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PARIS — Vladimir Putin is a “radically rational” leader who is betting that Western countries will grow tired of backing Ukraine and agree a negotiated end to the conflict that will be favorable to Russia, former French President François Hollande told POLITICO.
Hollande, who served from 2012 to 2017, has plenty of first-hand experience with Putin. He led negotiations with the Russian leader, along with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under the so-called Normandy format in 2014 after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and supported pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region.
But those efforts at dialogue proved fruitless, exposing Putin as a leader who only understands strength and casting doubt on all later attempts at talks — including a controversial solo effort led by current French President Emmanuel Macron, Hollande said in an interview at his Paris office.
“He [Putin] is a radically rational person, or a rationally radical person, as you like,” said the former French leader, when asked if Putin could seek to widen the conflict beyond Ukraine. “He’s got his own reasoning and within that framework, he’s ready to use force. He’s only able to understand the [power] dynamic that we’re able to set up against him.”
Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Hollande added that Putin would seek to “consolidate his gains to stabilize the conflict, hoping that public opinion will get tired and that Europeans will fear escalation in order to bring up at that stage the prospect of a negotiation.”
But unlike when he was in power and Paris and Berlin led talks with Putin, this time the job of mediating is likely to fall to Turkey or China — “which won’t be reassuring for anyone,” Hollande said.
Macron, who served as Hollande’s economy minister before leaving his government and going on to win the presidency in 2017, has tried his own hand at diplomacy with Russia, holding numerous one-on-one calls with Putin both before and after his invasion of Ukraine.
But the outreach didn’t yield any clear results, prompting criticism from Ukraine and Eastern Europeans who also objected to Macron saying that Russia would require “security guarantees” after the war is over.
Hollande stopped short of criticizing his successor over the Putin outreach. It made sense to speak with Putin before the invasion to “deprive him of any arguments or pretexts,” he said. But after a “brief period of uncertainty” following the invasion, “the question [about the utility of dialogue] was unfortunately settled.”
Frustration with France and Germany’s leadership, or lack thereof, during the Ukraine war has bolstered arguments that power in Europe is moving eastward into the hands of countries like Poland, which have been most forthright in supporting Ukraine.
But Hollande wasn’t convinced, arguing that northern and eastern countries are casting in their lot with the United States at their own risk. “These countries, essentially the Baltics, the Scandinavians, are essentially tied to the United States. They see American protection as a shield.”
“Until today,” he continued, U.S. President Joe Biden has shown “exemplary solidarity and lived up to his role in the transatlantic alliance perfectly. But tomorrow, with a different American president and a more isolationist Congress, or at least less keen on spending, will the United States have the same attitude?”
“We must convince our partners that the European Union is about principles and political values. We should not deviate from them, but the partnership can also offer precious, and solid, security guarantees,” Hollande added.
Hollande was one of France’s most unpopular presidents while in office, with approval ratings in the low single digits. But he has enjoyed something of a revival since leaving the Elysée and is now the country’s second-most popular politician behind former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, five spots ahead of Macron — in keeping with the adage that the French prefer their leaders when they are safely out of office.
His time in office was racked with crises. In addition to failed diplomacy over Ukraine, Hollande led France’s response to a series of terrorist attacks, presided over Europe’s sovereign debt crisis with Merkel, and faced massive street protests against labor reforms.
On that last point, Macron is now feeling some of the heat that Hollande felt during the last months of his presidency. More than a million French citizens have joined marches against a planned pension system reform, and further strikes are planned. Hollande criticized the reform plans, which would raise the age of retirement to 64, as poorly planned.
“Did the president choose the right time? Given the succession of crises and with elevated inflation, the French want to be reassured. Did the government propose the right reform? I don’t think so either — it’s seen as unfair and brutal,” said Hollande. “But now that a parliamentary process has been set into motion, the executive will have to strike a compromise or take the risk of going all the way and raising the level of anger.”
A notable difference between him and Macron is the quality of the Franco-German relationship. While Hollande and Merkel took pains to showcase a form of political friendship, the two sides have been plainly at odds under Macron — prompting a carefully-worded warning from the former commander-in-chief.
“In these moments when everything is being redefined, the Franco-German couple is the indispensable core that ensures the EU’s cohesion. But it needs to redefine the contributions of both parties and set new goals — including European defense,” said Hollande.
“It’s not about seeing one another more frequently, or speaking more plainly, but taking the new situation into account because if that work isn’t done, and if that political foundation isn’t secure, and if misunderstandings persist, it’s not just a bilateral disagreement between France and Germany that we’ll have, but a stalled European Union,” he said, adding that he “hoped” a recent Franco-German summit had “cleared up misunderstandings.”
The socialist leader also had some choice words for Macron over the way he’s trying to rally Europeans around a robust response to Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which offers major subsidies to American green industry. Several EU countries have come out against plans, touted by Paris, to create a “Buy European Act” and raise new money to support EU industries.
During a joint press conference on Monday, Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte agreed to disagree on the EU’s response.
“On the IRA, France is discovering that its partners are, for the most part, liberal governments. When you tell the Dutch or the Scandinavians hear about direct aid [for companies], they hear something that goes against not just the spirit, but also the letter of the treaties,” Hollande said.
Another issue rattling European politics lately is the Qatargate corruption scandal, in which current and former MEPs as well as lobbyists are accused of taking cash in exchange for influencing the European Parliament’s work in favor of Qatar and Morocco.
Hollande recalled that his own administration had been hit by a scandal when his budget minister was found to be lying about Swiss bank accounts he’d failed to disclose from tax authorities. The scandal led to Hollande establishing the Haute autorité pour la transparence de la vie publique — an independent authority that audits public officials and has the power to refer any misdeeds to a prosecutor.
Now would be a good time for the EU to follow that example and establish an independent ethics body of its own, Hollande said.
“I think it’s a good institution that would have a role to play in Brussels,” he said. “Some countries will be totally in favor because integrity and transparency are part of their basic values. Others, like Poland and Hungary, will see a challenge to their sovereignty.”