French President Francois Hollande ate dinner twice last night, first with U.S. President Barack Obama and then with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both meals had Ukraine as the main course.
The dinners were overshadowed by Obama’s comments earlier in the day criticizing France’s decision to sell warships to Russia and warning he won’t intervene to protect French bank BNP Paribas SA (BNP) from a potential $10 billion fine.
At the Paris restaurant where they ate, Obama made his point that the Mistral helicopter carrier sale rewards Russian misbehavior, and Hollande made his point that BNP is being treated too harshly, and then they moved on to other topics, French officials said.
“My answer on the banking case is short and simple: the tradition of the United States is that the president does not meddle in prosecutions,” Obama told reporters earlier in the day in Brussels. “I do not pick up the phone and tell the attorney general how to prosecute cases that have been brought. I do not push for settlements of cases that have been brought. Those are decisions that are made by an independent Department of Justice.”
Obama in Brussels also scolded Hollande for his decision to go ahead with a sale of warships to the Russian Navy even as the U.S. and the European Union seek to pressure Putin to recognize Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, and pull remaining Russian troops back from Ukraine’s border.
“I have expressed some concerns, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, about continuing significant defense deals with Russia at a time when they have violated basic international law and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of their neighbors,” Obama said earlier yesterday in Brussels. “It would have been preferable to press the pause button.”
Hollande and Obama spoke about how to use today’s 70th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day landings to cool tensions between Putin and Poroshenko, French officials said, a message that was passed on Putin at the next dinner. Poroshenko will be inaugurated June 7.
Putin and Poroshenko are among 20 heads of state or government who will attend a lunch today near the landing beaches, and will sit at the same table.
Putin met British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday in Paris, and will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel before today’s lunch, but has no meetings with Obama or Poroshenko on his agenda.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea and menace to eastern Ukraine led the U.S. and the EU to impose asset freezes and travel bans on 98 people and 20 companies. G-7 leaders met in Brussels after canceling a planned G-8 summit in Sochi, Russia, to protest against its actions in Ukraine.
While France has gone along with those sanctions, it has refused to cancel a contract to sell two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia. The warships are being built by DCNS SA, a state-controlled shipbuilder 35 percent owned by Thales SA.
Hollande ate sea bass and citrus terrine with Obama, and turbot and a chocolate dessert with Putin, his office said.
With BNP, U.S. authorities are seeking penalties to settle allegations the Paris-based bank transferred dollars for clients in violation of American sanctions against Sudan, Iran and Cuba. Hollande wants any penalty to be in line with that faced by other lenders.
French Finance Minister Michel Sapin stoked the spat, saying yesterday in a newspaper interview that a disproportionate punishment on BNP could have an impact on free-trade talks between the U.S. and the European Union.
BNP shares fell after Obama spoke, closing almost unchanged in Paris at 51.48 euros after climbing as high as 52.92 euros earlier in the day.
Both Obama and Hollande officials have stressed BNP and Mistral shouldn’t overshadow close work in areas such as Iran, Syria, and the Sahel. “The relationship between the United States and France has never been stronger,” Obama said yesterday. “On a whole range of issues, we’re seeing intense cooperation.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org John Simpson, Jim Silver