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French President Macron is helping facilitate negotiations between Russia and Ukraine

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

For weeks now, diplomats and heads of state have been frantically negotiating to avoid military conflict between Russia and Ukraine - meetings at NATO, meetings at the U.N., meetings in Washington.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

But there are two people who haven't spoken to each other at all - Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Instead, they are relying on messengers, shuttle diplomats who can bridge the gap. And this week, that job falls to French President Emmanuel Macron.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Through interpreter) And what I've done by going to Kyiv and Moscow aims to reinstate order, security and stability on our continent that has been shaken by this great military buildup.

SHAPIRO: That's Macron speaking through an interpreter earlier today.

FLORIDO: Yesterday, he met Putin for a one-on-one in Moscow before traveling to Kyiv to meet with Zelenskyy today.

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MACRON: (Through interpreter) We had exchanges with President Putin, and he said that he would not trigger an escalation. I think this is something that is important. Commitments were made.

FLORIDO: An optimistic assessment there from Macron, although Zelenskyy seemed less certain.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) Understanding that our security depends on this means that this would be a positive result. But I don't always believe people at face value. I don't believe people's words. I think it is the actions of politicians that prove what they say.

SHAPIRO: Well, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us now from Paris for more on this diplomatic push and the role of the French president. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, guys.

SHAPIRO: So how did a European head of state become the main go-between here on Ukraine-Russia diplomacy?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Macron deeply believes that European diplomacy is really the best chance to de-escalate the tensions around Ukraine, and he's long called for a reset in Europe with Russia. He's always cultivated his relationship with Putin. Macron invited Putin to his official summer residence on the French Riviera two summers ago for talks. And the two leaders have spoken some 16 times in the last two years. Macron believes Europe has a big role to play in world affairs and, of course, must be, you know, part of its own security. So he was incredibly frustrated when the U.S. and Russia shut Europe out and were having conversations about Ukraine over Europe's head.

And also, Ari, France currently holds the rotating EU presidency, so Macron is representing all of Europe. You might've seen in the press conference with Putin, there were both the French and EU flags behind him. I spoke with French political analyst Christian Makarian, who says Macron has succeeded in at least one of his missions.

CHRISTIAN MAKARIAN: And Macron went there under the name of the European Union to show the Russian that there was a kind of new European unity on the Ukrainian question.

SHAPIRO: Have there been tangible successes that Macron can point to as a result of his diplomacy?

BEARDSLEY: Well, not really. I mean, there's certainly no pullback of Russian troops, and Putin was very tough. But Putin and Zelenskyy have agreed that they will meet within what's known as the Normandy format. And, you know, that were - those were the talks that began in 2014 between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to end the war in the eastern Ukraine with the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas. Those talks have been frozen for a few years, but the Ukrainians and the Russians have agreed to sit down again with France and Germany acting - guiding them, said Macron.

Now, remember; the U.S. is not part of this, and neither is Chancellor Angela Merkel anymore. She was a very important interlocutor for Putin. And Germany's new government, a coalition government, has taken a back seat. I spoke with Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer. She's head of the Paris office for the German Marshall Fund. And here's what she said.

ALEXANDRA DE HOOP SCHEFFER: So this has led France to actually lead the diplomatic effort from the front. And then you have the U.S. and the U.K. on the other side who are taking a hardline approach to the crisis. So he has a quite unique position to really play the role of mediator and, I would say, facilitator of a potential compromise.

SHAPIRO: Eleanor, what about the domestic politics in France? - because Macron is leaving this effort just two months before he's up for re-election. How do voters feel about this?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, that's right. I was out talking to people today. Some say that Macron is a grandstander. But it's been a strange campaign because - get this - Macron has not even declared his candidacy yet, though he is clearly hoping that his actions on the world stage will, you know, let him campaign above his opponents who are talking about things like rising gas prices and crime and insecurity and other domestic concerns. But that's really what interests French people, 72-year-old Pierre Vonessen told me as he was coming out of a grocery store.

PIERRE VONESSEN: As regards Macron, you know, he's fixing nothing yesterday. There is nothing. He met Putin, but there is no results at all for the moment, OK? French people are not very interested in international politics.

BEARDSLEY: Meanwhile, their president was in Moscow and Kyiv this morning. And tonight he's in Berlin, meeting with the German chancellor and the Polish president.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thanks, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOM LA NENA SONG, "NO MEU PAIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.