MOSCOW — Relations between new French President Emmanuel Macron and Moscow are starting off from a very low place indeed. Never before has a French politician been the target of so much vitriol by Kremlin media mouthpieces and Russian lawmakers.
Vladimir Putin and Macron had their first telephone contact on May 18, with the Kremlin stressing "a mutual readiness to develop the traditionally friendly Russian-French relations in the political, trade, economic, cultural, humanitarian, and other spheres." But the reality of the relationship is far more complicated given how much Macron — starting early in his campaign and continuing after his inauguration, earlier this month — has been vilified, mocked, and outright insulted in Russia.
The question now is what happens on May 29, when Putin meets Macron in Versailles. Will the Russian head of state, who canceled a scheduled visit to France last October, be able to restore confidence?
Here's a look at some of the more glaring things that have been said about Macron in just the past few weeks:
On May 14, as France's outgoing leader, François Hollande, passed the baton to his successor, Russia's main TV network, Pierviy Kanal, devoted close to nine minutes to Macron with the title "Where is France headed?" At 39, anchor Dmitri Kisselev explained, Macron is France's youngest leader since Napoleon. "But that's where the comparison ends," he was quick to add. "Because Napoleon was a brilliant character, and as for Macron, nobody, even among those close to him, sees him that way." The rest of the program continued in that same tone.
On April 29, NTV, Russia's number two network, broadcast a long report arguing that Macron's path to the Elysée palace was paved by the "Rothschild banker dynasty." To demonstrate this claim, the journalist went into a bank vault, opened one of the safes, took out a big wad of banknotes and says, "This is how it all started."
Macron walks through the Arc de Triomphe on May 15 — Photo: Emmanuel Macron's Official Facebook Page
On May 5, shortly before the second round of the French election, a female anchor on Tsargrad TV announced without batting an eyelid that "it is possible that the sodomite candidate" — Emmanuel Macron — will become the new president.
The pro-Kremlin news agency Sputnik, fed by conservative French lawmaker Nicolas Dhuicq, has made similar claims, calling Macron a "closet homosexual." There have been attacks against his wife as well. The tabloid Komsomolskaïa Pravda called the new first lady, Brigitte Macron, a "pedophile" teacher.
Others dismiss Macron as a puppet of Germany, which he visited shortly after taking office. "He went to prostrate himself before the old lady Merkel," said the ultra-nationalist Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Quoting one of these "experts," Russia Today (RT), the voice of Russia overseas, published a May 18 piece describing Macron's victory as the "first color revolution in Europe." This is a reference to revolutions in former Soviet states ("rose" in Georgia in 2003, "orange" in Ukraine in 2004, etc.) that were the result, we're told, "of massive interventions by Western governments, particularly the Americans, but also by paid NGOs and the Europeans." On the same day, communist lawmaker Pavel Dorokhin referred to Macron as "the Antichrist."
Nothing suggested the kind of spiteful treatment Macron has been subjected to.
This level of animosity has raised some questions. "I had a quick word about that with [Russian Ambassador Aleksandr] Orlov before the first round," French politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement, told Le Monde before the first round of the election, in April. Chevènement had accompanied Macron for a working visit to Moscow in January 2016, back when the new president was still economy minister. At the time, nothing suggested the kind of spiteful treatment Macron has since been subjected to.
Is it possible that the media and representatives overstepped the limit set by the Kremlin? Maxim Youssin, a reporter specialized in foreign policy for the newspaper Kommersant, believes so. "Moscow's professional propagandists weren't expecting the Macron storyline," he recently wrote. "In reaction, they counterattacked as if the French election was threatening Russia's vital interests." They were particularly upset, he explained, that among the four leading candidates, he was the only one not to call the sanctions [against Russia] into question.
Evgenia Obichkina, a foreign relations professor at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations, agrees. "The candidates were carefully observed and Macron was the most critical [of Russia]," she says.
The fact that he is pro-European, elusive, unknown and young are other factors that can perhaps explain the anti-Macron frenzy in Russia, where he is presented as François Hollande's heir, even though their relation has deteriorated. There's also the feeling of disappointment, of defeat even, given that Putin first supported conservative candidate François Fillon and later had his heart set on Marine Le Pen. "Many in Russia were certain she'd win," says Maxim Youssin.
And now that it's all over, where does Putin himself stand? Former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin offered a bit of insight on Twitter, quoting what Putin allegedly said during an international meeting in Beijing on May 14. "So it's Macron, is it? It'll be better anyway... But not as good as with Chirac!"
See more from World Affairs here