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French MPs and sanctions: not that bad, yet a bitter experience

MPs vote in the French Parliament
French MPs and sanctions: not that bad, yet a bitter experience
This resolution displays the carelessness of French politicians and their vulnerability to Russian pressure, but does not condemn the EU policy of sanctions

The vote by the French Senate of a “resolution” on EU sanctions against Russia is both a motive of relief and anger.

Relief: to secure the vote of a broad majority of senators, the resolution was designed by its sponsors NOT to call expressly for the lifting of sanctions. Lifting sanctions is only “wished” on the condition of “significant and targeted” changes in Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine.

More, the assessment of these changes is not put in determined terms — likely to be too lenient for Russia and too binding for the European governments. Rather, it is left to the French government and its partners to evaluate Russian efforts if any, and to make the appropriate decisions. In the terms of the resolution, sanctions are to be “revaluated”, which might mean after all “strengthened”!

Last but not least, we should not forget to assess also this document on what it DOES NOT say: although it relies primarily on Minsk agreements, supposed to be reciprocal, it mentions only Russia as responsible for the war in Crimea and in Donbas, and sets conditions to be met by Russia only, instead of the usual diplomatic doublespeak of Western governments, allegedly balanced, which charges both Ukraine and Russia for the failures in implementing the Minsk agreements. Although the word “Crimea” is absent from Minsk agreements, the resolution begins by “condemning the use of force by Russia on Ukrainian territory and the annexation of Crimea after a referendum regarded as invalid by the United Nations”.

Yet, there are indeed motives of anger. To begin with, the French Senate accepted to debate on the lifting the sanctions, as if these sanctions were something bad as such, as if Europeans defended Ukraine (and themselves) only with reluctance, preferring to avoid any conflict. This is close to a collaborationist mindset: as if surrendering to Putin’s hegemony was a less evil than facing Putin’s wrath and desire of revenge.

One senator (M. Maurey, social-democrat) proposed to reject the resolution by a preliminary motion, claiming that nothing in the situation in Ukraine nor in the behaviour of Russia gave any ground for alleviating the sanctions. His motion was rejected. Furthermore, the resolution was submitted by M. Pozzo Di Borgo, who belongs to the disgraced team of French MPs who visited Crimea in 2015 and applauded the occupation. He is a cunning pro-Kremlin lobbyist, and one has to admit that (and the Russian propaganda does not deprive to advertise) “French senators are asking for the lift of sanctions against Russia at the initiative of pro-Putin activists”, even with qualifications.

To put it briefly, this resolution displays the carelessness of French politicians and their vulnerability to Russians pressures, but it does not condemn the European policy of sanctions, and restates key positions of the most clear-headed European leaders concerning Russian threat.
 Such an ambiguous result needs closer scrutiny.

Misdirection was a basic magic trick of Soviet lie, but this one is a masterpiece.

  • First step: right MP Mariani, a well-known Putin’s friend, smuggles a vote (without any legal force) of National Assembly calling for the end of sanctions. He succeeded by an off-guard move: a quick vote of 55 against 45, choosing a moment when more than 400 MPs were absent. As such this vote has little political force. Never mind.
  • Second step: Nouveau Centre party senator Pozzo di Borgo, M. Mariani’s sidekick, submits a resolution at the Senate and makes believe that it is, like the first one, a plea against sanctions.
  • Third step: he designs carefully the resolution and the story-telling about it so as to muddle the water for the press and for his colleagues. Behind the scene during the discussion, he managed to discreetly have most of the amendments rejected, but let through a few ones, actually important but seemingly minor. A few senators saw the trick and tried to oppose, but the majority of the assembly and even the Government Spokesman choose to let go and to accept a twisted and ambiguous resolution. No matter, whatever the content of the resolution, nobody will recall it exactly, since everybody “knows” it is a plea against sanctions.

