Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron, at their joint news conference near St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, May 24, 2018. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky
Emmanuel Macron will meet Vladimir Putin in Brégançon, the French president’s summer home, on August 19, a date that resonates deeply with the Russian leader. It was on that day, 28 years ago, that an attempted coup set off a chain of events that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin has called that the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. And whether or not Putin will elaborate on that view when the two men meet, recent developments in Russia should compel Macron to put human rights on the agenda, front and center.

The two leaders will no doubt spend much of the time talking about the issues that have dominated the French-Russian foreign policy agenda in recent years: the wars in Syria and Ukraine, and tensions over Iran.

But for the past month, Russia’s capital has been gripped with peaceful, albeit unauthorized, demonstrations protesting the unfair disqualification of several opposition candidates from the September Moscow city assembly elections. The authorities responded with an overwhelming show of force. Riot police and National Guard officers arrested record numbers of peaceful protesters—and numerous bystanders—and beat many of them.

The authorities wasted no time using Russia’s harsh laws on public gatherings to open a criminal investigation into mass rioting, a cynical and false representation of the protests, among other criminal investigations. Another targets the Anti-Corruption Fund, an organization led by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s prominent opposition politician, with money laundering accusations.

A third involves charges of election interference, targeting the very opposition figures excluded from the September ballot and their active supporters. Most of them have endured repeated periods of short-term detention as punishment for unauthorized public gatherings. Yet another criminal investigation aims to strip a couple of their parental rights because they brought their 1-year-old baby to a peaceful protest.

The French Foreign Ministry twice spoke out, rightly calling on Russia to abide by human rights commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and calling out excessive use of force.

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman was predictably outraged by this, drew a dubious comparison between Moscow’s protests and the Yellow Vests, and said France had no business “giving lessons” about police use of force at demonstrations.

Macron should be ready for this to be part of Putin’s talking points as well. But Macron shouldn’t allow himself to get dragged into “whataboutism,” the fruitless dynamic in which politicians respond to grievances about human rights practices in their country by complaining about human rights abuses in another (“What about Moscow police arresting thousands of peaceful protests?” “What about Paris police using rubber bullets against yellow vest protesters?”).

Macron has shown concern for human rights in Russia since the very start of his presidency, and for good reason.

In his first meeting with Putin, shortly after his 2017 election, Macron raised the violent anti-gay purge in Chechnya, in which police there rounded up dozens of men they presumed to be gay, held them in secret detention, tortured them, and outed them to their families.  

At that time and in subsequent meetings, Macron spoke out about Oleg Sentsov, the filmmaker from Russian-occupied Crimea who is serving a 20-year prison term in a remote prison, on bogus, politically motivated terrorism charges. Macron also discussed the prosecution of an avant-guard theater director, on questionable financial mismanagement charges. Macron has also met in Russia with human rights defenders who were fighting for the freedom of Oyub Titiev, a Chechen human rights activist who was jailed for 14 months on shamelessly fabricated marijuana charges.

There has been widespread justified criticism, including by the United Nations and the French ombudsperson, about the crowd control and anti-riot tactics that French police have used. These have  injured thousands of people during protests since the end of 2018, including peaceful demonstrators and journalists. That is something Macron needs to acknowledge.

That criticism is about the proportionality of the police response to demonstrations in France. But it is not equivalent to, nor does it trump, critique of how authorities in Russia are twisting the facts of manifestly peaceful protests into bogus criminal conspiracies and placing the areas in Moscow’s center during protests under police siege.

I hope Macron will reinforce his Foreign Ministry’s statements. Muscovites, like people everywhere, shouldn’t have to endure police beatings, pay fines, or go to jail for peacefully expressing their views. 

Putin may well invoke whataboutism, to intimidate, deflect, and distract. Macron needs to stand firm from the outset. He may even want to draw on his own words on human rights, when he first met Putin: “At the very least, I really want us […] to be able to find a solution that is in line with the values we are committed to. And I will not give these values up.”