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Macron confronts Putin on Syria, rights, elections

Russian President Vladimir Putin and France’s Emmanuel Macron pledged to fight terrorism in their meeting. (ETIENNE LAURENT/afp/getty images )
Russian President Vladimir Putin and France’s Emmanuel Macron pledged to fight terrorism in their meeting. (ETIENNE LAURENT/afp/getty images )ETIENNE LAURENT

VERSAILLES, France — France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, came out of his first meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday with a message of stark challenge, on issues including human rights, war crimes, and election interference.

Against the gilded backdrop of the Palace of Versailles, Macron and Putin pledged to work with each other to fight terrorism.

But their body language was at times tense, and the sometimes confrontational tone of the meeting was made clear in Macron’s comments during a joint news conference afterward, where he signaled his intent to play a forceful role on the global stage and not be cowed by other world leaders.

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Macron promised French military reprisals for any use of chemical weapons by Russia’s allies in Syria and said he would closely monitor the curtailing of civil rights for gay people in Chechnya.

In answering a reporter’s question, Macron minced no words in explaining why his campaign team had shut out two Russian-associated news organizations, Russia Today and Sputnik. “When press organs sow defamatory untruths, they are no longer journalists,’’ he said. “They are organs of influence.”

He said the news outlets “on many occasions produced untruths about me and my campaign and so I determined that they had no place, I confirm it, in my headquarters.”

Before the election, Putin had expressly backed Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front. On the eve of the vote, Macron’s campaign suffered a massive cyberattack that it compared with the hacking of candidate Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last year. US intelligence agencies blamed that operation on the Russian government.

Cybersecurity analysts detected Russian fingerprints behind the hacking of the Macron campaign’s e-mails and internal communications earlier this month. The Kremlin has denied involvement, and Putin on Monday reiterated that.

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Macron, 39, who won the May 17 election in a landslide, said he and Putin had ‘‘extremely frank’’ talks.

With Putin standing beside him, he publicly warned the Russian leader that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for France. “The use of chemical weapons by anyone will be the object of reprisals and immediate retaliation on the part of France,” he said.

Putin has strongly backed President Bashar Assad of Syria, whose forces have been accused of using chemical weapons as recently as April. The Russian president did not respond directly to Macron’s implicit challenge.

The visit by Putin, at Macron’s invitation, was described as a working meeting timed to coincide with the opening of a show at the Grand Trianon, a château within the Versailles complex. The exhibition celebrates the ties between Russia and France forged 300 years ago by Peter the Great when he visited France after encouraging diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The meeting was Macron’s first with the Russian leader, and he appeared intent on introducing himself as a new factor for Russia to take into consideration on the European stage. It was also a chance for Macron to show France and the rest of Europe what kinds of issues will matter to him in international relations.

Macron recently returned from his first meeting with NATO and Group of 7 leaders, but in those meetings he was part of a larger group and the agenda was collective. On Monday, he appeared set on opening discussions on a variety of topics, including Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria.

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Putin appeared to want to reestablish the relatively warm relations the two countries have had in the past and to use the meeting as an opportunity to underscore Russia’s position in a number of policy areas.

Not least of those is its demand for lifting European economic sanctions against Russia that were put in place after the annexation of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine.

Responding to a question about sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, Putin answered, “These sanctions do not contribute at all to settling the crisis in Ukraine.”

“Only the abolition of all restrictions, a free market and free competition unburdened by political considerations can help develop the world economy,” he said, urging “an end to all limitations on international exchanges.”

Despite the sometimes tough tone of the news conference, Macron received Putin with all the usual formalities: When Putin opened the door of his black limousine in the vast Versailles courtyard, as the formally dressed French Republican guard — in gold-braid decorated uniforms — stood at attention, Macron came down the red carpet to the car to greet him.

On human rights, Macron said he had raised the troubles facing gay and transgender people in Chechnya and those of nongovernmental organizations.

Macron said he had discussed the reports of collective punishment of gay men in Chechnya with Putin and that they had agreed on a “very regular monitoring” of the situation.