good deal of mutual admiration.
“We are ready to receive any person, always,” Putin said at Versailles. “If
Ms. Le Pen asked us for a meeting, why were we supposed to turn her
down?” He also praised her for her consistent attempts to stay friends with Moscow. “It would have been strange on our behalf to push away those political leaders in Europe who want to develop multi-faceted cooperation with Russia.” And it was obvious, he suggested, that the polls had predicted Le Pen would lose anyway.
But as a matter of fact at that point in the four-way race, exactly a month before the first round of voting, the final outcome was far from clear, and nobody has forgotten that Russia’s favorite in the U.S. elections, Donald Trump, was behind in the polls, too, until he won with Russian support.
In France, says Dmitry Gudkov, a former member of the Russian parliament, “Our diplomacy lost the competition when Macron won—and Putin visited France representing the loser. Putin felt that he was an isolated stranger in the West.”
“When we see Putin and Macron together,” Gudkov, an opposition leader, told The Daily Beast, “we see the past and the future—he was not the main leader at that press conference.”
Official Moscow chose one word to describe Macron’s treatment of Putin: “pragmatism.”
On the eve of the press conference Senator Aleksei Pushkov, responsible for information policy at the Federation Council (upper house of parliament) tweeted that Putin’s invitation to France symbolized the end of Russia’s isolation by the European Union: “Obama’s policy died quietly,” Pushkov declared.
After the press conference Pushkov tweeted drily: “Macron’s pragmatism, which everybody talked about during Putin’s visit, will be challenged by experience,” Pushkov said. “Pragmatism demands better relations with Russia.”
Some publications had predicted problems as soon as Macron was elected. The Russian nationalist website Ruspravda headlined, “Macron can spoil Putin’s long time planning.” All the Kremlin’s hopes were crushed with Le Pen’s defeat, the article declared in a memorable mixed metaphor: “It so happens that one ‘ugly duckling’ named Macron can save the European Union by spoiling the playing cards for the ideologists of Putin’s world order, which is based on national sovereignty.”
But President Putin still traveled to Paris to mark 300 years since the Russian Tsar Peter the Great visited France.
How long will Putin’s world order survive and what will happen to it after next year’s presidential elections—those are the main questions Russians ask these days, because they impact daily life.
“When we look at the real economic situation in Russia, we want to cry; to recover it, Russia desperately needs social and political reforms,” Aleksei Kozlov, a businessman in the construction sector said in an interview for The Daily Beast.
Kozlov did not see any reasons to feel optimistic when he spoke about next year’s presidential elections. “Judging by the latest news, the repressive vector that the Kremlin chose in 2012 will continue,” he said with a sigh. “Big business, including billionaires Oleg Deribaska, who asked the U.S. for immunity, and Alisher Usmanov do not feel themselves secure—after Nemtsov was murdered and several high level officials went to jail, the old Kremlin’s deal with ‘untouchables’ seems to have fallen to pieces,” Kozlov said.
Meanwhile, Moscow is still in shock after the Russian Investigative Committee came to search the Gogol Center, a contemporary theater popular among the Russian elite, and summoned the center’s director, Kirill Serebrennikov, for questioning.
Dozens of Russian celebrities signed letters of support for Serebrennikov.
The incident was a reminder that, as frustrated as many people may be with Putin, there are potential replacements who could be far worse, which is why even his critics are disturbed to see him appear as he did at Versailles.
“Russia’s future might turn out much darker than Putin’s regime, if somebody like the conservative parliament speaker Vyacheskav Volodin and law enforcement agencies make a deal to take power,” Gurkov told The Daily Beast. “Yes, compared to Macron, Putin looks like the archaic past, but at least Putin can tolerate criticism. If Volodin, one of Putin’s potential successors, comes to power, nobody in the Kremlin will tolerate attacks and criticism.”
An adviser to the presidential administration, Sergei Markov, has no doubt that Putin will run in next year's presidential elections and win another six-year term.
Putin's strategy, says Markov, will be focused on restoring the relations with European Union.
"Putin thinks of some European politicians as naughty boys who betray their people," Markov said of the former KGB officer. "But he is a spy and as a spy he works with all people, even those, who are far from ideal."
Anna Nemtsova reported this story from Moscow; Christopher Dickey from Paris.