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World

French President Macron's Planned Russia Visit Met With Skepticism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Emmanuel Macron used last month's visit to Washington to present himself as a European leader who's not afraid of President Trump's rough-and-tumble style of doing business. Now, the French president is visiting another leader with his own unique brand of politics, Russian President Vladimir Putin. NPR's Lucian Kim reports that Macron is being met with anticipation and also a good deal of skepticism.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Emmanuel Macron is in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin's hometown and the site of a glitzy annual forum showcasing the Russian economy. Since annexing Crimea four years ago, Putin is happy for every Western leader who stops by, and so the French president is a big catch.

TATIANA STANOVAYA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst in France, says the simple fact that Macron is in Saint Petersburg is important for the Kremlin because it raises Putin's stature on the global stage. The two men first met a year ago when Macron surprised Putin by inviting him to the Palace of Versailles outside Paris.

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KIM: It wasn't exactly the warmest meeting. Macron had just won an election, which the Kremlin made no secret of its support for his far-right opponent. Macron wanted to establish himself as a spokesman for Europe while Germany was focused on a general election and Britain preoccupied with exiting the European Union.

FYODOR LUKYANOV: He's trying to position France, again, as a global power - not a European power. And of course in this situation, contacts to Putin are pretty indispensable.

KIM: Fyodor Lukyanov is the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. He says Macron's ambition also explains his courting of Donald Trump.

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KIM: Last summer, Macron invited the American president to the annual Bastille Day parade in Paris and was rewarded with the first state visit by a foreign leader to the Trump White House in April. While Macron's political views are vastly different from those of both Trump or Putin, the progressive French president now has the ear of both the American and Russian leaders, a role that German Chancellor Angela Merkel used to play during the Obama administration.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

KIM: After a working dinner following his arrival, Macron thanked Putin for his hospitality by addressing him as dear Vladimir. Macron harked back to France's historical ties to Russia and emphasized his country's independent course in world politics. He accepted that what he called misunderstandings had crept into relations with Moscow, and said the two countries had to look to the future. Isabelle Facon of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris says, at first, Macron saw France bridging the gap between the U.S. and Russia.

ISABELLE FACON: The Macron team has always said you have to talk to everybody. It's the basis of diplomacy. You have to make the effort even with difficult partners or even adversaries.

KIM: On the one hand, Putin may find Macron's closeness to trump useful since a U.S.-Russian presidential summit remains a distant prospect. But Fyodor Lukyanov says Macron seems to be under Washington's thumb since he has shown no ability to change Trump's behavior.

LUKYANOV: He was received very warmly in Washington. So what? The result was that Trump simply ignored everything Macron told him.

KIM: On the other hand, the Kremlin takes some satisfaction that by abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has pushed Europeans closer to Russia, which still supports the agreement.

STANOVAYA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: As for Macron, Tatiana Stanovaya says the Kremlin views him as a leader who's here today, gone tomorrow and that he's unlikely to accomplish anything more in Saint Petersburg than he did during his visit in Washington. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF OH NO SONG, "BOUNCERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.