March 28, 2022 - 5:21pm

President Joe Biden’s suggestion over the weekend that Vladimir Putin was a “butcher” who should not be allowed to “stay in power” has been widely criticised. But President Emmanuel Macron was the only Western leader to suggest that Biden’s ad-libbed words were dangerous. “I would not use this kind of language because I continue to talk to Putin,” Macron told a French radio interviewer yesterday.

“We want to stop the war that Russia has started without starting a war ourselves. That’s our aim and we cannot achieve that aim if we escalate either in words or deeds.” His comments will re-launch the debate on President Macron’s performance as a would-be middleman or Western envoy to Vladimir Putin before and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For whom is Macron speaking exactly? There has been strong criticism of his role in Poland and other eastern European countries, and in parts of the US media.

Macron’s efforts have been praised and encouraged by the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Macron has had ten phone conversations with Putin since the war began — several of them at Zelensky’s request — and the French and Ukrainian presidents speak on the phone every day.

And yet Zelensky was also critical in an interview with The Economist yesterday of the reluctance of Macron and some other Western leaders to give Ukraine tanks and other heavy arms. He said they were “frightened” of Russia, to which French officials reply: “frightened of Russia, no, frightened of a nuclear war, yes.” 

It has to be admitted that the Putin-Macron conversations, before and during the war, have achieved nothing (so far). Putin has lied to Macron continually and Macron has continued to speak to him. Another phone conversation is expected today or tomorrow. Macron hopes to persuade Putin to declare a ceasefire in the besieged Black Sea port of Mariupol for long enough to allow a French-Turkish-Greek humanitarian evacuation of civilians by sea and/or air.

If Macron succeeds, which is far from certain, his not-quite-one-man diplomacy will have borne its first fruits. But what is driving Macron? It’s wrong to suggest that it’s the French presidential election in 13 days’ time. Macron would have done exactly the same thing if the election was two years away.

Macron’s people say that his approach is shaped by logic and common sense. The West is not prepared to risk a nuclear war by joining in the conflict on Ukraine’s side. In those circumstances, only sanctions, plus arms supplies, plus the courage of the Ukrainian people — and then ultimately diplomacy — can bring the crisis to a tolerable solution.

The hawkish counter-view held by Zelensky, Poland and the Baltic states — that Russia must be defeated and must be seen to be defeated — is a logical one, French officials concede. It is also dangerous. What is not logical is to suggest, as President Biden briefly did, that Vladimir Putin should be removed without any direct Western engagement in the conflict.

Macron is, however, also sometimes guilty of straying off the Nato script. His other comments to French radio yesterday — less quoted by English-speaking media — are a case in point. “We Europeans must not cede to some kind of escalation,” he said. “We must not, we Europeans, forget our geography and our history. We are not at war with the Russian people.”

Behind those comments are Macron’s belief in a stronger, more “strategic” sense of the European Union: the long-term need to assert a European political identity and stand up to Russia and China, but also to become more militarily and technologically independent of the United States. He is once again being logical. But he is also inviting, or deepening, the suspicion among some in the US and some in Europe that he does not always play on the Nato team.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.