ROAR: France remains “one of Russia’s closest allies in Europe”

Paris will continue to support Moscow in spheres where the two countries’ interests coincide, analysts say.

President Dmitry Medvedev is visiting France to discuss bilateral relations and European security with his French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other top officials, including members of the French business community. On a lighter note, Medvedev and Sarkozy are commemorating the start of a year of cultural exchanges between the two countries.

The two leaders, who seem to enjoy a good personal chemistry, are also expected to put the finishing touches on a deal that calls for Russia’s purchase of four French Mistral-class amphibious-assault ships – a deal opposed by some new EU member states, as well as the United States. But this deal seems to be just the tip of the iceberg of future French-Russian deals.

“The Kremlin announced before the visit that Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy will discuss the whole specter of cooperation between Russia and France,” Kommersant daily reported. “The two leaders behaved as old and trusted friends, which generally reflects the actual state of affairs,” it added.

“France, which has not brought problems to Russia for a long time, has become even closer to the Russian authorities and Dmitry Medvedev since the summer of 2008,” the daily said, which also mentioned the peace agreement that was concluded between Moscow and Tbilisi thanks to the mediation work of Sarkozy, which remains “the only document signed by the Russian and Georgian presidents” following the events of August 2008 in the North Caucasus, the paper noted.

“Everything is so good and balanced in Russian-French relations that one should not expect any breakthroughs and failures,” a source in the Russian delegation told the daily. However, the meeting between Medvedev and Sarkozy will serve to expedite talks on the purchase of French Mistral-class warships. The first ship will be purchased without military equipment, a source close to the Russian Defense Ministry told Kommersant.

“We buy Renault cars without drivers from the French, and this will be the case with the warship,” he explained. Russia is planning to assemble this class of warships with the participation of French companies, he added. “We will purchase one warship, and then we will use their know-how for manufacturing three or four others,” he said.

Several contracts are to be signed during the visit, but the two presidents “have concluded the main deal,” Gazeta daily said, referring to the talks on Mistral. It had been understood in Russia that one ship would be built in France and three others in Russia , it added. However, Sarkozy proposed “an equal variant – two plus two,” which apparently took many by surprise, the daily noted. It seems that the French side is interested in procuring more work for its own side. Anyway, the final details of the contract are still being worked out.

Although the Kremlin officials had advised not to expect a decision on the warships, the subject seemed to dominate all other issues on Medvedev’s first day in France, Vedomosti daily said. Meanwhile, even the Russian leadership has no straightforward attitude to the deal, with some top officials outright opposing it, the paper noted.

For Russia, purchasing the Mistral amphibious warship is not only a military issue; it is also a political issue, the daily stressed. “It is important to demonstrate that Russia can purchase weapons from a NATO member state,” a source close to the Russian Foreign Ministry told Vedomosti.

France, which is interested in the Mistral deal, may support Medvedev’s idea for a new agreement on European security, the daily said. However, Sarkozy was one of the first European politicians to support Russia’s idea on the new security pact because he is playing his own game called ‘the Emperor of Europe,’” argues Yevgeny Minchenko, Director of International Institute for Political Expertise.

“France, Germany and Italy are natural Russia’s allies from the point of view of Europe’s more independent policy in the spheres of security and energy,” the analyst told Actualcomment.ru website. These countries are also interested in lesser dependence of old European countries on complexes of former socialist states and transition to more pragmatic policy,” he said.

“Paris has always been relatively neutral to Russia and its citizens as well as earlier to the Soviet Union… and demonstrated its independence from the US,” added Aleksandr Shatilov of the Center for Political Conjuncture. “At the same time, France has its own interests, and it cooperates with Russia or opposes it depending on these interests,” he told the same source.

Meanwhile, the Russian president also promised to render his assistance in the issue of visa-free travels of Russians to the EU countries and reforming the world financial and currency architecture, it added.

Sarkozy takes a pro-Russian stance “where there is a mutual interest,” and remains the part of “the single Western family in other respects,” he said.

“Relations between Russia and France (and the whole Europe) will be determined in the coming years by global factors rather than European one,” says Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs political journal. “Europe is losing the central position in the global agenda, and it is unusual situation for Russia and the European Union member states,” he wrote in Gazeta daily. “In this regard, one should be prepared for non-typical scenarios.”

Meanwhile, relations between Russia and France “have significantly strengthened in recent years because the two sides have found spheres where they can be useful to each other,” said Sergey Fedorov of the Institute of Europe. “France is a key player of the European Union and it understands that a calm European integration is impossible without stable relations with Russia.”

“Old and new members of the EU have different attitude to Russia,” Fedorov added, explaining why Sarkozy supported Medvedev’s idea on the new security pact. “The Baltic countries have deserved the title of new knights of a cold war, while France and Germany are building benevolent relations with our country.”

Paris, in turn, expects Russia to support new sanctions against Iran, but the two leaders will not go into details and discuss concrete steps since the issue will be agreed upon in the framework of the group of six countries, Gazeta said.

Medvedev did not rule out new sanctions against Tehran, which is suspected by some of attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program, but he added they should be “balanced and wise, they should not be aimed against civilians, and they should mark a last resort, beyond which dialogue is no longer possible.”

“Russia ’s stance in the Iranian issue remains unchanged,” a diplomatic source told the daily. “We are guided by the interests of our own security and do not want to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.”

“Iran is close to our borders, and its example may be followed by other hot heads,” he added.

Medvedev and Sarkozy recognized the importance of discussing the possibility of applying sanctions against Iran at this critical juncture, Gazeta.ru online newspaper said. But the leaders reiterated that the sanctions should be imposed if the situation does not change, “usng diplomatic channels,” the paper added.

Sergey Borisov, RT