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13 December 2022

Emmanuel Macron is undermining French support for Ukraine

Paris’s commendable backing to Kyiv is too often obscured by the president’s erraticness.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Over the past year, Emmanuel Macron has at times received vociferous criticism from Ukrainians and Ukraine’s staunchest international backers. The French president made himself unpopular by continuing to speak with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, even after the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February (which Macron naively believed he had avoided with a last-ditch visit to Moscow earlier that month). In June, he insisted that “we must not humiliate Russia”, a remark that infuriated Ukrainians and their most vocal international supporters.

The latest example of Macron’s rhetoric riling Ukrainians came in early December when the president, on a state visit to the US, said in an interview that Russia’s “fear that Nato comes right up to its doors” should be addressed through “[security] guarantees to Russia the day it comes back to the negotiating table”.

This ill-advised comment was in striking contrast with the two aid conferences held today (13 December) in Paris. At the first, in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Macron was joined by the Ukrainian prime minister Denys Shmyhal and representatives of 45 other countries to discuss mitigating the impact of Russian strikes on Ukraine’s essential civilian infrastructure this winter. The French government has briefed that the primary objectives of the “Standing with the Ukrainian People” conference are to ensure that the Ukrainian grid remains as functional as possible over the winter and prevents water freezing in pipes, which would render them unusable until next summer.

The second conference focused on Ukraine’s longer-term reconstruction, with representatives of French companies discussing the immense challenge of rebuilding the war-torn country, even as a peace deal appears a remote possibility.

The first conference raised nearly €1bn to help Ukraine weather the winter, a sum welcomed by Shmyhal as “a powerful signal” sent by the “civilised world” to help ensure that “our country does not fall into darkness”. The sum is higher than the €800m the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had indicated before the conference that his country would need to mitigate the effects of Russia’s attacks.

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That France should have taken a leading role in organising what may well be a crucial tranche of support for Ukraine is ultimately unsurprising. French military and financial aid to Kyiv amounts to the second-highest in the EU and fourth-highest in the world, according to figures from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. France’s weapons deliveries to Ukraine include advanced kit such as Caesar howitzers and Crotale air-defence systems. Although capable of sending more, French officials have said that they wish to avoid depleting their own stocks of weaponry too significantly.

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Yet Macron’s impulsive remarks too often exasperate Ukraine and the EU’s eastern member states, which are increasingly crucial to the functioning of the bloc. What’s more, Macron’s own rhetoric vacillates wildly. Just a day after insisting that Russia needed to be offered “security guarantees”, Macron told a US TV channel that Putin “should be prosecuted for war crimes”. While calling for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in October, he specified that only the Ukrainians could decide when to begin them – meaning Western support to Kyiv needs to continue for as long as it takes for Ukraine to be in a position of strength.

Through it all, his country has maintained a steady policy of military, diplomatic and financial support to Ukraine, which places the country squarely within the Western consensus. Yet it’s not just a matter of separating words from actions, rhetoric from deeds. France’s foreign policy would be even better if Macron was able to contain his outbursts on Ukraine, which satisfy nobody as they are so often contradictory. The success of the Paris conference exemplifies France’s commendable support for Ukraine, too often undermined in the minds of allies by Macron’s erraticness.

[See also: Kaja Kallas: Why Estonia supports Ukraine]