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Macron, Putin see chance on Ukraine but clash on Syria

Laurence BENHAMOU and Stuart WILLIAMS in Paris
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French President Emmanuel Macron (R) meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, at his summer retreat of the Bregancon fortress on the Mediterranean coast, near the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, southern France

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, at his summer retreat of the Bregancon fortress on the Mediterranean coast, near the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, southern France (AFP Photo/GERARD JULIEN)

Bormes-les-Mimosas (France) (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron and Russia's Vladimir Putin on Monday agreed changes in Ukraine had bolstered the chances of peace in its east but clashed on Syria, as the Russian leader made a rare bilateral visit to a key EU power.

Macron, who hosted Putin at his summer residence in southern France, made clear he wanted to keep contacts with Moscow alive on a range of issues even at a time of spiralling tensions with the West.

The pair both expressed optimism that the arrival of Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukraine's president had improved the chances of ending the half-decade conflict during their meeting which lasted four-and-a-half hours. Putin departed after dinner around 11:30 pm (2130 GMT).

But they publicly sparred over the Syria civil war, where the Kremlin is a leading backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and also over the crackdown on protesters in Moscow.

The relationship between a youthful French leader who regards himself as a champion of European liberalism and the Russian strongman, in power for two decades, has been marked by wariness and tensions since Macron came to power in 2017.

- 'Profound worry' -

Macron said he hoped to attend a summit with the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Germany -- the so-called Normandy format -- "in the next few weeks" to try to end fighting in eastern Ukraine.

"There is a real opportunity to put an end to the conflict that has been going on for five years," he told reporters in an open-air press conference at the start of talks.

Putin, who arrived at the remote retreat by helicopter, said: "There are things that are worth talking about and that give grounds for cautious optimism."

Macron also expressed "profound worry" about the bombing by regime forces of Syria's northern region of Idlib, telling Putin that it was "urgent" a ceasefire went into force.

"The population in Idlib is living under bombs, children are being killed," Macron told Putin.

But Putin appeared not to be swayed by the French president's appeal. "We support the efforts of the Syrian army... to end these terrorist threats," he replied, adding: "We never said that in Idlib terrorists would feel comfortable."

- 'Must resolve Ukraine' -

Macron hosted Putin on a balmy early evening at the Bregancon fortress on France's Mediterranean coast, just days before he hosts world leaders including US President Donald Trump for the August 24-26 Group of Seven (G7) summit in Biarritz.

Russia was slung out of what was the G8 in 2014 after it seized Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, an annexation unrecognised by the international community.

The annexation was followed by a war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists which has so far claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Macron has taken a keen interest in brokering an end to the conflict and forging any progress would be a major feather in his cap as an international statesman.

"Relations between Russia and the European Union have an irritant, a subject of disagreement, which is Ukraine, which is a problem we have to resolve," Macron told the Russian leader.

"We need to keep up our pressure, our energy to resolve this problem," he added.

Asked if Russia would return to the G8, Putin quipped that it could not come back to an organisation that no longer existed.

But with Trump set to lead the G7 in 2020, he added: "Any contacts with our partners, in any format are always useful. We don't rule anything out."

- 'Won't happen in Moscow' -

Pressed by reporters over the Russian authorities crackdown on opposition protests in Moscow, Putin said he did not want a situation like the French "yellow vests" to arise in the Russian capital.

Macron was since November last year rocked by the yellow vest protests over social inequalities, although they have now eased somewhat.

"I am a guest here and it's uncomfortable for me to talk about this," said Putin, before reeling off casualty tolls from the yellow vest protests.

"We would not want such a thing to happen in the Russian capital... We will do everything to make sure the situation remains within the realms of the law," he said.

Macron responded that France was a country where people can "express themselves freely and demonstrate freely... but they cannot disturb public order".