Macron-Putin Meeting: Russophobia Souring Bilateral Relations and Jeopardizing Press Freedom in France

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Dimitri de Kochko

The meeting of the Russian President with his French counterpart has testified to certain changes for the better. First, the anti-Russian sanctions regime imposed by François Hollande looks increasingly likely to be lifted. In addition, for all the arrogance of the French president, several statements allow us to hope for improved bilateral relations. He believes that he has the right to lecture Russia on how it should run its affairs. The French media immediately described his behaviour as an attempt to see “the sumptuous setting of the Palace of Versailles take Vladimir Putin’s breath away”.

It is arrogance and extreme ignorance that seem to largely engender anti-Russian sentiment, Russophobia. They have effaced the memory that St. Petersburg, the Russian president’s native city where he has lived most of his life, is renowned for a range of Versailles-like palaces. And the French party naively tried to impress him by the surroundings…Vladimir Putin was still politeness itself and admired the palace to please the host. When it comes to Macron’s intention to teach him a lesson how to behave or to impose Enlightenment values on the Russian leader, it is Vladimir Putin, after all, who has been running a truly powerful state for seventeen years.

Several phrases, the ones which the media tend to snatch at so eagerly, were in short supply this time, but they still allow us to detect some positive trends. First, Macron hinted at possible joint operations to combat terrorism in the weeks to come. Second, he recognized the “threat posed by the failed states” in the Middle East region. Lastly, while he was dwelling on chemical weapons in his usual bragging manner, he, nevertheless, clarified “the use of chemical weapons by whomever”. These words point to the evolving trend in French politics, a sea-change from unsubstantiated allegations against the Syrian government troops made by Jean-Marc Ayrault without full investigation.

When it comes to the Ukrainian issue, Angela Merkel has recently called for resuming the four-way “Normandy format” negotiations. She even refrained from scapegoating Russia for violating the Minsk agreements. These breaches, in fact, have nothing to do with Russia. To streamline the interaction, a suggestion to create a civil society forum and a Franco-Russian cooperation forum was put forward at the meeting to produce the announcement effect. The latter is expected to copy the German-Russian interaction model and could also include a department to promote ties between young people from the two states.

On the whole, the ambitious pragmatism of the new French leader gives grounds for optimism. The PR campaign in the run-up to the parliamentary elections and the aftermath of the marketing strategy employed prior to the recent presidential elections point to Macron’s eagerness to revive the idea of French sovereignty, which is reminiscent of de Gaulle and Mitterrand. The French engagement in the military operation in Yugoslavia tarnished Mitterrand’s reputation, with his name gradually falling into oblivion.

However, one can hardly imagine General de Gaulle losing his composure in public and neglecting diplomatic proprieties at a press conference only to verbally assault Russia Today and Sputnik, two Russian outlets which like all other international agencies, employ journalists from all over the world.

Russia Today and Sputnik are state-owned media outlets targeting an international audience, which are very much like American, French, British, or German news channels. They cover the news for its large global viewership in a similar way and are, in essence, “agents of influence” just like them. One should get familiarized with this source of information instead of jumping to conclusions. Labelling the two Russian media outlets as merely channels for propaganda is a worrisome simplification. This is especially true for those who are familiar with the Western and especially French media which write or broadcast for an international audience. Numerous French magazines, newspapers, TV channels, and radio stations, including state-owned ones – enjoying themselves on the taxpayers’ dime – constantly produce extremely biased reports about Russia. It would be unfair to demand objectivity if our own media suffer from the same disease.

Such outbursts of anger on the part of the newly-elected president are somewhat worrying. Their inappropriate and hypocritical character was glaringly apparent during the meeting between the two leaders, with the Western media conducting a slander campaign against the Russian president over the recent years, demonizing him, and telling barefaced lies about him to bring him into discredit. In contrast, even the least benevolent comments about Macron published by Russia Today were flattering. The mass media, which go out of their way to vilify and discredit Putin, are state-owned. Consequently, they can be adequately called “the Elysée Palace’s agents”, just like Russia Today and Sputnik were blasted as “the Kremlin’s agents of influence and propaganda”. Despite their once fruitful work in Russia, nowadays private media outlets, one of the French riches, similarly distort the country’s image and express anti-Russian sentiments.

To sound more diplomatic and polite, Macron should have expressed his intention to deescalate the information war to prevent assaults on the communication channels. Actually, the French President failed to provide any evidence that Russia’s media disseminated inaccurate information. Moreover, one cannot ignore the fact that Russia Today and Sputnik like other media organizations represent entirely legitimate outlets articulating the interests of a major power. Given the world’s media landscape, they adequately respond to other states’ soft power. In fact, the French media rallied behind Emmanuel Macron. They never launched any investigation into his candidacy or the record of his team in contrast to the careful study of his main rivals’ profiles. Given this fact, the French leadership must have been discontent with Russia’s media unveiling what other journalists preferred to ignore. This could have infuriated Macron so much that he barred the reporters from commenting on the “En Marche!” campaign.

Not only does it reveal Macron’s heavy reliance on the Euro-Atlantic vision promoting the Cold War logic, but it is also evidence of quite strong anti-Russian pressure groups, with every acolyte coming with their own price tag. As part of the price, one can undoubtedly cite constant reports about persecuting homosexuals in Chechnya and the chastisement of Russia’s media organizations. Incidentally, the former is based on the only source to mount a massive issue-related campaign.

Russia seems to be sympathetic about the issue and the newly elected president’s stresses and strains even though Vladimir Putin touched upon far more important economic items of the bilateral agenda. If the same information trend, however, persists, it may eventually thwart fence-mending efforts.

At the same time, lambasting Russia’s media outlets is far more serious. In fact, President Macron appropriated the right to distinguish between real and fake journalism, while some correspondents were merely barred from doing their job on the ground of their hostility. This threatens France’s freedom of the press and speech.

Should politicians or any other public figure begin to ban displeasing news making, this will reek of Le Penism rather than Macronism that we know of from the mainstream media. Following the offensive remarks about Russia Today and Sputnik, we see journalists being handpicked to cover the presidential trip to Mali and the Élysée Palace’s work. Finally, when it came to the media inquiry into Richard Ferrand and his health insurance fund, Macron’s team represented by Christophe Castaner, the government’s spokesperson, was quick to regrettably announce that “the press is trying to replace the court”. He could have given the same statement about François Fillon’s case, where Ferrand, by the way, played a special role of a white knight, moralist, and mentor.

French counterparts of Russia Today and Sputnik reporters were wrong when they – contented with latent Russophobia or subjected to pressure – turned a blind eye to the attacks on the media, whatever the attitude taken. Besides all the measures and statements, the new autocratic and intolerant leader presents another threat to France’s freedom of the press, as he is accustomed to unanimous media praise.

However, the resulting danger looming for journalism is compounded by public distrust of the large media corporations that continue to expand their global footprints. This prompts French citizens to opt for alternative communication channels such as Russia Today, with their documentary on neglected issues attracting far closer attention. This competition enables Internet-users and TV viewers to compare the perspectives and broaden their horizons. Can a wider alternative media audience account for Macron’s heavy-handed decision? Does the step constitute an attempt to infringe on our right to information? It presumably displays alertness or vigilance. Still, anti-Russian hysteria could provide some pretext for the encroachment on the rights and freedoms of French citizens.

Photo: © RIA / Alexey Nikolskiy

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