France seeks closer ties with Russia despite Syria tensions

    Associated Press
    9:28 a.m. Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 Nation World
French president Emmanuel Macron speaks during a Trianon Council meeting aiming to strengthen the links between France and Russia, Friday Feb. 9, 2018, at the Elysee palace in Paris. The Kremlin said Friday the two leaders exchanged views on bilateral ties, including preparations for Macron's trip to Russia, set for May, during which he is set to attend an economic forum in St. Petersburg. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed cooperating more closely to resolve the Syrian crisis in a phone call Friday, as France tries to smooth ties with Russia and move beyond years of tensions over Syria and Ukraine.

Macron is making his first presidential trip to Russia in May. The two leaders talked Friday about preparations for the visit, where Macron plans to attend the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and to meet with Putin.

The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin and Macron underlined during their call the need for developing closer cooperation on Syria. The statement did not elaborate.

Macron's office said he pushed for more robust Syrian peace talks — notably after a Russia-sponsored effort last month boycotted by the Syrian opposition.

Macron also pressed Putin to stop "intolerable degradation of the humanitarian situation" in regions of Syria that were pummeled by Syrian and Russian airstrikes in recent days, according to a statement from his office.

The presidents discussed another sore point in relations: the conflict in Ukraine. They stressed the need to enforce the 2015 Minsk peace agreement that was sponsored by France and Germany.

Putin and Macron also hailed a potentially problematic project launched Friday to encourage contacts among Russian and French citizens. Called the Trianon Dialogue, the initiative appears aimed at minimizing European sanctions against Russia for its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The French-Russian project is aimed at encouraging interactions through joint theater productions, school trips, sister city agreements and real estate investments.

Yet geopolitical tensions threaten to complicate the effort.

Among the Russians overseeing the Trianon Dialogue are magnate Gennady Timchenko, a longtime associate of Putin's, and former railways chief Vladimir Yakunin — both targets of U.S. sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine. A former ambassador who is an outspoken supporter of Russia's bombings of Syria and annexation of Crimea also is involved.

An official in Macron's office acknowledged that "we may run into difficulties" in juggling the project's open-arms mission with today's East-West tensions. The official said the French side would remain "vigilant" to prevent Putin's administration from using the event for political ends.

Macron has remained publicly committed to the European Union's sanctions on Russia, but the Trianon Dialogue could be seen as undermining them.

Aides said he pushed for the project "to encourage Franco-Russian economic relations" despite curbs on trade prompted by the sanctions and a Russian embargo.

The French members of the project's board all are from outside politics. They include an astronaut, a ballet star, the director of the Versailles Chateau and the CEOs of oil giant Total and car-sharing company Blablacar.

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.