1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia

When assess­ing the cur­rent per­cep­tion of Rus­sia in France, three dif­fer­ent lev­els need to be tak­en into account: Pub­lic opin­ion, the posi­tion of inter­me­di­ate actors such as polit­i­cal par­ties, civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions and enter­pris­es, and final­ly the gov­ern­men­tal lev­el. Start­ing with pub­lic opin­ion, French cit­i­zens in their major­i­ty hold unfavourable views of Rus­si­a’s cur­rent gov­ern­ment and geopo­lit­i­cal role. An IFOP opin­ion poll car­ried out in Sep­tem­ber 2015 showed that 72 % of those ques­tioned had a neg­a­tive opin­ion of Vladimir Putin, gen­er­al­ly con­firm­ing the results of a poll from 2013, which indi­cat­ed 80 % shar­ing a neg­a­tive view of the Russ­ian pres­i­dent. A 2015 Pew Research cen­ter poll which mea­sures glob­al pub­lic opin­ion on Rus­sia comes to equal­ly neg­a­tive results, with 80 % of the French ques­tioned not hav­ing “con­fi­dence” in Vladimir Putin, one of the poor­est results among all coun­tries. The same poll shows that 51 % believe Rus­sia is a men­ace to its neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. At the time, the Sep­tem­ber 2015 IFOP poll reveals that 75 % of those ques­tioned think Rus­sia was wrong in inter­ven­ing in the Syr­i­an con­flict in order to sup­port the regime of Bachar El-Assad. Also, French pub­lic opin­ion remains sen­si­tive to the degree of free­dom in Rus­sia, with 86 % rat­ing the guar­an­tees for pub­lic lib­er­ties insuf­fi­cient.

Com­ing now to polit­i­cal par­ties, the pic­ture is a lot less clear. In each polit­i­cal par­ty, we find staunch sup­port­ers of the “Russ­ian cause”. The pro-Russ­ian net­work is stronger though on the polit­i­cal right, with ex-Pres­i­dent Nico­las Sarkozy being a relent­less defend­er of rein­forc­ing rela­tions with Vladimir Putin. In July 2015, ten mem­bers of the French Nation­al Assem­bly, most of them from the cen­tre-right oppo­si­tion, made the head­lines when going on a vis­it to Crimea, against the explic­it advice of the gov­ern­ment. The rea­sons for sup­port­ing Rus­sia may dif­fer from one indi­vid­ual to anoth­er, rang­ing from old fam­i­ly ties over eco­nom­ic and geopo­lit­i­cal ratio­nal­i­ty to an out­right sym­pa­thy with Pres­i­dent Putin’s views on soci­etal issues. Also, many euroscep­tics and sov­er­eignists join the ranks of the pro-Russ­ian net­work, because they see in the coun­try an ally in their fight against the dis­so­lu­tion of the nation-state in fed­er­al struc­tures like the EU. Those voic­es see them­selves in the Gaullist tra­di­tion, which tried to coun­ter­bal­ance US hege­mo­ny by devel­op­ing strong inde­pen­dent ties with Rus­sia. Final­ly, the far-right Front Nation­al has a strong affin­i­ty with Putin’s Rus­sia, its EU-crit­i­cal stance, and con­ser­v­a­tive moral con­cep­tions.

Turn­ing to civ­il soci­ety, France tra­di­tion­al­ly has a dense net­work of asso­ci­a­tions work­ing on devel­op­ing rela­tions with Rus­sia in a vari­ety of fields. Fre­quent­ly, descen­dants of Russ­ian immi­grants are strong­ly involved in such organ­i­sa­tions, their work being com­ple­ment­ed by cul­tur­al diplo­ma­cy from the Russ­ian side, with the news web­site “sput­nik” as one of its instru­ments. A huge cul­tur­al and reli­gious cen­tre in Paris, whose con­struc­tion right next to the Eif­fel tow­er began in 2015, is sup­posed to strength­en the coun­try’s impact on France in the future. As to eco­nom­ic rela­tions, they have suf­fered con­sid­er­ably from the reper­cus­sions of the Ukrain­ian cri­sis. Trade between the two coun­tries reached a vol­ume of 17 bil­lion in 2014, which is 6.6 % less than in the year before. The decline is the con­se­quence of Euro­pean sanc­tions in the arma­ment, finan­cial, and ener­gy sec­tor, as well as of Russ­ian retal­i­a­tion mea­sures espe­cial­ly in the agri­cul­tur­al and food sec­tor.

