The visit by French parliamentarians to Crimea – even if on non-official business – is another propaganda trump card in the Kremlin's hand.
Thierry Mariani (right), member of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Commission and co-chair of the Association Dialogue Franco-Russe, and Vladimir Konstantinov, chairperson of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea, during a meeting at the State Council of the Republic of Crimea. Photo: RIA Novosti
On July 22-27 a group of French MPs paid a visit to Russia. Among the places they visited was Crimea, which caused a major stir in Russian and French media circles.
A "private initiative" with a political context
In late June, when Thierry Mariani, member of the National Assembly of France and representative of the interests of French expatriates, set about organizing a trip for French MPs and senators to Russia, including Crimea, he could hardly have imagined that it would be headline news.
"We are not making the trip on behalf of the French government or the National Assembly... It is our own initiative," Mariani repeatedly told reporters before and during the short visit.
Mariani and colleagues came to Russia as part of a group of ten predominantly right-wing opposition MPs to revitalize political and inter-parliamentary relations between France and Russia, which stalled in 2014.
Another reason was to see the political realities of Crimea for themselves, and to meet with parliamentarians and representatives of Crimean society and national minorities.
It was that aspect of the trip that was warmly received in official Russian circles. State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin described the visit of French colleagues as a "courageous act," while State Duma Committee for Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Affairs head Leonid Slutsky described the trip as a "breakthrough."
In contrast, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to disavow the "Crimean landing party," and Chairman of the National Assembly of France Claude Bartalone made a special request for the visiting MPs "not to speak on behalf of the National Assembly..."
The Crimean barrier
The fact that a generally private visit by center-right MPs, mostly representing the leading opposition party Les Républicains (the Republicans, formerly the Union for a Popular Movement), caused such a diametrically opposed reaction from the two sides is nothing surprising.
On the diplomatic field, France is naturally trying to play a constructive role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, as evidenced by President Francois Hollande's part in the Minsk talks. Paris does not want a new confrontation in Eastern Europe.
At the same time, the current socialist government in France has taken a clear stance on the "Crimean issue." Together with other NATO allies and the European Union, France does not recognize the legitimacy of Crimea's transfer from Ukraine to Russia.
According to the official view of Paris, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is "illegally occupied by Russia," and hence even an unofficial visit by a group of opposition MPs is a major scandal in French political circles.
Bruno Le Roux, head of the Socialist Party in the lower house of the French parliament, described the "Crimean vacation" of his right-wing opponents as a "national disgrace."
For the Russian side, however, the trip can certainly be touted as a local foreign policy success. For Moscow it matters little that Mariani and comrades met with representatives of the Crimean Tatar community, admired the peninsula's natural beauty, and visited a French military cemetery.
Of far greater significance is the "breaking" of the "blockade of Crimea," and by a major political force at that. The Republicans could very well return to power in 2017.
The French right's Russian playground
The visit of French parliamentarians will undoubtedly have political ramifications. Until now the Kremlin's chief ally in French politics has been Le Front National (FN). However, despite the fact that this far-right party's rating now stands at 25 percent, the majority system and the anti-FN "cordon sanitaire" mean that the extreme right has little opportunity to play a prominent role in the French parliament.
The Republicans are another matter entirely. The party represents the largest opposition group in the National Assembly, controls the Senate together with its centrist allies, and holds keys positions in all areas of government. Their return to power in 2017 is more than likely, given the unpopularity of the ruling socialist majority.
On the one hand, the Republicans are involved in the center-right European People's Party, known to be one of the EU's least Kremlin-friendly pan-European political parties. Delegate-General for Foreign Relations Pierre Lellouche (of the Republicans) notes in particular that, "Crimea was annexed in a manner contrary to international norms and rules."
On the other hand, the Republicans' approach to Russia seems very pragmatic. The statement by Mariani's group on the need to accept reality and legally recognize the Republic of Crimea as part of Russia is hardly radical for the French parliamentary right.
Party leader and former president Nicolas Sarkozy publicly declared in early 2015: "If Kosovo has the right to be independent of Serbia, I do not see how one can argue that Crimea does not have the right to leave Ukraine and join Russia." Sarkozy describes the current state of EU-Russia relations as a "drama."
Juxtaposed with the strident "pro-Ukrainianism" of its European bedfellows, the French center-right's approach is distinctive - a fact merely confirmed by the informal trip to Russia by a group of French right-wingers. Is it any wonder that the visit was graciously accepted and favorably covered by Moscow?
In contrast, say, to FN leader Marine Le Pen, in the case of Mariani's serious and "handshakable" political group, the Russian authorities did not risk being accused of collaborating with anti-systemic and anti-European circles.
In any event, it seems that the tactic of inviting European politicians to Russia and Crimea will be deployed further. Russian media reports that this fall will see a visit by a group of European Parliament members, some of whom might be persuaded to make a stopover in Crimea.