France’s National Assembly just voted against the prolongation of economic sanctions against Russia. Will this move be a game-changer? 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, shakes hands with French Senate President Gerard Larcher, right, during their meeting in Moscow on April 4, 2016. Photo: AP

The Kremlin’s attempts to divide Europe appear to have been successful, as France’s parliament – the National Assembly – recently voted against prolonging economic sanctions on Russia. On Apr. 28 the French parliamentarians adopted a resolution calling on Paris to reassess the nation’s sanctions policy toward Moscow.   

Out of 577 members of the National Assembly, 55 supported the resolution, 44 turned it down, and two preferred to abstain. The majority, however, were absent. The Republicans party was the main driving force, with The Union of Democrats and Independents, the right-wing liberal party, and the National Front populists contributing to the adoption of the revolution.

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Oddly enough, the failure to block the resolution results from the fact that the parliamentary majority that is skeptical toward Russia didn’t mobilize its political forces at the right time and, in fact, didn’t even turn up to vote. Only 15 percent of the left parliamentary majority attended the Apr. 28 session of the National Assembly, while the Republicans turnout was comparatively higher (23 percent).   

The initiative to reject further sanctions on Russia came from France’s right-wing party, The Republicans. Its leader Thierry Mariani put forward the resolution of not to prolong sanctions before the French parliament, with most members of his party having supported it. They firmly believe that French-Russian cooperation was hampered by the sanction wars between Moscow and Brussels.

The Republicans members express concerns over the fact that Russia’s counter-sanctions discouraged French food companies and created obstacles for them to return to the Russian market. If sanctions are prolonged, the French companies will suffer even more than the Russian ones, they argue. The Union of Democrats and Independents party is also against the extension of the sanctions. As its leader Yves Pozzo di Boggo points out, Europe is the only stakeholder that has lost because of the prolongation of the sanctions against Russia.

Likewise, the populist party – the National Front - is among the major advocates of the cancelation of sanctions. In particular, the National Front’s Vice President Florian Philippot sees anti-Russians sanctions as a “political and diplomatic mistake” as well as “economic drama” and a tragedy for agricultural producers, including French farmers. 

Meanwhile, the left-wing parties, including the Socialist Party and The Greens, didn’t support the idea of lifting sanctions on Russia because they question the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine and the viability of the Minsk Agreements. In fact, they believe that France cannot withdraw the sanctions policy without hampering their relations with those who remain intransigent toward Russia. However, within the Socialist Party, there are some mavericks like Economy Minister Emmanuele Macron, who supports the cancelation of sanctions.

Despite this small piece of success for anti-sanctions advocates, the resolution is not a game changer and is purely symbolic in its nature. It just invites the French government once again to reassess its approach of how to deal with Russia, but it does not oblige Paris to initiate immediate departure from the sanctions policy.    

At the same time, this resolution is the manifestation of anti-sanctions sentiment on the legislative level, which can be seen as a little step forward and a modest success of the Kremlin’s attempts to split Europe. That’s especially true if the vote on the resolution leads to new negotiations aimed at withdrawing the sanctions policy against Russia. Emboldened by their success, the right-wing parliamentarians might convey their ideas to voters and gain their support.

In fact, France is one of the EU countries that has been trying to maintain dialogue with Russia despite the risks of being rebuked by its West peers. Numerous visits of French politicians to Russia and Crimea since the sanctions went into effect are a good example that illustrates the French approach toward Russia.

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In the wake of the Russia-West confrontation over Ukraine, a number of French parliamentarians, including Mariani and Pozzo, visited the peninsula in late July 2015. Former French President and current leader of the Republicans party Nicolas Sarkozy paid a two-day visit to Moscow on Oct. 28-29. In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015, French President François Hollande met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow in late November 2015.

French Senate President Gerard Larcher paid a visit to Moscow in early April. He admitted that the sanctions on Russia had serious implications for France, which has lost access to Russian markets. According to France’s official statistics, before the sanctions came into force in 2014, between 6,000 and 7,000 French companies exported their goods to Russia, with French business investing in this country more than 12 billion euros per year. The auto industry, high-tech, agriculture and financial services sector were among the top Russian fields, where France preferred to invest.   

However, by the end of 2015, French investment decreased by nearly $1 billion. French producers were alarmed by the fact that the sanctions affected the country’s labor market and agribusiness. They also led to the growth of unemployment in those fields affected by sanctions. After all, Russia had been one of the major importers of French agricultural goods and the Kremlin’s counter-sanctions on European goods affected French farmers, livestock and cheese producers. So it turns out that the sanctions have had nearly the opposite effect intended – instead of hurting Russia, they are hurting France’s farmers, small businesses and exporters, some French parliamentarians believe.

Likewise, French expert Philippe Marilère views the sanctions as “hypocritical” and “ineffective.” But at the same time, he argues the cancellation of the sanctions would be seen as Putin’s victory. Few in Europe are ready to admit it.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.