Putin visits France, hopes to mend strained ties with West

VERSAILLES, France — On a visit likely to shape Russia-France ties for years, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin at the sumptuous Palace of Versailles on Monday for what the newly-elected French leader said would be "demanding" talks on Syria, the Ukrainian crisis and other thorny issues driving the rift between Russia and the West.

The leaders' first handshakes — relatively brief and cordial — after Putin climbed out of his limousine at Versailles were far less macho than Macron's now famous who-will-blink-first handshake showdown with President Donald Trump when the two leaders met for the first time last week.

Monday's visit offered Putin and Macron a chance to reset a relationship that got off on a less-than-ideal foot during Macron's presidential campaign. Macron had strong words for Russia in his race for the presidency, saying France and Russia don't share the same values. Putin bet — wrongly — on Macron's far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, hosting her at the Kremlin in March, before Macron then handily beat her.

Macron is the first Western leader to speak to Putin after the Group of Seven summit over the weekend, where relations with Russia were a key topic.

The Kremlin hailed the visit as a chance for Putin and Macron to get to know each other and better understand their views on a range of disputed issues, including the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and Russia's ties with the European Union.

During his G-7 news conference on Saturday, Macron promised to have a "demanding dialogue" with Russia, especially on Syria. He called it a failure that European nations were not involved in the talks over Syria's future but were being hit by the effects of that crisis, including the huge number of Syrian refugees trying to get to Europe.

"We must talk to Russia to change the framework for getting out of the military crisis in Syria and to build a much more collective and integrated inclusive political solution," Macron declared.

Macron's invitation for Putin was a surprise after his tough stance on Russia during the French election. Macron's aides also claimed that Russian groups launched hacking attacks on his presidential campaign. Moscow strongly denied all allegations of election meddling.

Monday's visit offers both sides an opportunity to improve ties that steadily deteriorated in the closing months of the presidency of Macron's predecessor, Socialist Francois Hollande.

"As a person who pays utmost attention to personal contacts, Putin believes that only a one-on-one meeting could give answers to many questions about Macron as a person and as president of France, as well as his future foreign policy course and his stance on Russia," Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow-based think-tank, wrote.

In October, Putin abruptly shelved a trip to Paris after Hollande alleged that Russia could face war crime charges for its actions in Syria. Hollande also refused to take part in the opening of the newly built Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center in Paris and was only interested in talking with Russia about Syria.

Later Monday, Putin is to visit the center near the Seine River that includes the Holy Trinity Cathedral. The site was sold to Russia under former President Nicolas Sarkozy amid criticism from rights groups.

After their talks at Versailles, Putin and Macron will tour an exhibition there marking the 300th anniversary of Russian Czar Peter the Great's trip to Paris that was prepared by St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum.

With Peter the Great widely seen as a ruler who modernized Russia and sought to open it up to the West, the exhibition offers a symbolic backdrop for both to talk about the importance of Russia-France ties.

Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Russia was dissatisfied with the current level of political contacts and that the meeting "is very important for both Russia and France."

Ushakov said he expects an "interesting discussion" on ways to implement a 2015 Minsk deal for eastern Ukraine, which was brokered by Germany and France. The U.S. and the EU have made the prospect of lifting economic and financial sanctions against Moscow contingent on fulfilling the peace agreement.

The deal has helped reduce the scale of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, but clashes have continued and political elements of the agreement have stalled. Ukraine and Russia have blamed one another for the fighting that has left some 10,000 people dead.

Ushakov said that the two leaders will also have a "frank" discussion on Syria, where Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad and France has pushed strongly for his removal. He added that last week's suicide attack on Manchester Arena emphasized the need to pool efforts in the fight against terrorism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday urged European Union nations to stick together in the face of emerging policy divisions with the U.S., Britain's decision to leave the bloc and other challenges. Merkel also stressed the importance of being good neighbors "wherever that is possible, including with Russia, but also with others."

Human rights activists protested Monday in Paris over the situation of gays in the Russian republic of Chechnya, holding a banner "Stop homophobia in Chechnya" near the Eiffel Tower.

"It's important that Mr. Putin is ready to hear, we hope, strong words coming from Mr. Macron, to say 'stop' to that homophobia, which has lasted for too long," Cecile Coudriou of Amnesty International said.

Human Rights Watch said last week that high-level officials in Russia's Chechnya humiliated inmates during visits to detention facilities where gay people were being held and tortured.