Macron, Putin see chance on Ukraine but clash on Syria

The rare meeting took place in France days before a G7 summit later this week

Photo: TASS Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron and Russia's Vladimir Putin on Monday agreed changes in Ukraine had bolstered the chances of peace in its east but clashed on Syria, as the Russian leader made a rare bilateral visit to a key EU power.

Macron, who hosted Putin at his summer residence in southern France, made clear he wanted to keep contacts with Moscow alive on a range of issues even at a time of spiralling tensions with the West.

The pair both expressed optimism that the arrival of Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukraine's president had improved the chances of ending the half-decade conflict during their meeting which lasted four-and-a-half hours.

"There is a real opportunity to put an end to the conflict that has been going on for five years," Macron told reporters in an open-air press conference at the start of talks.

"Relations between Russia and the European Union have an irritant, a subject of disagreement, which is Ukraine, which is a problem we have to resolve," he then told the Russian leader, once again insisting "we need to keep up our pressure, our energy to resolve this problem."

In this regard the French president said he hoped to attend a summit with the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Germany - the so-called Normandy format - "in the next few weeks" to try end fighting in eastern Ukraine, to which Putin responded that "there are grounds for cautious optimism."

The two leaders however publicly sparred over the Syria civil war, where the Kremlin is a leading backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and also over the crackdown on protesters in Moscow. During their meeting, Macron expressed "profound worry" about the bombing by regime forces of Syria's northern region of Idlib, telling Putin that it was "urgent" a ceasefire went into force.

"The population in Idlib is living under bombs, children are being killed," Macron told Putin.

But the Russian leader appeared not to be swayed by the French president's appeal. "We support the efforts of the Syrian army... to end these terrorist threats," he replied, adding: "We never said that in Idlib terrorists would feel comfortable."

Despite the talks focusing on international affairs, Macron, in the meantime, sought to tackle Putin on the internal Russian situation. As Europost reminds, Moscow has been rocked by weekly protests for more than a month after the authorities barred opposition candidates from running in an election for the city's legislature in September.

"We called this summer for freedom of protest, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion and the freedom to run in elections, which should be fully respected in Russia like for any member of the Council of Europe," Macron told reporters in an open-air news conference at the Bregancon fortress.

"Because I believe in a European Russia," he stressed.

Putin initially ignored the comment but he was quick to retort after a follow-up question on the Moscow protests. He then insisted he did not want the situation to develop like in France, where 'yellow vest' protests are taking place since November, although they have now eased somewhat.

"We would not want such a thing to happen in the Russian capital... We will do everything to make sure the situation remains within the realms of the law," Putin stressed.

Macron said though, that the comparison with France was inaccurate, since at least yellow vest protesters could stand in elections.

"Those we call the yellow vests were able to run freely in European elections, will run in municipal elections, and that's very well like that," he said, adding he is "glad that they express themselves freely in elections because it reduces confrontation.

In another highlight of the meeting, Putin was asked whether Russia would return to the G8. In response, Putin quipped that it could not come back to an organisation that no longer existed. But with Trump set to lead the G7 in 2020, he added: "Any contacts with our partners, in any format are always useful. We don't rule anything out."

Macron hosted Putin at the Bregancon fortress on France's Mediterranean coast, just days before he hosts world leaders including US President Donald Trump for the August 24-26 Group of Seven (G7) summit in Biarritz.

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