BORMES-LES-MIMOSAS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday hosts Vladimir Putin for a rare bilateral visit by the Russian strongman to a major EU power, seeking to press the Kremlin to help end the conflict in Ukraine.
The relationship between a youthful French leader who regards himself as a champion of European liberalism and Putin, in power for two decades, has been marked by wariness and tensions.
But Paris is keen to keep relations alive, even at a time of intense strain between Russia and the West, with the French presidency emphasising the importance of finding common ground on shared interests.
Macron will meet Putin at his summer retreat of the Bregancon fortress on France's Mediterranean coast in the early evening, just days before he hosts world leaders including US President Donald Trump for the August 24-26 Group of Seven (G7) summit in Biarritz.
The high-walled medieval fortress will provide a grand venue for talks that will seek to ease the tensions marking the complex bilateral relationship between Paris and Moscow.
Macron hosted Putin shortly after coming to office in 2017 in near imperial style at the palace of Versailles outside Paris.
But the press conference at that event was marked by an iciness with the French president in front of an impassive Putin accusing Russian state media of broadcasting “lying propaganda".
– ‘Room for manoeuvre' –
Russia was slung out of what was the G8 in 2014 after it seized Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, an annexation the international community deems illegal.
It sparked a war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists which has so far claimed more than 13,000 people.
Macron has taken a keen interest in brokering an end to the conflict and believes that the arrival in power of new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky could give a new impulse to halting the fighting.
Zelensky has offered to meet Putin for face-to-face talks and spoken to him by phone in recent weeks.
“President Zelensky has made offers to which — it seems to us — President Putin should respond in an encouraging way," said a French official, who asked not to be named.
“The election of President Zelensky gives us some room for manoeuvre," the official added.
Brokering peace in eastern Ukraine would be a major feather in the cap for Macron, who since coming to office in 2017 has sought to magnify France's international role.
Kremlin advisor Yuri Ushakov said that the dialogue between France and Russia had “intensified" in recent months and that Putin's visit was the “logical continuation" of his regular contact with Macron
Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Macron would be looking for ways to resuscitate the 2015 Minsk ceasefire deal which Paris and Berlin helped broker.
“The main public issue will be reviving the Minsk accords," Baunov told AFP.
– ‘Very useful chance' –
Iran will also feature high on the agenda, with Paris keen for Moscow to use its close ties with Tehran to prevent a further escalation of conflicts in the Middle East.
Tensions have shot up since Washington's unilateral pullout from a 2015 deal to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Macron is expected to press Putin to use his influence with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop an offensive in the northern region of Idlib and ward off new refugee flows towards Turkey.
A source of tension could come from the domestic situation in Russia, with France repeatedly rebuking Moscow over its crackdown on protesters who are angered by a refusal to register opposition candidates for elections later this year.
In a possible gesture of goodwill by the Russian authorities, French banker Philippe Delpal, who had spent the last six months behind bars in Russia on fraud charges, was released into house arrest on Thursday.
Former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine told the Figaro daily that Putin's visit marked a “very useful chance to move France and, if possible Europe, out of the impasse" in their relations.