French president flexes diplomatic muscles in Putin meeting

The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a red line for France and would result in reprisals, Emmanuel Macron said on Monday during his first meeting as president of France with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Mr Macron said he spoke to Mr Putin about LGBT rights in Chechnya and about the rights of embattled NGOs in Russian Federation, vowing he would be "constantly vigilant" on these issues.

The newly elected French leader said he wanted to work more closely with Russian Federation to try resolve the six-year war in Syria, one of the sticking points in relations between the West and Moscow which backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On the eve of the vote, Macron's campaign suffered a massive cyberattack that it compared to the hacking of candidate Hillary Clinton's United States presidential campaign previous year. The Russian president denied any effort to meddle in the vote.

The Macron-Putin relationship got off to a less-than-ideal footing during Macron's presidential campaign.

Macron said he spoke to Putin about LGBT rights in the Russian republic of Chechnya and about the rights of embattled non-governmental organizations in Russia, vowing to be "vigilant" on these issues.

Later Monday, Putin was visiting a newly built Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center near the Seine River that includes the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

US President Barack Obama had also pledged strong action against Syria if it crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons.

The US spy agencies also say RT and Sputnik were major players in Russia's attempt to influence the election.

A report by French intelligence services said the April 4 attack bore the "signature" of the Syrian government, accusing it of possessing chemical weapons in violation of commitments made in 2013. "I will do everything to ensure that the 2018 election campaign is conducted in the same way - in strict accordance with the law and the Constitution", Putin said.

Analysts say the visit to Paris offers Putin an opportunity to improve ties with France that had steadily deteriorated in the closing months of Francois Hollande's presidency. Last month, USA missiles targeted the Shayrat airfield in western Syria.

Le Pen tweeted ahead of Putin's meeting on Monday at the Palace of Versailles with French President Emmanuel Macron that she "rejoices that V. Putin is being welcomed to France".

Putin's visit is the latest test of Macron's diplomatic mettle after the G-7 talks in Sicily last week and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit in Brussels where he turned the tables on Trump by refusing to release the American leader's hand for several seconds during the handshake for the cameras. The US Government subsequently worked with Russian Federation on a deal that was supposed to rid Syria of such weapons.

As the pair emerged from a three-hour talk to speak to reporters, Macron launched into a remarkably frank discussion of two Russian state news outlets - Sputnik and Russia Today - that he accused of behaving as "organs of influence, of propaganda, of lying propaganda".

Macron said France and Russia would pursue further dialogue in the "Normandy" format, including France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

Macron took the same stance, saying: "I want us to organize a democratic transition but also preserve a Syrian state".

Macron told a French weekly that he was "not bothered" by leaders who "think in terms of power ratios", citing Putin as an example along with Trump. "I don't believe in the diplomacy of public invective, but in my bilateral conversations, I will let nothing pass".

Both sides sought to present Putin's visit, which was meant to mark 300 years since Czar Peter the Great visited France, as an occasion to relaunch Franco-Russian relations.


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