The lengthy past of relations between Paris and Moscow may help to explain why it has been difficult for the French capital to sever ties with the Russian city completely…starting with Voltaire.

Voltaire was so captivated by the rising Russian empire that he penned effusive letters to Catherine the Great. Within the 1760s and 1770s, the French Enlightened thinker and the Russian empress exchanged 197 handwritten letters, all in French, a language preferred by the Russian upper class. Voltaire applauded Catherine as an “enlightened despot” and said to her: “If I were younger, I would become Russian.” In 1773, Denis Diderot, another silk-stockinged philosophe, visited the Court of St Petersburg. In this way, Russia was held in the French imagination as a kindred sanctuary of arts and letters, of civilization’s success over disarray.

Russia’s military actions in Ukraine have uncovered a very different type of reliance in France – a fatal fascination with the country. On the left, this is a holdover from the Bolshevik Revolution and communism, while the French Communist Party maintained ties to Moscow until 2013. On the far right is admiration for Russian patriotism and authoritarianism, with Marine Le Pen’s campaigns partially supported by a Russian bank.

The pull of Russia on the French psyche is not limited to the extremes of the populace. It extends to the regal parlors of the Paris elite. During his presidency, Jacques Chirac – a former Gaullist who sought to counter American dominance – translated Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” into French and was later awarded Russia’s highest honor. In response, Chirac gave Vladimir Putin the Legion d’Honneur. The center-right’s former prime minister, François Fillon, was also a frequent guest of Mr. Putin’s. Even after the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Fillon chose to take up board positions at two Russian companies.

Alexandre Orlov
Alexandre Orlov, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to France (Source: UMP Photos/Flickr)

In 2008, the Russian ambassador to Paris, Alexandre Orlov, began a decade-long habit of entertaining the city’s elite and commissioning the erection of a magnificent gold-tipped Russian Orthodox cathedral on the left bank of the Seine. When his memoirs were released in 2020, the preface was written by Helene Carrere d’Encausse, the “perpetual secretary” of the Academie Française, who suggested it would help readers comprehend the confusion of Soviet Russians following the disintegration of their country. However, those drawn to this world maintained that France’s tropisme russe was neither hazardous nor tawdry but a consequence of an exclusive cultural bond.

Amidst the flurry of France’s political discussions, divergent geopolitical perspectives vary. The country is not inherently partial towards Russia. Former French President François Hollande halted a deal to deliver two Mistral-class vessels to Russia after Crimea’s annexation. Bernard-Henri Levy, a French philosopher famous for his activism, has long advocated for France to be more assertive against Russian intrusion in Ukraine; his movie, “Slava Ukraini,” will be released on February 22nd.

It is often believed that following World War II, France sought to maintain a strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union; however, Benjamin Haddad, a representative of Emmanuel Macron, suggests this is essentially a myth. According to Haddad, Charles de Gaulle sided with the U.S. and its allies when a crisis occurred. Public opinion agrees: the majority of those surveyed in polls reported a favorable view of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, while only a tiny fraction expressed support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The backdrop of France’s diplomacy under Mr. Macron was set by Peter the Great’s visit to Versailles. Macron’s first move was to invite the newly elected Putin to the city with much admiration for his willingness to open up to Europe. He was the only European leader who believed he could talk Putin out of going to war, even though the tanks were being placed on Ukraine’s borders and warnings of an impending invasion were coming from America’s intelligence agencies. Furthermore, Macron was the only one who considered a situation in which Russia could be brought into a “new European security architecture” to prevent it from entering a relationship with China. However, his efforts were futile in the face of the atrocities to come with Putin’s war: massacres, bombings, and the death of innocent children. This has forced a form of grief upon Macron, as his charm offensive was unsuccessful.