Here is the deception: to make people listen the melody, not the lyrics. Yet, to secure the trick, the twisted resolution goes pretty far in the direction of blaming Russia. So that the deception may turn against its authors.

First, M. Di Borgo tried to cheat his colleagues by declaring that his proposition included a condemnation of Crimea’s annexation, whereas it read “regretting the use of force by Russia on Ukrainian territory then the annexation of Crimea”. But the Senate amended the sentence: “condemn” instead of “regret”, “and” instead of “then”. These are significant changes, but only for careful readers.

Second, it cannot be overstated that, unlike the usual diplomatic line of Europeans, the resolution DOES NOT link the “solution of the crisis” and withdrawal of Russia to political concessions by Ukraine on regional autonomy of Donbas or whatever.

Third, in the middle of a resolution which submits any withdrawal of sanctions to conditions, M. Di Borgo tried to smuggle the unconditional withdrawal of some sanctions, namely the personal sanctions targeting the Russian MPs. The initial text called for abolishing these sanctions “sans délai”, without delay, which means without condition. But this provision was rejected by the Senate, on very clear grounds: no lifting of sanction may happen without condition, and personal political sanctions must be evaluated on a case by case basis and not for all Russian officials. The final text, cautious and double-headed, “calls the Government and its European partners to work on the lifting of individual sanctions against Russian MPs”. Again, what looks at first sight like a minor technicality has in fact great bearings: it bans any unconditional withdrawal or reduction of whatever sanctions, and hints at the responsibility of the Duma in authorizing Putin to use the armed forces in Ukraine: the resolution “condemns the resort of force by Russia on Ukrainian soil”.

Nevertheless, as a French citizen and as a European, I am ashamed and enraged by this episode. Beyond its ambiguity and the fact that the Putin lobby did not gain the support of French MPs for the lifting of sanctions, it shows the disarray, the lack of courage and of vision of many politicians. This positive or at least relieving vote was not obtained by a lucid debate leading to a considered compromise, but through confusion, accepted ambiguity, and carelessness. It is as if politicians gave up to understand and to face the perils and complexity of the globalized world. They seem to reason along these lines: we are drowning in a running stream of information, bewildered by the intertwined scales of any problem, always local and global. So let us give up and just pretend to run affairs which are actually run by nobody, except by the chaotic “laws” of economy which do not predict anything.

Read also by Philippe de Lara: Why compare the Holodomor and the Holocaust

In France, despite the old tradition and prestige of republican politics, this mood is shaping a new style of politicians, weaker than wise, twisted, more easily corruptible. Not because they are bad persons, but because they give in to the pressure of the situation. Literally, they do not want to know what is going on because they fear either to be embarrassed, or impotent, or deceived. So they become impervious to facts and evidence.

To be “realist” means for them abandoning political action. The less you act, the smarter you look. On that principle, “Russia will always be there”; “Facing a global terrorist threat, we can’t afford having any other enemy”; “Ukraine belongs to Russia or at least to the Russian sphere of influence. It may be sad for them but…”; and worst of all: “Western civilization is no longer the centre of the world, Europe is no more the leading continent but went back to a tiny remote province of Asia.”

To these tired democrats, freedom of belief and speech, free enterprise remain of course important matters, but too complicated to be within the reach of government. This is the sad and dreadful music one can hear from our frightened and unaccountable MPs. They are not only unaccountable in front of their constituents, they are unaccountable in front of reality. Ukrainian rebirth is plagued by this bad mood in old democracies, but Ukrainian rebirth is also the best shot for overcoming this bad mood. The Revolution of Dignity has to be also the revolution of political action.

Philippe de Lara is a French philosopher, political expert and the Professor at the Paris II Panthéon Assas University; he teaches political studies and runs the Modernity and Totalitarianism research programme. One of his books: Humanism Exercises, Conversation with Vincent Descombes, 2014 (Exercices d’humanité, conversation avec Vincent Descombes, Les Petits Platons, 2014).


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