“Vladimir .... tell me what your intentions are.”
Four days before President Putin ordered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron was making a last-ditch attempt to prevent the war in a key phone call revealed in a French TV documentary.
In the rare public recording of a discussion between two world leaders, Macron tries to convince the Russian president to “calm things down” in the region. But all his suggestions reach a dead end on Putin’s side.
The French documentary “A President, Europe and War” offers a unique behind-the-scenes look at months of diplomatic wrangling amid Europe’s worst crisis in decades. It was meant to focus on Macron during France’s leadership of the rotating EU presidency, but ended up capturing historic moments in Ukraine’s war, including following Macron to Moscow and on two trips to Kyiv.
During the call with Putin on Feb. 20, both leaders use the informal version of the word “you” to speak to each other, in a very direct tone.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “is lying to you,” Putin tells Macron, accusing authorities in Kyiv of having come to power through “a bloody coup. People were burned alive, it was a bloodbath.” Zelenskyy was democratically elected in 2019; Putin appeared to be referring to his own interpretation of earlier events in Ukraine.
At some point, the French president slightly raises his voice, visibly irritated: “I don’t know where your lawyer learned law,” he says, openly criticizing Russian views.
Macron can also be heard pushing for a meeting between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden
. Putin agrees in principle, but says he needs his aides to prepare the talks first. The meeting never takes place.
“It was like a really tough conversation between two persons that were totally opposed,” said French journalist Guy Lagache, who filmed and directed the film on his own. He was embedded with the Elysee’s diplomatic service — exceptional access in a country where the president controls his public image and diplomatic aides are usually kept out of camera sight.
Putin’s promise to meet with Biden turned out to be “a lie,” Lagache told The Associated Press. “But if you do not try to do that (negotiate a meeting), you can’t know whether he’s going to lie.”
Lagache’s comments echo those of Macron’s top diplomatic aide, Emmanuel Bonne, who warns in the documentary that Putin “always lies.”
The Russian president, who likes to publicize his athletic exploits, closes the discussion in his own way — telling Macron he’s talking “from the gym.”
“I wanted to go play ice hockey,” he says.
Another phone call allows viewers to feel Zelenskyy’s shock and horror and the urgency of the moment on the day the war started.
“The Russians, it’s terrible what they do. ... Now they are in Kyiv, we are fighting in Kyiv, Emmanuel,” Zelenskyy tells Macron. Macron remains silent for several seconds.
“Yes, it’s total war,” the Ukrainian leader confirms.
When Bonne, the diplomatic adviser, tries four times to call his Russian counterpart on his mobile phone, it is in vain. “They have the nerve to wage war, but not the courage to speak,” he says, seemingly powerless.
Lagache said that being there and filming, he could “feel the drama that is unfolding.”
“And you see that politics is also — and first and foremost — about people, (done) by the people trying to find solutions in a very complex situation,” he added.
The documentary, released in France last week, offers scenes rarely seen on television.
Macron can be seen holding a meeting in his bunker under the Elysee palace and working with his team in the presidential plane, wearing a blue hoodie.
The film also shows at length the work of diplomatic advisers, from preparing Macron’s speech to texting him during his phone calls with world leaders.
In a surreal moment just before the war, Macron’s aides manage to save a possible contract worth a billion euros for French rail giant Alstom by sending a last-minute, handwritten note to the French president as he is meeting with Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
Lagache specified that he paid attention not to disclose any classified information. No specific details about France’s military support to Ukraine appear in the documentary.
It also doesn’t show the discussion between Macron and Zelenskyy after the French president made comments that riled the Ukrainians about not humiliating Russia.
The documentary highlights European leaders’ coordination to support Ukraine and impose unprecedented sanctions on Russia.
The camera follows Macron with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Premier Mario Draghi in the train on their way to Kyiv in mid-June, where they pledged arms and backed Ukraine’s candidacy to join the European Union. The leaders visited nearby Irpin, a suburb where many civilians were killed, with Macron saying he saw signs of “war crimes.”
“What matters to me is to try to be useful, and make sure that the conflict doesn’t spread, that Ukraine can stop it and get back in control, and that the Europeans stay united,” Macron says on the way back. “Much remains to be done. It’s not over.”