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.