20 years under Putin: a timeline

For his efforts to maintain a dialogue with Vladimir Putin, French media has compared France’s president François Hollande with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Elena Servettaz explains why this analogy is misguided.


On December 6, François Hollande met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin at the governmental terminal of the Moscow Vnukovo Airport. Hollande was the first Western leader who visited Moscow after the West imposed sanctions against Russia. However, Hollande didn’t even mention the controversial Mistral deal in his conversation with Putin. Photo: AFP


After an unscheduled meeting between the French leader François Hollande and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the governmental terminal of the Moscow Vnukovo Airport, several French news agencies (most notably Libération) have attempted to compare Hollande to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Such comparisons have likely been prompted either by Holland’s seeming understanding of Russian issues or by his “bold gesture,” as some have termed his brief stopover in Moscow in the midst of this challenging time for Putin, when the West (France included) has imposed sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

Following the trip, Hollande has been dubbed a “good cop” with regard to Russia. But there’s still no guarantee that he will act better than a “bad cop.” Although the latter might not be liked, a “bad cop” gets respect.

Until recently, Angela Merkel did her utmost to hold bilateral talks with the Russian president. Russian channels gleefully broadcasted photos of Merkel chatting amiably with Putin at the summit in Normandy. That was before the MH-17 tragedy, though. At the G20 summit in Brisbane, few Western leaders wanted their photo taken with Putin. In her interview to Die Welt a short while ago, Merkel said that “Russia is creating problems for Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine.” In other words, it’s creating problems for all the countries that have signed the European Union Association Agreement.

Hollande is unlikely to engage as directly with the Russian president as Merkel did—for several reasons. First of all, there is a language barrier. At their latest meeting, Hollande and Putin were forced to simply smile and nod while awaiting their interpreters’ translations of their greetings. Merkel would have handled the situation more efficiently, as she speaks fluent Russian and Putin speaks German.

Second, his visit to Moscow plays well into Hollande’s domestic policy. One of his goals was to mend the reputational damage he had incurred on his recent trip to Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, at a press conference, Hollande and president Nursultan Nazarbayev were asked about the corruption scandal over French supplies being provided to the Kazakh authoritarian regime.

In 2010, French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and the long time leader of Kazakhstan signed a €2 billion contract concerning the supply of 45 helicopters to Kazakhstan. This deal has been under investigation by French experts seeking to uncover evidence of money-laundering conducted by organized criminal gangs, bribes to foreign officials, conspiracy, and concealment. According to the French media, Sarkozy helped the Kazakh oligarchs avoid prosecution in Europe in return for purchasing the helicopters.

Had Hollande returned from Astana to Paris directly, his opponents would have assailed him with questions, such as whether he was planning to be a successor to Sarkozy’s policy toward Kazakhstan. Besides, that photo of Hollande wearing a Kazakh fur hat and a national robe made him look very awkward. A “true aqsaqal” (an old sage), people in Astana would say; whereas Parisians would think, “What a nightmare!” The stopover in Moscow gave the “French aqsaqal” a chance tidy his reputation, as it made him the first senior Western leader to visit Russia since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis and Western sanctions. Holland spoke with Putin face-to-face. They even had coffee together before Putin escorted Hollande back to his plane.

Angela Merkel might not be liked, but she is certainly respected. And she will always be listened to—by both Russia and the West. As for Hollande, he still has a long way to go.

“It was a timely visit to Moscow,” said the French president upon his arrival in Paris. It was indeed. The French now view their president differently: he is no longer the United States’ rubber stamp, but an independent politician. Or so it seems. He still has a long way to go before he resembles the German chancellor.

The third reason that Hollande’s dialogue shouldn’t be compared to Merkel’s is that Hollande’s background differs from Merkel’s. The French president has never held a ministerial position. Hollande formerly led the Socialist Party, which at times resembles a banana republic, due to its never-ending discord. Another left-wing president — François Mitterrand — was not perfect either, however, he went down in history as a man of a strong moral character.

The French president has incurred name-calling from the very start of his tenure, including “flanby” (caramel jelly) and “penguin.” Merkel has her own nicknames— “Teflon lady” and “black widow,” to name a few—but hers imply rigidity, rather than weakness.

Merkel grew up in East Germany, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Hollande spent his childhood in Normandy, with its valleys, meadows, and grazing cows—a calm, peaceful environment. Hollande grew up in Rouen, famous for its Claude Monet and his Rouen cathedral paintings. While Merkel gazed at the Berlin wall, Hollande enjoyed a view of “Façade at Sunset.” An individual from East Germany (or from the Soviet Union) will inevitably be strikingly different from one who grew up in Arcadian Normandy.

In Normandy, they have the expression “a Normand response.” It means that when someone asks, “Is it going to rain today?” a Norman will reply, “It might and it might not.” Hollande’s political attitude often seems inflected with the “Normand response.” For example, the issue of France’s suspended delivery of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia was never brought up during Hollande and Putin’s talks at Vnukovo Airport. Merkel would never have evaded discussing a topic of such great concern.

Back in the day, Israel’s prime minister Golda Meier was said to be “the only man in the Cabinet.” Today, a similar expression might be used to describe Angela Merkel in the European Union. She might not be liked, but she is certainly respected. And she will always be listened to—by both Russia and the West. As for Hollande, he still has a long way to go.