Accessibility links

Breaking News

Crimea Visit Spotlights Kremlin Sympathies Beyond French Fringes

Crimean parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov (L) speaks with French right wing UMP party member of parliament Thierry Mariani at the State Council in Simferopol, Crimea, July 23, 2015

It's no secret that a tide of hearty enthusiasm for Russia has been sweeping France's right-wing parties of late.

The far-right National Front party made headlines back in November when it accepted an $11 million loan from Russian creditors following talks between its leader, Marine Le Pen, and officials in Moscow.

The controversial visit of French lawmakers to Crimea last week, however, revealed how deeply this infatuation with the Kremlin runs on France's mainstream right.

During their trip to Crimea, the first by a European delegation since the peninsula's unrecognized annexation by Russia in March 2014, the parliamentarians hailed the Russian takeover and berated French authorities for endorsing EU trade sanctions slapped on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

"We welcome the courage of the Crimean parliament, which was able to make this decision despite the difficult situation and the great danger of further escalation," the head of the delegation, Thierry Mariani, said during the group's stopover in Moscow, referring to a contentious vote for independence ahead of the annexation, with Russian troops occupying the peninsula and guarding the parliament building.

Mariani also assured Russian officials that there was "no reason for Europe to maintain its sanctions against Russia."

The parliamentarians have incurred the wrath of French authorities, who say their visit to Crimea undermines Paris's stance on the Ukrainian crisis and lends legitimacy to Russia's land grab.

The French Foreign Ministry denounced the visit as "a violation of international law."

According to the French press, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attempted to cancel the trip until the last minute while Senate president Gerard Larcher unsuccessfully tried to persuade lawmakers not to board the plane to Moscow.

The lawmakers, who have now returned to France, remain unapologetic.

They invoke Crimea's Russian past to justify its annexation and say Russia's ban on Western foodstuffs, imposed in retaliation to the EU embargo, are wreaking havoc on the French economy.

"Criticism is coming from people who don't know history and who have only a short-term vision," insists Nicolas Dhuicq, a member of the delegation. "Signing business contracts with Russia is in France's interest, so these critics are actually not serving France's interests. We are the ones serving them, by reviving the friendship with Russia."

Like eight of the 10 lawmakers who traveled to the annexed peninsula last week, Dhuicq is a member of The Republicans, the center-right party headed by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and until recently called the UMP.

Many of them are known to be longtime admirers of the Kremlin.

Mariani, who is married to a Russian woman, co-runs the Franco-Russian Dialogue Association, one of the two associations that organized the trip to Crimea. The group's other chairman is Vladimir Yakunin, the powerful head of Russian Railways and a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The delegation did not include any member of the ruling Socialist Party. The only two parliamentarians not representing The Republicans were from the center-right UDI party and the center-left RRDP party.

For most of them, it was the third solidarity visit to Moscow since the pro-European Maidan protests erupted in Kyiv in late 2013, leading to the ouster of Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.

The lawmakers have positioned themselves as ambassadors of an alternative France, one that unreservedly embraces Moscow's defiance of both Brussels and Washington.

Charm Offensive

Dhuicq argues that many French citizens, especially among the youth, are increasingly disillusioned with the European Union and are turning to Russia because it represents "another course."

"It's a country that, through its difficulties, speaks a different language than the United States," he told RFE/RL.

France, he believes, has been "slavishly serving America's interests" far too long.

Such comments closely echo the rhetoric of Sarkozy, who has been critical of the current French government's tough line on Russia.

Former President Sarkozy has struck a conciliatory tone with Russia
Former President Sarkozy has struck a conciliatory tone with Russia

Speaking at a UMP congress in February, Sarkozy -- who is believed to be eyeing a return to the presidency in 2017 -- said that "the people of Crimea chose Russia, and they can't be blamed for it."

He went on to describe the falling-out between Europe and Russia as "a tragedy," adding that the United States' souring ties with Moscow are Washington's "own problem."

In May, he poured scorn on French President Francois Hollande for not attending a Victory Day parade on Moscow's Red Square, boycotted by all EU leaders to protest Russia's support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Sarkozy's conciliatory tone with Russia marks a stark departure from some of his past remarks. In 2008, following the brief war between Russia and Georgia, he harshly condemned Moscow's recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Meanwhile, the flurry of trips to Russia by right-wing French politicians shows no signs of abating.

Nadine Morano, a member of the European Parliament and a staunch Sarkozy ally, announced last week that she would be visiting Russia this fall. She will be traveling with members of a pro-Russian parliamentary group that she founded in June, For A New Dialogue With Russia.

The trend also appears to be spreading beyond France's borders. A dozen Italian lawmakers known for their anti-EU views announced on July 29 that they planned a visit to Crimea in October.

In France, the mainstream right's eastward charm offensive is widely seen as an effort to poach votes from the National Front and woo voters both worried about the economic downturn and disenchanted with what they perceive as a toothless European Union.

"I represent a very rural area where farmers are now committing suicide," says Dhuicq. "I've had enough of this American system which imposes a view that prevents trade and, by extension, harms French companies."

Whether deliberate or not, the timing of the Crimea trip was particularly auspicious for the Republican opposition.

It took place as angry farmers, hit hard by the Russian ban on EU food imports and by reduced demand from China, blocked roads across France to protest falling food prices.

According to government figures, as many as 10 percent of French farmers could be facing bankruptcy.

Paris is also scrambling to resolve the dispute sparked by its decision to halt the delivery of two Mistral-class warships to Russia in response to Moscow's role in the eastern Ukrainian conflict, which has killed more than 6,500 people.

Both Sarkozy and Le Pen have urged the French government to honor its word and deliver the ships, warning of the losses incurred by France if it terminates the $1.3 billion contract.

Hollande was quoted this week as saying he would make a final decision on the Mistrals "in the coming weeks" and citing "contractual obligations."

"France's budget is already faced with the problem of the two warships, which still haven't been delivered," laments Marie-Christine Dalloz, a member of Sarkozy's The Republicans and one of the lawmakers who went to Crimea last week. "This is a huge problem, which is compounded by sanctions from both sides. The French agriculture needs to export its production to Russia."

Like Dhuicq, Dalloz expresses no regret over her visit to Crimea, despite the dressing-down by French authorities and Ukraine's threats to place her and the other nine parliamentarians on its travel-ban list.

She vows to accept "any sanctions" resulting from the trip.

"I absolutely do not regret this visit," she says. "In fact, I should have done it earlier."