It’s not only the actor Gérard Depardieu, his new residency in Saransk, Mordovia, where he benefits from a 6 percent income tax rate as a “private entrepreneur” and his antics about how proud he is to have become Russian. Less colorful friends of Russia have been quite vocal in France lately, in a sign of the divisions that the conflict over Ukraine has created among the French elite.
When Sergei Naryshkin, the president of the Duma, the Russian Parliament’s lower house, came to Paris on Sept. 1, he had no problem meeting with French businessmen and legislators, even though he is not supposed to set foot in France: Mr. Naryshkin is one of 119 Russian and Ukrainian individuals targeted by waves of European Union sanctions.
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, he was in fact the guest of the Council of Europe, an international organization based in Strasbourg. Russia is a member, and the French government had no choice but to let him into the country for two days. He certainly made the most of it: The Council of Europe was pretty low on his agenda. The highlight of his visit was a packed conference hosted by the Russian ambassador in Paris, where C.E.O.s of French companies with big investments in Russia and 10 members of the French National Assembly and senators from various political parties listened to his presentation of the “internal conflict” in Ukraine. Several of them in turn voiced their complaints about the European sanctions.
Ten days later, a group of 14 French legislators was in Moscow, again meeting Mr. Naryshkin and his Duma colleagues. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund who sits on the board of two Russian banks, is another visitor to Moscow and critic of sanctions.
More embarrassing for the French government is the stand taken by Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former Socialist defense minister who was appointed special representative for economic diplomacy in Russia by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in 2012. An advocate of France’s independent diplomacy, Mr. Chevènement explained in an interview with Le Courrier de Russie, a Russian-based newspaper, that “an independent France” needs “a strong Russia”; Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a mere “infringement of the principle of state’s sovereignty.”
This fondness for Russia makes for strange bedfellows. Mr. Putin’s staunchest ally in France is Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front, whom Moscow has been actively courting for some time. Ms. Le Pen admires the Russian president’s “patriotic economic model,” as well as his defense of conservative values and his stand on homosexuality. She also got a warm welcome from Mr. Naryshkin when she visited Moscow in June. And she concurred with far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon when he described as an “unbearable betrayal” the decision by President François Hollande to suspend the delivery of two Mistral battleships to Russia.
Another group of friends of Russia is led by the ubiquitous Thierry Mariani, a legislator of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement, who heads the association Franco-Russian Dialogue. Mr. Mariani, who organized the 14 legislators’ trip to Moscow and is preparing for another visit in October, speaks of a “special relationship” between France and Russia that goes back to Napoleon and the Battle of Borodino in 1812.
“While Germany is Russia’s main business partner, France has a special place in Russia’s heart,” he told me. “This is why the Russians are so disappointed that we are implementing the sanctions.” He laments the fact that, unlike the U.S. Congress, the French Parliament has not debated the sanctions on Russia. He therefore sees nothing wrong in meeting with a blacklisted Russian official, saying, “I couldn’t care less about sanctions decided by techno-structures in Brussels.”
If this pro-Russia current crosses party lines from the far right to the far left, it is because it is based on a strong suspicion that the United States wants to return to the Cold War and drag Europe in with it. Businessmen might not have such ideological motivations; many are privately critical of Mr. Putin’s erratic behavior, but argue that their companies are much more exposed in Russia than American businesses and that they need to protect their investments. Politicians and commentators on the Web take another stance: They blame European leaders for “submitting” to America’s rule and accuse the French media of being manipulated. While the older generation refers to a “Gaullist tradition” of independence, the fact that this school of thought has spread to the younger generation shows that Russian efforts to penetrate popular political movements have had some success.
In the decades after World War II, the Soviet Union and attitudes toward communism tore apart the French left. Today, Russia and Mr. Putin are again a dividing factor — but along different lines. Their admirers may be a minority — Mr. Mariani reckons that if Parliament had to vote on E.U. sanctions, they would pass by a wide margin — but they are a vocal minority. Thomas Gomart, a French expert on Russia, thinks that this will even play a role in remapping the French political landscape.
But it is also an issue where Europeans and Americans, while officially united, have basic fundamental differences. “There is a huge gap,” says Marie Mendras, a Russia hand who teaches at Sciences Po in Paris. “When the Ukraine crisis erupted, the U.S. immediately saw it as a strategic issue, while Europeans were slow to accept this dimension.” After the Georgia crisis, Russia and Ukraine went off the E.U.’s strategic radar screen, replaced by a cosy neighborhood policy. From that point of view, Crimea, Donbass and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 have provided a brutal wake-up call.
Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde.