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Fillon gives Putin hope for new ally as sanctions zeal fades

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Francois Fillon clinched the centre-right Republicans' presidential nomination on Sunday promising a major departure from incumbent Francois Hollande's handling of Russia.

[PARIS] Western democracy is working out well for Vladimir Putin these days.

After Donald Trump won the US presidency promising more respect for Russia in the Oval Office, another friendly face is favored to enter the Elysee Palace in France next year.

Francois Fillon clinched the centre-right Republicans' presidential nomination on Sunday promising a major departure from incumbent Francois Hollande's handling of Russia.

While Mr Hollande has backed European efforts to limit Russian meddling in Ukraine and Syria, Mr Fillon wants to revive France's relationship with Moscow and ease its reliance on the US, a throwback to the Cold War policy of Charles de Gaulle.

"Fillon's vision is that France and Europe should be a little closer to Moscow and a little more distanced from Washington - this is what he believes would be General de Gaulle's vision," Bruno Tertrais, deputy head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, said in an interview.

"Fillon could open a rift with some European counterparts."

Mr Fillon referred to Russia as a "great nation" in his presidential campaign book and said it is a democracy that is not a threat to Europe. Staffing his campaign team with two long-time advisers - Jean de Boishue and Igor Mitrovanov - descended from Russians exiled after the 1917 revolution, Mr Fillon has called on France to work with Russia, even in Syria and Ukraine.

Mr Putin said this month that he "welcomes" the statements from Mr Fillon - with whom he has a "very good" personal relationship - and that he wants to "fully restore Russian-French relations".

After the Republicans' primaries concluded on Sunday, Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov struck a more cautious note, saying Russia doesn't get involved in other countries' elections.

Pro-Russian leaders have recently taken power in Bulgaria and Moldova, while Mr Trump has praised Mr Putin's leadership and said the US should work with Russia against Islamic extremists.

Just as Mr Trump criticised Barack Obama for allowing relations with Russia to deteriorate, so Mr Fillon has repeatedly opposed economic sanctions against Russia following its annexation of the Crimea, calling them "inept and strategically devastating for our farmers".

He also wants to forge a common energy policy so that the European Union can present a united front when purchasing Russian gas. Emmanuel Quidet, president of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce, celebrated Mr Fillon's victory at a party at the Four Seasons Hotel in Moscow alongside lawmaker Thierry Mariani, a foreign policy aide to Mr Fillon.

His stance on Russia may not be welcomed so unreservedly in Berlin, where Ms Merkel is trying to hold the EU line on sanctions in the face of growing criticism from nations such as Italy and Hungary.

Ms Merkel called Mr Fillon on Monday and they agreed to meet early January in Berlin, according to a person on the candidate's team. Successive rounds of penalties that were imposed on Russia for seizing Crimea and then failing to adhere to Ukraine's peace deal are due for renewal at the end of January.

"We will see how skilled Putin is at playing the Europeans and undermining the EU," Charles Grant, the head of London-based Centre for European Reform said in an interview.

"If Putin is clever, he will strengthen divisions among Europeans by being reasonable and avoid anything like an invasion to make it harder for them to take a tough line and maintain sanctions."

Mr Fillon's approach to Russia risks more European discord than just with Ms Merkel. The Baltic states and much of eastern Europe are concerned about Russian attempts to destabilise their neighbours.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her Polish counterpart, Beata Szydlo, agreed on a united front to tackle "increasing Russian assertiveness" after talks in London on Monday.

Under Mr Hollande, France cancelled the sale of two warships to Russia and backed sanctions after the annexation of Crimea. Mr Putin cancelled a trip to Paris scheduled for October after Mr Hollande refused to meet him due to the bombing of Syria.

Mr Fillon's views on Russia flow from his admiration for De Gaulle and from his own fascination with the country, he said in "Doing", his 2015 book that laid out his ideas ahead of the presidential campaign.

Relations between Europe and the US should be "much more balanced" because the Americans will be more narrowly focused on their national interests after Mr Trump's election victory, he said in a Nov 17 televised debate.

Mr Fillon described Mr Putin's strategy in Syria as "cold but efficient pragmatism" in an April editorial in the weekly magazine Marianne. His campaign spokeswoman Valerie Boyer and foreign policy aide Mr Mariani both travelled to Damascus in March with a delegation of French lawmakers to meet Assad.

"Fillon wants to make sure Russia is no longer seen as an enemy," Gerard Longuet, Defense Minister in Fillon's government from 2011 to 2012 and an adviser to his campaign, said in an interview.

BLOOMBERG