DAVID GREENE, HOST:
During the recent election in France, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly supported newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron's opponents. That included far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom Putin invited to the Kremlin during the campaign. And that's not all. Putin is also suspected of being behind the hacking of President Macron's campaign database in the final days of the race.
And yet today, Vladimir Putin is being welcomed by President Macron with a whole lot of fanfare at the Palace of Versailles. Let's turn now to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Eleanor, good morning.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So I guess the question is why? Why does President Macron want to invite Vladimir Putin as his first big foreign leader to visit France and not to mention at this gorgeous place in Versailles?
BEARDSLEY: Exactly. A lot of people are asking that. Well, this visit is all around a cultural event that was already planned. There was an exhibit at Versailles marking the 300th anniversary of Czar Peter the Great's visit to France where he opened diplomatic relations between the two countries.
So Macron decided to take advantage of this exhibit to set the agenda with Putin. He has campaigned on - his presidential campaign was on being tough with Russia and, you know, while his opponents wanted to ease sanctions. But human rights groups are not happy about the visit of what they call a flagrant human rights abuser being welcomed at Versailles.
I spoke with Sacha Koulaeva at the International Federation of Human Rights here in Paris. And she said the visit offers free publicity for Putin both inside and outside Russia. Here she is.
SACHA KOULAEVA: He wants to be seen as an important, inevitable partner abroad, that we don't settle any problem without him basically. He wants this respect. He wants this power. For Russian state media channels, it is a sign that we are received as Peter the Great in the golden luxury of Versailles. It is highly symbolic. It is highly important.
GREENE: OK, so there's some criticism there, but Macron has decided to go ahead with this meeting and be aggressive with Putin. What exactly is his agenda in this meeting?
BEARDSLEY: Well, he says he's going to bring up Russia's involvement in eastern Ukraine in the war there, in Syria and in the human rights abuses going on right now in Chechnya against gay men. He said he'd no - make no concessions to Russia. And Koulaeva actually told me that for the first time human rights groups like hers were asked to come, you know, prepare the Russian visit with Macron's staff.
GREENE: Eleanor, Vladimir Putin is not known for giving ground on issues like Eastern Ukraine and certainly not on human rights abuses. I mean, what makes Macron and his advisers think that this direct approach is really going to accomplish all that much?
BEARDSLEY: Well, some things have changed, David. Right now, Putin is very isolated internationally. You know, France has traditionally been a strong ally, but Franco-Russian relations are in tatters after the Eastern Ukraine war and the annexation of Crimea. Former President Hollande even canceled warships that France was building for Russia.
So they're even - and so Macron wants to start anew, so does Putin. But Macron is going to be tough, as he said. And he is showing a solid front with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on this.
There are indications that his new style may actually be bearing fruit. The German foreign minister announced that tomorrow morning, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine will meet. And now that's got to be about the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
GREENE: Well, let's turn to the relationship between Europe and the United States. We had Angela Merkel in a big speech yesterday suggesting that Europe can no longer rely on the United States as a partner. And then we have French President Macron who is fresh off these two summits with President Donald Trump, NATO and then the G7. How does Macron think those meetings went?
BEARDSLEY: Well, he said that their lunch together at the American embassy in Brussels went well. And he said, you know, that this was a very frank and direct talk. And we need to be engaged with the U.S. But, you know, we've all heard about this handshake where...
GREENE: The handshake seen around the world.
BEARDSLEY: ...Macron really - yeah. He held on to Putin's - I mean, sorry - to Trump's hand and really looked into his eyes. So he said in an interview yesterday with a major newspaper that that handshake was no unplanned accident. He said it was to send a clear signal that there's not going to be any concessions to President Trump, even small symbolic ones.
And, you know, Macron actually put Trump in a category with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Erdogan. He said these are three leaders who love power plays. And he says, I have no problem with that. France will not be intimidated. So we have a new style going on between France and Russia.
GREENE: OK. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting from Paris. Eleanor, thanks as always.
BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.