Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET
Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had a whole lot of ground to cover Monday: Between the long-standing conflict in eastern Ukraine, the six-year-old civil war in Syria and their own countries’ tattered ties, the Russian president’s stop at the Palace of Versailles promised plenty of difficult topics for conversation.
It’s little wonder, then, that talks between the two leaders at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris ran a little longer than expected. But when the two men finally did emerge to speak with members of the media, Macron and Putin expressed optimism that their two countries could work together on the daunting list of issues.
Standing in the opulent Gallery of Great Battles, a spacious ode to France’s military achievements, the two men vowed close cooperation in fighting terrorism — though it was plain that differences remain in their approaches to Syria, where the two countries back opposing sides. Russia backs President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime, while France supports the rebel factions seeking his removal from power.
At the news conference, according to The Associated Press, Macron vowed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” for France.
The French president was clear in the days leading up to the discussion that he expected it to be a difficult one.
“It’s indispensable to talk to Russia because there are a number of international subjects that will not be resolved without a tough dialogue with them,” Macron told reporters Saturday at the end of the G-7 summit in Italy, according to Reuters. “I will be demanding in my exchanges with Russia.”
Still, Monday opened with hearty handshakes and smiles.
Macron welcomed Putin by first harking back to a historic visit from another Russian leader. It was at this elaborate royal manse that Czar Peter the Great paid a visit in 1717, seeking to build a relationship with France. Now, 300 years later, Macron escorted his guest through a new exhibition commemorating the diplomatic moment of their forebears.
The discussions Monday, however, were less about building than rebuilding, as both leaders hope to repair a relationship that has recently grown fraught.
For instance, The Associated Press reports a previous visit from Putin, scheduled for last October, was even canceled after then-President Francois Hollande said Russia could face war crimes for its role in supporting Assad.
And Macron himself adopted a tough stance toward Russia during his campaign, indicating, as NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley noted earlier this month, that he might consider increasing sanctions on the country for its role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
It was this annexation, in fact, that turned the G-8 into a G-7, as the group of industrialized countries effectively revoked Russia’s seat at the table in 2014 over the incident.
Just before the French election, Macron’s campaign announced it had been targeted with a massive hacking operation — and several experts were quick to point a finger at Russia. And the AP notes that on Monday, he did not hesitate to say two Russian media outlets, Sputnik and Russia Today, acted as spreaders of “propaganda” during the campaign.
Putin, for his part, made little secret of his preferred candidate, at one point even inviting and hosting Macron’s main rival, Marine Le Pen, in Moscow.
At the news conference, though, Putin denied attempting to influence the French presidential election, saying Le Pen’s visit was intended as no more than a warm gesture toward a politician who wanted stronger relations with Russia.