French President Emmanuel Macron called out Russian interference in the French election at his first meeting with President Putin Monday. Macron made the bold attack on Kremlin-backed media outlets while standing right next to a sombre Putin — vocally criticizing the Russian state in a way that almost no other world leader, including Donald Trump, has chosen to do.
Macron met Putin at the Palace of Versailles Monday, with their talks lasting for over two hours — much longer than had been planned. Standing side-by-side in the opulent surroundings of the Gallery of Great Battles, the two leaders initially appeared to be on the same page, pledging to work together to fight terrorism.
Soon, however, the facade gave way and Macron couldn’t hold back any longer: “I will not give an inch on this. During the campaign, Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign.”
Following alleged interference by the Kremlin in the U.S. presidential election, experts had warned that Russia could seek to exert a similar influence on major European elections taking place this year. As well as the alleged fake news spread by state run media organizations RT and Sputnik, Macron’s campaign was hit with a last minute email leak, but these efforts ultimately failed to change the outcome, with Macron easily beating pro-Kremlin candidate Marine Le Pen in the May 7 run-off.
Putin strongly denied allegations that Russia had sought to interfere with the outcome of the French election at the Versailles meeting — just as he denies any involvement in attempts to influence the U.S. election.
James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at U.K. think tank Chatham House, told VICE News that Macron’s approach was likely informed by evidence presented to him in security briefings confirming that the Russians did indeed attempt to sway the outcome of the election. “He knows immediately, from the off, that they are not on his side, they are not his friends,” Nixey said, adding that it is difficult to say how Putin will react to Macron’s actions.
The Russian leader is not used to criticism of any kind, least of all a public dressing down from a fellow world leader. The Kremlin may simply choose to move onto the next challenge, whether that is the U.K. election next week or the German election in September. But Nixey warns that Putin could “take some measure of revenge for the way in which he appears to have been treated.”
During the press conference after their meeting, Macron was clear that he was not willing to waver on any of his campaign promises about holding Russia to account. In relation to the conflict in Syria — where Putin’s forces are propping up the regime of Bashar al Assad — Macron said the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line” for France and warned that any use of such weapons would lead to “reprisals” — though he failed to detail exactly what this would entail.
Macron also challenged Putin on LGBT rights in Russia generally, and in Chechnya in particular, following multiple reports of gay men being rounded up, held prisoner, and tortured. Macron vowed to be “constantly vigilant on these issues.” Putin’s visit coincided with France announcing that it had welcomed the first LGBT asylum seeker from Chechnya Monday.
While Macron used his first meeting with Putin to unveil the tough new stance his government will take on Russia, Donald Trump has chosen a different path, seeking to forge closer ties with the Kremlin since taking office. Trump’s thoughts on Macron’s strong words are unknown, but he tweeted Tuesday:
“It is unclear as to whether [Trump] learns lessons from others, and it is unclear as to whether he himself is compromised or not — personally, financially or in other ways [in relation to Russia],” Nixey said.