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Macron denounces 'threatening' Russia remarks after rare phone talks

The contact with Sergei Shoigu was extremely rare (Alexander NEMENOV)
The contact with Sergei Shoigu was extremely rare (Alexander NEMENOV)

President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday condemned Russia's "threatening" tone following rare phone talks between the French and Russian defence ministers that only served to underline the gaping gulf between Moscow and Europe two years into the invasion of Ukraine.

Analysts said the contact in the aftermath of the deadly Moscow attack claimed by Islamic State would not herald any change in strategy from either Russia or France under Macron, who has not ruled out sending ground troops to Ukraine.

French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu told Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, a long time confidant of President Vladimir Putin, that France was ready to step up exchanges to battle "terrorism", according to the French defence ministry.

The one-hour phone call took place as France is pulling out all the stops to host the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.

Russia for its part warned France it hoped that the French secret services had not been involved in the recent attack on a concert hall in Moscow claimed by Islamic State group extremists, according to a readout from the Russian defence ministry.

"The comments by the Russian side were bizarre and threatening," Macron told reporters, adding that any suggestions France might have been involved in the deadly attack were "ridiculous".

- 'Arsenal of war' -

Macron said France had been in contact with Russia as Paris had "useful information" to share on the origin and organisation of the attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue that killed at least 144 people.

"I asked the directors of the services at the appropriate ministries to have technical discussions with their (Russian) counterparts to express a message of solidarity and because we had useful information -- I am not going to reveal it here -- on the origin and organisation of this attack," Macron said.

"It's ridiculous to say that France is behind it, that the Ukrainians are behind it... It does not correspond to reality, it's a manipulation of information which is part of Russia's arsenal of war," he added.

The Kremlin and Russian propaganda have pushed the narrative that the West and Ukraine were linked to the attackers -- an idea that the West and Kyiv have denounced as absurd.

After the talks between Lecornu and Shoigu, Moscow also said that "readiness for dialogue on Ukraine was noted" during the phone call. France immediately shot down that suggestion.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow contacts with Western officials have slowed down to a trickle.

Some in France criticised the French government over Wednesday's talks.

"You have seen how Russia exploits this kind of discussion," former president Francois Hollande told broadcaster France Inter. "My recommendation is no contact with Russia."

Macron defended his stance, saying there will be "joint work with all those affected by terrorism".

- 'Failed gesture' -

"It seems to have been a failed gesture by France," Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at risk analysis firm Eurasia Group, told AFP, referring to the phone call.

"I don't think, however, that it suggests Macron is getting cold feet about possible boots on the ground. If anything, the exchange proves his point. Moscow is beyond any reasonable discussion with the West, even on subjects of mutual concern."

Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said it was also important for France to keep talking with Russia to rule out any possible "dangerous encounters" in Ukraine.

"In this sense, it is normal to maintain normal channels of communication through the military," Gabuev told AFP.

He said Moscow was "interested" in making it look like Western countries "now want to negotiate with it."

Tatiana Stanovaya, head of political analysis firm R. Politik, said Moscow was "flattered" to have received the call but sought to use it to its advantage to feed its anti-Ukrainian narrative and did not worry about any potential blowback.

"There is no positive agenda at all, no interest in resuming cooperation with France, either," Stanovaya told AFP.

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