As to the polit­i­cal lev­el, Fran­co-Russ­ian rela­tions had reached a low point when the sale of two Mis­tral war­ships was can­celled in August 2015 in the frame­work of Euro­pean sanc­tions, a deci­sion heav­i­ly crit­i­cized as “dem­a­gog­i­cal” by oppo­si­tion leader Nico­las Sarkozy. At the same time, both coun­tries have coop­er­at­ed in the imple­men­ta­tion of the Min­sk agree­ment on Ukraine as well as in the inter­na­tion­al deal over the Iran­ian nuclear pro­gramme. Until Novem­ber 2015, a major dis­agree­ment sep­a­rat­ed France and Rus­sia on the issue of the Syr­i­an civ­il war, Vladimir Putin remain­ing active­ly sup­port­ive of the Assad regime, where­as the French gov­ern­ment saw the dis­pos­al of the author­i­tar­i­an ruler as a pre­con­di­tion for any kind of solu­tion of the cri­sis. The ter­ror­ist attacks in Paris on 13 Novem­ber 2015 have sig­nif­i­cant­ly changed the sit­u­a­tion, with France urgent­ly seek­ing the broad­est coali­tion pos­si­ble in the war against the Islam­ic state (ISIS). The Hol­lande admin­is­tra­tion now seems to accept that the Assad regime shall remain in place for some time until the imme­di­ate threat through ISIS has been con­tained, but still insists that a defin­i­tive solu­tion of the Syr­i­an cri­sis must include the exit of the author­i­tar­i­an leader. Imme­di­ate­ly after the Paris shoot­ings, the Chiefs of Staff of the French and Russ­ian armies had their first offi­cial con­tact since the out­break of the Ukrain­ian cri­sis and agreed to bet­ter coor­di­nate their oper­a­tions in Syr­ia. A few days lat­er, on 16 Novem­ber 2015, Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande vis­it­ed his Russ­ian coun­ter­part in order to find com­mon ground for the future of Syr­ia, but the encounter was over­shad­owed by the down­ing of a Russ­ian air­plane by Turk­ish forces. The recent state­ments by Prime Min­is­ter Manuel Valls, who in a speech in front of the Nation­al Assem­bly demand­ed that sanc­tions against Rus­sia should be repealed, equal­ly wit­ness a turnover in France’s pol­i­cy. It seems that due to the unprece­dent­ed ter­ror­ist threat the gov­ern­ment is pro­gres­sive­ly adopt­ing an atti­tude towards Rus­sia, which is shaped more by realpoli­tik than by prin­ci­ples.

The March 2015 propo­si­tion of Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Junck­er to cre­ate an army of the Euro­pean Union as a token for its will­ing­ness to defend com­mon val­ues in crises such as the Ukrain­ian one has been wide­ly not­ed in French pub­lic debate. Com­men­ta­tors in France have under­lined that their coun­try will nec­es­sar­i­ly play the key role, if such a project should be devel­oped, as it dis­pos­es of the strongest mil­i­tary force among the con­ti­nen­tal EU mem­ber states. Defence Min­is­ter Jean-Yves Le Dri­an has point­ed out though that the idea of an EU army has lit­tle chances to be real­ized, as most EU mem­ber states are very reluc­tant to con­tribute to com­mon mis­sions and rather let France car­ry their main bur­den.


2. EU Enlargement

The unfavourable atti­tude of the French towards the cur­rent Russ­ian for­eign pol­i­cy has not made them into cham­pi­ons for Ukrain­ian EU acces­sion. Typ­i­cal for the “enlarge­ment fatigue” among the French pop­u­la­tion, its major­i­ty is opposed to offer­ing EU mem­ber­ship to the east­ern neigh­bour­hood coun­try. Pres­i­dent Hol­lande voiced this con­cern among his con­stituen­cy, when he point­ed out after the East­ern Part­ner­ship Sum­mit in Riga in May 2015: “We must ensure that this East­ern Part­ner­ship enables Ukraine to be ful­ly asso­ci­at­ed, although asso­ci­a­tion in no way pre­judges mem­ber­ship – I’ve been per­fect­ly clear on that.”

The year 2015 has brought no sig­nif­i­cant change in France’s atti­tude towards the EU acces­sion of Turkey. Fol­low­ing a deci­sion tak­en under the pres­i­den­cy of Jacques Chirac, once the nego­ti­a­tions have been suc­cess­ful­ly closed, the entry of Turkey needs to be rat­i­fied by a ref­er­en­dum among the French pop­u­la­tion. Though no recent opin­ion polls are avail­able, there are no indi­ca­tions that the over­whelm­ing­ly unfavourable atti­tude of the French has changed (accord­ing to a Jan­u­ary 2014 poll, 83 % of those ques­tioned were opposed). On the con­trary, it is to be expect­ed that the events of 2015 will rein­force the hos­til­i­ty towards the entry of an over­whelm­ing­ly Mus­lim coun­try into the EU. In Octo­ber 2015, Prime Min­is­ter Manuel Valls was asked in the Nation­al Assem­bly whether the recent refugee cri­sis and the deal with Turkey over the read­mis­sion of migrants in exchange for visa lib­er­al­i­sa­tion had changed the gov­ern­men­t’s atti­tude in regard to EU acces­sion. Valls’ answer reit­er­at­ed the posi­tion which the French exec­u­tive has tak­en over the last years: The nego­ti­a­tions with Turkey should con­tin­ue, but are “open-end­ed”. As soon as they are con­clud­ed, it is up to the sov­er­eign French peo­ple whether they rat­i­fy Turkey’s acces­sion or not.

This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘East­ern Neigh­bours and Rus­sia: Close links with EU cit­i­zens’ (ENURC) in col­lab­o­ra­tion with TEPSA (Trans Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion). The project focus­es on devel­op­ing EU cit­i­zens’ under­stand­ing of the top­ic of the East­ern Neigh­bour­hood and Rus­sia and aims at encour­ag­ing their inter­est and involve­ment in this pol­i­cy which has an impact on their dai­ly lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is map­ping out the dis­cours­es on these issues in Euro­pean poli­cies all over Europe. Research insti­tutes from all 28 mem­ber states are invit­ed to give overviews on the dis­cours­es in their respec­tive coun­tries.

This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2015. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2015. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the recent­ly relaunched EU-28 Watch web­site:

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained there­in.