PARIS — French President Francois Hollande certainly won’t go hungry this Thursday night. He’s dining twice — first with U.S. President Barack Obama, then with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It will be a digestive and logistical challenge, but the safest diplomatic solution for the French president to keep apart two leaders who are at odds.
Hollande is hosting at least 18 heads of state this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Obama and Putin are among them, but do not plan one-on-one talks. U.S.-Russian tensions are higher than they have been in years because of the unrest in Ukraine.
Hollande will be the first Western leader to meet individually with Putin since pro-European protests overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and the U.S. and EU imposed sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
French and Russian diplomats in Paris said that Hollande will host two consecutive dinners Thursday. Obama comes first; then two hours later it’s Putin’s turn, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity to be able to discuss the plans before they are publicly formalized.
“As host of many different countries, he’s having a range of separate meetings,” Obama’s foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes said of Hollande Friday. “But there will not be a trilateral dinner that evening between the three of them. It’s just a one-on-one.”
One of the meals might take place outside the presidential palace, a French diplomatic official said. That would reduce the likelihood that Obama and Putin might run into each other. A Russian diplomatic official said the schedule is being carefully measured to ensure that each visiting president gets sufficient time with the French leader.
France, with substantial trade, banking and energy ties to Russia, has been more cautious on sanctions than the U.S. or some European countries. Hollande defended his decision to keep Putin on the invitation list for the D-Day ceremonies.
Despite differences over Ukraine, Hollande said last month, “I will never forget that the Russian people gave millions of lives” in World War II fighting against the Nazis.
A French diplomatic official on today played down talk that Hollande was trying to play peacemaker and bring Obama and Putin together. The official insisted that France remains committed to keeping up pressure on the Kremlin to help calm violence in Ukraine.
World leaders often find themselves in the presence of their foes at international gatherings. Obama shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a regional summit in 2009. He also exchanged a handshake and brief pleasantries with Cuban leader Raul Castro last year while both attended a memorial service in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.
Putin will also meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron in Normandy on Friday. Cameron’s office described it as an opportunity “to set out the importance of a dialogue between the Russian government and the new Ukrainian government.”
Putin might run into Ukraine’s president-elect, too. Petro Poroshenko will be in Normandy for the D-Day ceremonies, a last-minute addition by Hollande.
The violence in Ukraine today will be on many minds at the gathering, which commemorates the massive invasion of Normandy beaches that helped turn World War II against Hitler. France is framing it as a reminder of the importance of European peace and unity.