At last week's emergency summit on Ukraine, France sought to maintain a careful balancing act, refusing to make false promises to Kyiv, while not hesitating to threaten Moscow with sanctions, euractiv.fr reports.
For France, offering Ukraine the prospect of European Union membership was out of the question, even conditionally.
While Poland was pushing the issue forward at the extraordinary European Council on 6 March, French President François Hollande argued this would have been going one step too far.
The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, as well as other leaders, wanted to offer an EU membership perspective to Ukraine in the Council conclusions, which were adopted unanimously last week.
But other heads of states backed France, recognising that there was no consensus on the issue and because “it is important to show a united front on the Ukrainian issue”, a French source said. As the EU and the US were joining forces for a de-escalation of the situation between Russia and Ukraine, offering Kyiv membership perspective would only have fanned tensions, diplomats said.
The episode also exposed diverging views between France and Germany, whose position is closer to that of the Poles.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German minister of foreign affairs, does not hide his desire to open the EU's door to Ukraine. Although there is no final German position on the issue, a study is in progress.
The European People’s Party (EPP) did not hesitate, however, and backed the possibility of Ukrainian move towards the EU during the party's congress in Dublin last week.
The EPP, which brings together all centre-right political parties in Europe, adopted a resolution on 7 March clearly opening the door to negotiations with Ukraine by saying that the country “has a European perspective and may apply to become a member of the Union” (paragraph 22).
Weimar Triangle put to the test
France may also be starting to reap the benefits of stronger ties with Poland, which were reestablished following Hollande's election in May 2012.
During the Ukrainian crisis, Paris intends to remain the engine of the Weimar Triangle, the political trio formed by Germany, Poland and France in 1991, by pushing for a strong and united European position.
However, “the common position adopted last Thursday […] will be tested quickly, this week,” a French diplomat warned.
The 28 EU member states have agreed on €11 billion in aid for Ukraine, as well as a swift signature of the Association Agreement and the implementation of trade provisions to help Ukrainian exports.
The interim Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, insisted on the political aspect of the agreement which foresees deeper cooperation in foreign and security policy. According to diplomats, the cooperation also comes as a signal that the EU recognises the transitional government in Kyiv.
French pressure on Russia
While backing Kyiv, France is also mindful of not crossing any of Moscow's red lines.
The Ukrainian prime minister believes that Russia has “declared a war” on Ukraine and would have liked more drastic sanctions adopted against the Russian regime, but according to France, sanctions should only come later in the diplomatic showdown with Moscow.
Following the 5 March negotiations in Paris between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Europeans are trying to organise a mediation session between Russia and Ukraine, which could take place this week under US auspices.
The French foreign affairs minister, Laurent Fabius, threatened Russia on Tuesday with sanctions “maybe this week” if it did not respond to the Western proposals for “de-escalation”.
“Through John Kerry we sent a proposal to the Russians,” which is aimed at “de-escalating” the conflict, Fabius said.
“They have not responded yet. If they respond positively, John Kerry will go to Moscow and sanctions will then not be immediate. If they do not respond, or respond negatively, sanctions can be taken this week," he stressed.
A referendum on the future of Crimea on 16 March hangs in the balance.
Freezing of assets and travel restrictions
The proposed sanctions will be similar to those imposed on former Ukrainian leaders, including President Yanukovych: a freezing of assets and travel restrictions.
The next step would involve measures with potentially heavy consequences for the Russian economy, including on the natural gas trade with Gazprom.
The United States has already announced that it would put its liquefied gas at the disposal of Europe if turning up the heat on Russia became necessary.