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‘Chemical arms a red line’ – Macron, Putin meet

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron pose for a photo at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, France. (AP)

VERSAILLES, France, May 29, (Agencies): The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a red line for France and would result in reprisals, Emmanuel Macron said on Monday during his first meeting as president of France with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. “Any use of chemical weapons would results in reprisals and an immediate riposte, at least where France is concerned,” Macron said at a joint news conference with Putin in which he added that his aim was the fight against terrorism in the country.

He said he wanted to work with Putin to that end. The two countries back different sides in the Syrian conflict, with Putin behind President Bashar al-Assad and Macron part of a western coalition that supports rebel groups and has accused Assad of using chemical weapons in the past. Macron said he had a frank exchange of views with Putin, and that the two had aired their disagreements on a number of subjects.

Meanwhile, Macron said on Monday that he and his Russian counterpart Putin were agreed the time was right for a new round of peace talks on Ukraine. Macron said last week that he wanted to bring together soon the ‘Normandy format’ which groups the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine and which met first in Normandy, northwest France. On Monday, he said Putin shared the same hope, adding that the talks should take place “in days or weeks.

Putin, for his part, said sanctions imposed by western countries on Russia over its activities in Ukraine would not help stabilise the situation in the east of the country where it borders Russia. Last Friday at G7 talks in Sicily, European Council President Donald Tusk urged the group’s leaders to stick to their sanctions, but his urging came a day after a senior US official said Washington had no position on the issue.

The 28-nation EU bloc and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. While EU leaders have so far backed sanctions until a shaky ceasefire agreement signed in February 2015 in Minsk is fully implemented, US President Donald Trump’s promise of warmer ties with Moscow has tested the EU’s resolve to remain united on the issue.

Macron, standing alongside Putin, on Monday dubbed two Russian media outlets “agents of influence” which he said had spread fake news about him during his election campaign. In one of the sharper moments of a news conference marking a visit by Putin, Macron added that he had already raised the issue with the Kremlin leader in a post-election phone call, going on to say the episode was in the past and would stay there.

“When I say things once, I don’t usually repeat myself,” he said. During the fraught election campaign, Macron’s camp banned two Russian news outlets — state-funded Sputnik news agency and RT TV channel — from having media access to his campaign headquarters, saying they were spreading propaganda rather than reporting real news.

With Putin alongside him, the 39-year-old Macron repeated the accusation in a reply to a journalist’s question, saying: “During the campaign, Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign. “They behaved like organs of influence, of propaganda and of lying propaganda,” he said.

During the campaign, which climaxed with Macron’s election on May 7, Macron’s camp also irritated the Kremlin by saying its campaign’s networks, databases and sites had come under attack from locations inside Russia.

Putin’s visit is the latest test of Macron’s diplomatic mettle after the G7 talks in Sicily last week and the NATO summit in Brussels where he turned the tables on Trump by refusing to release the American leader’s hand for several seconds during the handshake for the cameras. “It is essential to talk to Russia because there are many international issues that will not be resolved without a tough exchange with the Russians,” Macron said in Sicily. Russia’s powerful ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, said he hoped the meeting could help turn the page on the fraught relationship between Putin and Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande. “Many things in the future will depend on the first meeting,” Orlov told Europe 1 radio.

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