Sarkozy Saves Special Dinner Spot for Putin

ReutersFrench President Nicolas Sarkozy welcoming Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as he arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris for a working dinner on Thursday.
The attention paid both in Paris and at home to the beginning of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to France on Thursday was just the latest indication of Putin's place in the political pecking order.

Putin's visit to France comes as the country is gearing up to assume the European Union's rotating presidency on July 1, a position it wants to use to improve strained ties between the EU and Russia.

On his arrival, Putin reiterated past statements that he counted France among Russia's key partners.

"Our ties do not allow for a lack of expression  or acute contradictions," he said in televised remarks after meeting with  French Prime Minister Francois Fillon at Matignon Palace, his official  residence. 

Putin then headed for a working dinner with President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace late Thursday evening, a rare honor from the French head of state for visiting head of government.

Sarkozy, who is on a first-name basis with Putin and addresses him in the familiar "tu" form, greeted him at his car as it pulled up to the palace.

The dinner might provide an opportunity for Sarkozy to firm up his personal ties with Putin ahead of talks on a new partnership agreement at an EU-Russia summit in the Siberian town of Khanty-Mansiisk in late June. Fillon said he wanted a deal by the end of France's six-month term.

Putin stressed the importance of reaching an agreement at a joint news conference with Fillon after their meeting.

"In a month, France will head this authoritative union, and we agreed that we together will see that the talks over the new fundamental agreement between Russia and the European Union start as soon as possible," Putin said, Interfax reported.

President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's hand-picked successor, is to host the summit, but it was Putin who made the trip to Paris.

"Our French politicians understood that the main power remained with Putin and that personal ties are important," said Francoise Dauce, a political analyst specializing in Russian politics at the Universite Blaise-Pascal at Clermont-Ferrand, adding that the dinner between the key French and Russian decision makers at the Elysee Palace was telling.

"Fillon is very weak, while Sarkozy is strong and wants to control everything," Dauce said. "You have the opposite."

Putin was his usual self in answering questions about Russia's record on human rights and basic freedoms at the news conference.

"Problems with human rights exist in every country. Let's take, for instance, the state of affairs at France's prisons and penitentiaries. Is everything alright there?" Putin asked.

"We are developing our country, developing a democratic system and civil society, supporting the press," Putin said.

As of late Thursday, it remained unclear what kind of treats might be on the menu for Putin's dinner with Sarkozy, who has proposed that UNESCO place French cuisine on its World Heritage list.

"That's their surprise," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said from France. Sarkozy's spokespeople declined to comment.

Sarkozy and Putin will address a wide range of economic and foreign-policy issues, Peskov said, adding, however, that no agreements would be signed. He said the leaders had no plans to explore the Paris nightlife.

During his January visit to Sofia, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov took Putin to one of his favorite piano bars after the official events were over.

A smiling Putin was shown on the Russian television being greeted on his arrival by Michele Alliot-Marie, minister of the interior, overseas France and local authorities, who as former defense minister had close contacts with Russia.

As president, the only countries Putin visited more than France were Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Germany. He made seven visits to France, and his Friday schedule was to begin with a meeting with the man who usually played his host.

Former President Jacques Chirac, who was recently awarded a Russian state prize, was the first person on Putin's Friday agenda, Peskov said. Putin was also to meet with French writer and politician Maurice Druon, whom he also visited at his country home in 2003, visit a museum of the Cossack Life-Guard regiment and meet with French media.

Putin first met Sarkozy for the first time at the Group of Eight summit at Heiligendamm, Germany, in June 2007. During his election campaign, Sarkozy had been very open in his criticism of Putin's policies but appears to have had a change of heart since being elected.

During his first trip to Russia as president, Sarkozy said at a Kremlin meeting that he wanted France to be Russia's "privileged" partner.

Putin is being accompanied on the trip by a group of government officials and business leaders, including Industry and Trade Minister Viktor Khristenko, AvtoVAZ chief Boris Alyoshin and Vneshekonombank chairman Vladimir Dmitriyev.

The trip is his first outside the CIS as prime minister. Putin traveled to Belarus last week.

His visit to France this time caused nothing short of "tumult" as the French Foreign Ministry had a hard time deciding what formalities and protocol should accompany the visit of the highly influential prime minister, an unidentified high-ranking diplomat said, Kommersant reported Thursday.

"Everybody understands he's not just a prime minister," the diplomat said.

Severin Naudet, Fillon's spokesman, declined to comment on the report, saying: "I don't see what you are getting at."

Staff Writer Francesca Mereu contributed to this report.