Emmanuel Macron Challenges Putin on Syria and Gay Rights
France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, came out of his first meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Monday with a message of stark challenge, promising French military reprisals for any use of chemical weapons by Russia’s allies in Syria and saying he would closely monitor the curtailing of civil rights for gay people in Chechnya.
Against the gilded backdrop of the Palace of Versailles, Mr. Macron and Mr. Putin pledged to work with each other to fight terrorism. But their body language was at times tense, and the sometimes confrontational tone of the meeting was made clear in Mr. Macron’s comments afterward during a joint news conference, where he signaled his intent to play a forceful role on the global stage and not be cowed by other world leaders.
With Mr. Putin standing beside him, he accused two news organizations with ties to Russia of acting as “organs of influence” rather than as true outlets for journalism. And he publicly warned the Russian leader that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for France. “The use of chemical weapons by anyone will be the object of reprisals and immediate retaliation on the part of France,” he said.
Mr. Putin has strongly backed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose forces have been accused of using chemical weapons as recently as April. The Russian president did not respond directly to Mr. Macron’s implicit challenge.
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Mr. Macron made a point of opening the news conference by summarizing the long cultural ties between the two countries in literature, culture and philosophy and by noting that “no essential issue can be handled today without talking with Russia.”
The meeting was Mr. Macron’s first with the Russian leader, and he appeared intent on introducing himself as a new factor for Russia to take into consideration on the European stage. It was also a chance for Mr. Macron to show France and the rest of Europe what kinds of issues will matter to him in international relations.
Mr. Macron, who was elected three weeks ago, recently returned from his first meeting with NATO and Group of 7 leaders, but in those meetings he was part of a larger group and the agenda was collective. On Monday, he appeared set on opening discussions on a variety of topics, including Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria.
For his part, Mr. Putin appeared to want to re-establish the relatively warm relations the two countries have had in the past and to use the meeting as an opportunity to underscore Russia’s position in a number of policy areas. Not least of those is its demand for lifting European economic sanctions against Russia that were put in place after the annexation of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine.
Responding to a question about sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, Mr. Putin answered, “These sanctions do not contribute at all to settling the crisis in Ukraine.”
“Only the abolition of all restrictions, a free market and free competition unburdened by political considerations can help develop the world economy,” he said, urging “an end to all limitations on international exchanges.”
Despite the sometimes tough tone of the news conference, Mr. Macron received Mr. Putin with all the usual formalities: When Mr. Putin opened the door of his black limousine in the vast Versailles courtyard, as the formally dressed French Republican guard — in gold-braid decorated uniforms — stood at attention, Mr. Macron came down the red carpet to the car to greet him.
Helicopters hovered overhead, a reminder of the high security around the event.
The two leaders exchanged a businesslike handshake and had serious expressions as they sat down to talk. Much of Mr. Macron’s account of their conversation — putting aside their lengthy comments on Peter the Great’s visit to Versailles in 1717 — suggested that he had stuck to his stated plan of pushing the Russians in areas where Mr. Putin’s policies are at odds with those of European Union countries.
Mr. Macron had plenty of reasons for personal animus toward Russia. Reports by cybersecurity firms found that groups tied to Russia had targeted his campaign in a hacking attack, and rumors about him were disseminated by Russian-allied news outlets.He chose to put the issue behind him, saying it had already been discussed and he was not in the habit of revisiting topics.
Mr. Putin quashed the issue even more emphatically. “For what is called Russian interference in the elections of this or that country, it was not a question that we took up: The French president did not manifest any interest, and me, even less,” he said.
However, Mr. Macron minced no words when it came to responding to a question about why his campaign had shut out two Russian-associated news organizations, Russia Today and Sputnik.
Asked about why they did not have access to his campaign headquarters after the first round, Mr. Macron responded: “When press organs sow defamatory untruths, they are no longer journalists. They are organs of influence.”
He added, “Russia Today and Sputnik have been organs of influence during this campaign, which on many occasions produced untruths about me and my campaign, and so I determined that they had no place, I confirm it, in my headquarters.”
Russia Today’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, responded by saying, “It is disappointing that what started as a rather productive conversation between the leaders of the two countries turned into another opportunity for President Macron to levy baseless accusations against RT.”
She added, “By labeling any news reporting he disagrees with as fake news, President Macron sets a dangerous precedent that threatens both freedom of speech and journalism at large.”
On human rights, Mr. Macron said he had raised the troubles facing gay and transgender people in Chechnya as well as those of nongovernmental organizations.
Mr. Macron said that he had discussed the reports of collective punishment of gay men in Chechnya with Mr. Putin and that they had agreed on a “very regular monitoring” of the situation.
Mr. Macron said Mr. Putin had told him he had taken measures to “establish the complete truth on the activities of local authorities” in Chechnya, but he did not specify what those measures were. Chechnya is under the control of a pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov.
“As for me, I will be constantly vigilant on these issues, which are in keeping with our values,” Mr. Macron said.
Although he did not dispute Mr. Macron’s characterization, Mr. Putin did not mention gay people during the news conference.