Paris (AFP): French President Francois Hollande has not yet decided whether to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Paris next week, after the Kremlin blocked a UN bid to end the bombing of Aleppo, Paris said Monday.
Putin is due in Paris on October 19 to inaugurate a new Orthodox church near the Eiffel Tower in a visit that is fast turning into a diplomatic headache for France.
On Sunday, Hollande left open the question of whether he would receive Putin, describing the scorched-earth campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo as a war crime.
“I asked myself the question… Is it useful? Is it necessary? Can it be a way of exerting pressure? Can we get him to stop what he is doing with the Syrian regime?” Hollande told the TMC channel.
The Kremlin however said preparations for Putin’s visit were continuing.
“There are plans for talks with the Elysee Palace (seat of the French presidency) and Putin will take part in the inauguration of the Russian spiritual centre,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Paris had not informed Moscow of any changes to their plans, he added.
Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told France Inter radio on Monday that Hollande would decide whether to meet with Putin “in light of the situation in Aleppo and Syria”.
If Hollande agrees to meet Putin, “it will not be for pleasantries, it will be to speak the truth,” he said, calling the Syrian and Russian bombardments of Aleppo a “gift to terrorists”.
Ayrault was given short shrift in Moscow on Friday as he tried in vain to persuade his opposite number Sergei Lavrov to implement the Aleppo ceasefire plan.
But Ayrault said Russia was still “a partner” of France and there might also be talks to try to resolve the nearly three-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine.
– ‘Heavy symbolism’ -He did not give details but France and Germany have for weeks been trying to organise a meeting between Hollande, Putin, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.
During a visit Monday to Istanbul, Putin outlined a potential first step toward getting badly needed aid into Aleppo, where some 250,000 residents live in the rebel-held east.
“We have a common position which is to do everything to get humanitarian aid to Aleppo… The problem is ensuring the safety of these deliveries,” Putin said.
On Saturday, Russia blocked a draft French UN resolution calling for an end to the barrage of air strikes on the city’s rebel-held east that have escalated in the last month, leaving hundreds of people dead, including dozens of children.
It was the fifth time that Russia used its veto to block UN action to end the five-year war in Syria, which has claimed 300,000 lives.
Hollande told TMC the scorched-earth campaign in Aleppo constituted a “war crime”.
“Those who commit these acts will have to pay for their involvement, including at the International Criminal Court,” he said.
Thomas Gomart, head of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), said Putin’s visit left the French government in “an extremely delicate situation”.
France does not want to be seen to be hosting a president “who is opening a place of worship while his army is bombing Aleppo”, and the visit also has “heavy symbolism” for the Russians, he said.
“His visit would be a major success for Russian diplomacy, which wants to present Putin as a major player, even a central player, on the international scene.”
It is not the first time in recent years that Moscow’s foreign policy has left Paris in an awkward situation.
The outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 eventually prompted France to cancel the delivery to Russia of two Mistral assault ships and repay almost 950 million euros ($1.1 billion).
Egypt eventually bought the ships.