French presidential favourite a friendly face for Putin
French presidential frontrunner Francois Fillon has known Russian leader Vladimir Putin through good times and bad -- and believes that dialogue, not threats, are key to handling the Kremlin strongman.
Fillon, a conservative hoping to clinch the nomination for the Republicans party over the centrist Alain Juppe at the weekend, has taken an overtly dovish approach to Russia while campaigning.
It puts him at odds with current Western policy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a time when relations with Russia are at one of their lowest ebbs since the Cold War.
"The question is: must we continue to provoke the Russians, refusing dialogue with them and pushing them to be more and more violent, aggressive and less and less European?" Fillon said in October.
He believes the United States and Europe provoked Putin's "unstable and dangerous" regime by expanding their military and political influence in eastern Europe.
He has also played down Russia's annexation of Crimea in Ukraine in 2014 and he condemns Western sanctions imposed on Moscow after the invasion.
On Syria, he has resisted condemnation of Russian bombing in Aleppo in support of President Bashar al-Assad, whom he sees as a partner in defeating "Islamic totalitarianism."
Juppe by contrast holds views broadly in line with current French policy: sanctions should stay in place, Assad must step down and Assad as well as the Russians are committing war crimes in Syria.
"We need to be much firmer and clearer with Russia," Juppe told the Ouest France newspaper in an interview published on Wednesday, accusing his opponent of "over-indulgence" of Putin.
- Friend of Moscow? -
After Donald Trump's stunning success in the United States, a victory for Fillon in Sunday's primary and next year's presidential election would represent another change in leadership welcomed in Russia.
Fillon was hailed as a "friend of Moscow" in the Russian press following his surprise win in the first round of the Republicans primary last weekend when he scored 44 percent of the vote.
"They do indeed maintain quite good relations," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday of Putin and Fillon, who were prime ministers together from 2008-2012.
Since leaving office, the 62-year-old French social conservative, a devout Christian like Putin, has made at least three trips to Russia to attend conferences, often meeting the president.
Fillon's concern for persecuted Christians in the Middle East is seen by some analysts as partly explaining his embrace of Russia's intervention in Syria.
Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), says it is simplistic however to refer to Fillon as "pro-Putin".
He says the self-professed Gaullist is proposing a traditional right-wing foreign policy of an independent France with ties to Moscow and Washington.
"He is a Russophile which he has expressed on several occasions on several policies," Gomart told AFP.
If Fillon does clinch the nomination, polls show he is likely to face Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front (FN), in the second round of May's presidential vote.
Le Pen believes Crimea should be recognised as part of Russia and also condemns Western sanctions. Her party has accepted financing from a Russian bank as well as numerous invitations to Moscow.
- Limits of dialogue? -
Bernard Kouchner, a foreign minister during Fillon's time as prime minister from 2007-2012, told AFP his former boss had a "friendship" with Putin and the two men used to enjoy jogging together.
But Kouchner believes that dialogue has its limits -- a lesson he learned after helping manage a crisis sparked by Putin's first overseas military intervention in Europe.
When Russian tanks rolled into the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Kouchner took the lead in negotiating a deal to end the fighting.
"We need to understand that he doesn't keep his promises," Kouchner told AFP, referring to Putin. "Yes, we spoke with them in Moscow, but he carried on and did not apply our deal at all."
While Fillon was capable of being "courteous but firm" with Putin when they disagreed, Kouchner is critical of his willingness to overlook the danger of Russian nationalism.
"He demonstrates every time a great understanding for Mr Putin that I find excessive," Kouchner told AFP.
In the French foreign ministry, some officials are also perplexed.
"To say as Fillon does that we need to talk to the Russians doesn't make sense," one member told AFP on condition of anonymity. "We speak to the Russians every day, every week."
© 2016 AFP