Last August, while preparing for the G-7 summit in Biarritz, French President Emmanuel Macron opened the doors of his summer residence at Fort Brégançon to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Armed with a bouquet of flowers, the Russian ruler praised the residence’s superb view of the Mediterranean and his host’s equally superb tan. In return, the French leader praised the cultural role in France of Russian artists such as Ivan Turgenev and Igor Stravinsky. These artists served as a reminder, Macron announced, that Russia is très profondément European.
Macron’s declaration was not improvised. Not only did it throw important light on recent French diplomatic activity but it also reflected an older source of light—namely, le siècle des Lumières, or the Enlightenment. It was fitting that a président philosophe—pace the title of a recent Macron biography—reaffirmed Russia’s ties to Europe. Who could be better qualified? After all, the eighteenth-century French philosophes were the ones to both inspire and thwart Russia’s long effort to be counted as a European nation.
Say what one will about the Enlightenment—and much can be said in light of the furious debate over the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s recent work, Enlightenment Now—one cannot gainsay its impact. The Enlightenment revolutionized Western conceptions of both time and space: its thinkers created the idea of the Middle Ages as a foil to their own age and “Eastern Europe” as a mirror for their native “Western Europe.” Tell us how far in the past and far to the east you live, declared the philosophes, and we will tell you how far from civilization—a word they also reinvented—you happen to be.
Having reshuffled this geographic deck of cards, the Enlightenment dealt the joker to Russia. The French philosophes were not certain how to classify this distant land that, ever since Peter the Great, sought to join the European club. As the historian Larry Wolff has observed, the French imagination located tsarist Russia somewhere “between Europe and Asia, between civilization and barbarism.” From Montesquieu through Voltaire to Diderot, les philosophes debated Russia’s geographic, and thus civilizational, status. The results were mixed. The first dismissed it as “Asiatic,” the second argued it was European, while the third concluded it was, well, betwixt and between.
In the mid–twentieth century, French President Charles de Gaulle expressed an ambivalence not far from Diderot’s about Russia’s place in Europe. The founder of the Fifth Republic embraced what he called a “European Europe,” but he never clearly defined what he meant by this notion—apart, that is, from the leading role he gave in it to France. In 1959, de Gaulle described Europe as stretching “from the Atlantic to the Urals” and in doing so maintained the geopolitical flou first conjured by the philosophes. The political scientist Marc Trachtenberg recently suggested that de Gaulle was “laying out not so much a political program as a vision of how things might develop in the fairly distant future—a vision of a Europe freed from the ‘two hegemonies,’ free to settle its own affairs.”
Sixty years later, only half of de Gaulle’s vision has materialized. The Russian hegemon, from its invasion of Crimea to its cyberattacks on elections, has not left Europe free to settle its own affairs. As for the American hegemon, it has been in full retreat from Europe ever since the election of Donald Trump. Despite his efforts to educate his American counterpart on the mission of the Atlantic alliance, Macron succeeded only in entertaining him with military parades. The French president has not been shy in assessing the consequences of this fact. Last month, he bluntly declared that not only had the United States “turned its back on Europe” but it had left behind a “brain-dead” North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The diagnosis sent shock waves from the Atlantic, where it spawned panic, to the Urals, where it spurred cheers. In Moscow—admittedly some 2,000 miles west of the Urals—a Foreign Ministry spokesperson described Macron’s “words of gold” as “sincere and accurate.”
The hearty Russian response underscored a dramatic change in diplomatic atmospherics between the two countries. In the first round of the French presidential election in 2017, Putin rooted for the right-wing François Fillon, then for the extreme right-wing Marine Le Pen in the second round. Upon becoming president, Macron expressed anger toward Russian news outlets such as Russia Today for peddling fake news in France, and he voiced his opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “France remains attached,” he affirmed at a joint press conference with then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, “to the sovereignty of Ukraine within its recognized borders.”
Putin was displeased. He met Macron in St. Petersburg to discuss the war in Syria in May 2018, and though Macron repeatedly glanced at the Russian president during the press conference, Putin neglected to return the favor. Moreover, while Macron sought to emphasize important geopolitical “convergences” with Russia—he even echoed de Gaulle’s “Atlantic to the Urals” declaration—Putin limited himself to wanly acknowledging that “dialogue is always better than confrontation.”
But Macron has judged Russia’s options more starkly. Russia’s “anti-European project,” the French president observed in a July 2019 interview with The Economist, is confrontational, overmilitarized, and unsustainable. The country’s economy is contracting and its birthrate declining. Moscow will soon enough find itself beholden to a larger power, and Macron is certain that Russia does not want to become the “vassal of China.” A partnership with Europe may be its only alternative.
C’est maintenant, Macron believes, to make the European case to Putin—not only for Russia’s sake but for Europe’s. To push Russia away, he said in his annual address to his diplomatic corps in August, would be to sacrifice control over a crucial relationship and perhaps tip a precarious balance. “We know that civilizations disappear,” he told his audience. “Europe will disappear. And the world will be structured around two big poles: the United States of America and China, and we will have to choose between dominations.”
And so, with the United Kingdom distracted by the question of Brexit and Germany divided over the question of immigration, the French president has taken it on himself to hit the reset button with Russia. Some of Macron’s European allies have seen his extended hand to Moscow as a back of the hand to them. As one EU ambassador complained to Le Monde, “Macron is not wrong. . . . But why must he always express himself in so French a fashion?” Even within France, the Franco-Russian specialist Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean warned against being too fast or too eager in pulling Russia closer, lest Putin see Macron not as “a new de Gaulle, but instead interpret the French overtures as an avowal of weakness and inconsistency.”
Given the brutal nature of Putin’s rule, much rides for the West on the danger of such an interpretation. In May 2018, an inquiry led by officials from five countries released a report confirming that a Russian missile, fired by a Russian crew on Russian soil, had indeed brought down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014. During a press conference in St. Petersburg, a French journalist asked the Russian leader for his reaction. With the impassive look of a poker player, Putin replied that he did not know about the report because he had been working all day. Standing next to him, Macron did not flinch or respond, except to express his grief for the families of the nearly 300 murdered passengers.
Diderot might have sympathized. In 1773, he visited St. Petersburg at the invitation of Catherine the Great, whom he’d hoped in vain to turn into an enlightened ruler. Upon his return, a friend asked him for his impression of the empress whose rule was founded on the murdered body of her husband, the deposed Peter III. The philosopher paused, then whispered: “There is a world of difference between gazing at tigers in paintings and tigers in real life.”
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.