Last Sunday, there has been primaries in France, and the Finnish press, so keen on the US primaries, could not care less. But it is key news for Finland, in particular because the winner, Francois Fillon (who will bemost probably the future winner of the French presidency election in May), is a close friend of Vladimir Putin.
The story begins in 2007. Putin is the Russian President, and Sarkozy is elected President in France, meaning, for those not knowing about the French democracy, that he has all the powers. He chose as his Prime Minister, a quiet politician who during the five “Sarkozy” years will have to shut up and do generally what the President will ask him to do. He has done it with discretion, honesty and has always respected his word, even when Sarkozy was making him suffer public humiliation.
However in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev became President, and Putin took the Prime Minister position in Russia. Sarkozy,who was despising Putin, and all the occidental leaders, including some in Finland, celebrated, and thought that it was the end of Putin. Fillon, then Prime Minister, and already very interested in Russia, took the opposite attitude and met frequently Putin in Moscow and in Paris. It happened apparently more than 12 times, which allowed them to developing some kind of close relation, some say friendship.
In 2012, when the French Right lost the French election, Fillon lost his position. On the Sunday evening when the results were announced, the only phone call he got was from Putin, who asked “And what are your future plans?” and they had a discussion on the topic.
There are a lot of stories about their relations. They were together discussing or playing billiards, during the long evenings after the formal discussions and negotiations. The two of them are practicing sports at a high level, Putin for example as a judoka, and Fillon is car racing and skiing. In spring 2013, Putin, again president, invites Fillon in his datcha 10 kilometers from Moscow, which is quite an honor for a simple member of Parliament.. At the end of the dinner, Fillon is invited to visit the installations of the Olympic Winter Games, with this challenge by Putin: “I beat you when you want on the slopes”, as Fillon is known as a brilliant alpine skier. Later, when Fillon lost his mother, Putin offered him a bottle of 1931 wine, the vintage of her birth.
The two men share also a lot. They seem quiet, but are able to explode in burst of anger when something really annoys them. Fillon denies the existence of a friendship (he has very few real friends), but everybody agrees that it is a very close relation. It does not prevent them from disagreeing publicly and strongly, as stressed by Fillon. He said to Putin publicly one day:”Tell me why you’re supporting this bastard of Bachar?”, and Putin, furious, pointed a finger at him and said: “Do you know who he has in front to replace him? No, and as long as I do not know, I will not give in.”
The point for Finland is that there are very serious chances that Fillon becomes soon one of the influential leaders of the EU, which may lead to important changes towards Russia. In the field of foreign affairs, “domaine réservé” for the French President, Fillon has already announced during the campaign that he wants to lift very fast the sanctions against Russia, as they are weakening Europe, that he considers a provocation to move NATO missiles and troops in the countries at the Russian border, “as Russia is only dangerous when its leaders feel threatened“, and that France should adopt a position more in line with Russia’s concerning Syria. He also recently expressed hope that Europe would soon abolish short-term visas for Russia – something that’s not even on the agenda today. As Bloomberg’s headlines were stressing today: “Vladimir Putin Is Winning the French Election.“
Is it bad for Finland and for the EU? Fillon, who has always been very clever in the French negotiations with Putin, can be the solution we are looking for to end the present “cold war” situation, including the sanctions, and he seems to have also some support on this point among German Conservatives. He is also a realist: he considers that the EU countries need to make strong efforts to increase their defense budget and be able to defend themselves without the Americans. He is also asking that the cooperation with the UK in this field continues, as they have, with France, the most powerful army. He will also probably adopt a friendly attitude with the UK. He said recently that he considers that Russia is part of Europe, which was De Gaulle’s conception, and that it means that UK is still more a part of Europe. After all, he has declared that he is admiring Margaret Thatcher… and his wife is British.