Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin have raised the possibility of a new round of negotiations to try to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine after five years of war.
Mr Macron, hosting Mr Putin at the French presidential retreat of the Fort de Brégançon on the Mediterranean coast, said on Monday that the election of the former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukrainian president had provided a chance to resolve the conflict there. Mr Putin also said he saw cause for optimism.
“In close co-operation with President Zelensky and Chancellor [Angela] Merkel we will be considering the opportunity — it’s what we want — of a new summit in the Normandy format in the coming weeks if we can prepare the way,” Mr Macron said after welcoming Mr Putin.
The French president also called for a reshaping of the international order to deal with numerous crises from the Gulf to global warming.
The four nations involved in the so-called Normandy format talks are Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, which made progress on Ukraine ceasefire talks during the 70th anniversary D-Day celebrations in Normandy in 2014.
Before the meeting, Mr Macron’s advisers said he wanted to elicit a positive response from Mr Putin to the call this month from Mr Zelensky for fresh peace talks to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist militants have fought government forces.
Mr Putin said: “Of course, we will talk about the south-east of Ukraine, the Donbas. I will inform Mr President [Macron] about my recent contacts with the newly elected president of Ukraine. There are some things that can be discussed, that provide some cause for optimism.”
He added: “I really thought, and I still do, that any meeting, including a Normandy-format one, should lead to concrete results. And in my view, we need to ensure that what we previously agreed on, we must certainly ensure and move towards this goal.”
The French president is risking criticism from human rights activists that he is welcoming Mr Putin at a time when the Russian government is persecuting its political opponents at home. But Mr Macron’s advisers say the aim is to make progress on Ukraine and other dangerous international conflicts in the run-up to the G7 summit of big democracies in Biarritz at the weekend.
French officials accept it will not be easy to persuade Mr Putin to compromise. It was his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine five years ago that triggered Russia’s expulsion from what was then the G8.
Mr Macron also said he wanted to see the whole international order reshaped, hinting at an effort to bring Russia in from the cold in terms of its increasingly frosty relations with the west.
“Our international order lives through an absolutely historic moment. Our multilateralism is under attack,” Mr Macron said. “We have to think of constructing a recomposition of this international order. That’s my profound conviction, that’s to say reinventing new forms of useful relations and actions.
“That will be at the heart of the discussions at the G7, at the heart of our discussions today. And in this framework the relations between France and Russia and between Russia and the EU are crucial.”
The two men nevertheless engaged in a diplomatic sparring match about their respective political visions.
Mr Macron took issue with Mr Putin’s declaration in a Financial Times interview that liberalism had “outlived its purpose”, insisting that Russia itself was part of the Enlightenment while emphasising France’s championing of free speech and freedom of association and implicitly criticising Russian repression today.
Questioned by a journalist about the jailing of his opponents in Moscow, Mr Putin drew attention to the violent clashes in France in recent months between “gilets jaunes” protesters and the police.
“Dozens of demonstrators and police were injured,” Mr Putin said. “We don’t want these kinds of things to happen in the Russian capital.”