France's new President Emmanuel Macron was to host Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday in the latest test of his diplomatic mettle after vowing firm stands on Ukraine and Syria.
"It is essential to talk to Russia because there are many international issues that will not be resolved without a tough exchange with the Russians," Macron said at the G7 summit in Sicily which wound up on Saturday.
The 39-year-old centrist leader's meeting with Putin, 64, caps a whirlwind of diplomacy including the G7 talks as well as last week's NATO summit in Brussels.
He told a French weekly that he was not "bothered" by leaders who "think in terms of power ratios", citing Putin as an example along with US President Donald Trump.
But Macron, who became France's youngest president just three weeks ago, said he does not believe in "the diplomacy of public invective but in bilateral dialogue".
As a candidate, Macron had tough words for Russia, accusing it of following a "hybrid strategy combining military intimidation and an information war".
Since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2014, Russia has flexed its muscles with a series of war games involving tens of thousands of troops in areas bordering NATO Baltic states.
- 'Not a single concession' -In Sicily on Saturday, Macron said he would make "not a single concession" to Russia on Ukraine as he and his G7 counterparts said they were prepared to strengthen sanctions against Moscow.
Western powers charge Russia with failing to honour its commitments under the Minsk accords framework for establishing a cessation of hostilities between Kiev forces and Moscow-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
France helped spearhead the sanctions, which have seriously dented EU-Russia trade, with a retaliatory Russian embargo on European agricultural products hurting French farmers.
The Syrian conflict will also be high on the agenda, with Macron saying he was in favour of "building an inclusive political solution in a much more collective way".
He regretted that none of the G7 states is party to Syria peace talks under way in the Kazakh capital Astana initiated by Russia, Iran and Turkey, although there are US observers.
Separate UN-backed negotiations have become down in Geneva over the six-year-old Syrian conflict.
Putin adviser Yuri Ushakov told a Moscow news briefing that he expected an "interesting and frank" discussion on Syria.
"France is among the countries with a very severe stance towards the regime of (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad," he said.
Coming so soon after an election in which the Kremlin was widely seen as backing Macron's far-right rival Marine Le Pen -- with Putin hosting her during a surprise visit to Moscow -- the encounter in Versailles, near Paris, will have an added personal edge.
Putin was quick to congratulate Macron on his election, urging him to "overcome mutual distrust" and "join forces to ensure international stability and security".
- 'Pragmatic' -The visit comes seven months after the Russian leader cancelled a trip to Paris for the opening of a Russian cathedral complex near the Eiffel Tower in a spat over Syria with then president Francois Hollande, who had said Russia's bombing of Aleppo could amount to war crimes.
The venue will be the sumptuous palace of Versailles, where the pair will inaugurate an exhibition marking 300 years of Franco-Russian ties since the visit of Russia's modernising tsar Peter the Great to France in 1717.
After the talks and a joint news conference, Putin will visit the Paris Orthodox cathedral complex on his own.
On the eve of Putin's visit, central and eastern European activists staged a small anti-Putin demonstration in Paris.
"We are counting on Macron not to fall into Putin's trap," Anne-Marie Goussard, who heads a Franco-Lithuanian umbrella grouping, told AFP.
Source: National News Agency