After stops in Qatar, the war front in the eastern Donbas and soon in Turkey, President Volodymyr Zelensky is heading to Paris likely by the end of next week for a meeting with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.

And France’s ambassador to Ukraine, Etienne de Poncins, of course, will be on the plane with Zelensky. “The main purpose of the visit is to have a one-on-one meeting with Macron,” de Poncins said.

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There will be a lot to talk about. For sure, two of the biggest subjects on the presidential agenda are Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine’s eastern border and the status of Ukraine’s reforms, particularly in creating an independent and trustworthy judiciary.

France is concerned about the Russian moves, with de Poncins calling the Russian reinforcements “significantly different than what we have seen in previous years.” However, “we may be a little less alarmed than some of our partners.”

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As for Ukraine’s halting progress on reforms, the ambassador is convinced that Zelensky has the will to change the country, but has yet to find the way to succeed.

Earlier this year, ambassadors from the G7 nations – including the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy and the United Kingdom — presented Ukraine with their recommendations for overhauling the nation’s distrusted and corrupt judiciary. The perennial problem is stifling investment into the economy, one of the poorest in Europe, with a gross domestic product of only $150 billion for 42 million people.

“We have no doubt about his will to put in place reforms. This is important, but it’s not sufficient,” de Poncins said of the Zelensky administration’s ambitions. “But when we go into the details about how the reforms are doing, we continue to be frustrated. Since September, the focus is on the mother of all reforms, the judiciary. This is the key. This is the main request from foreign investors (who say) we will not invest a dollar or euro into this country if you can’t count on a fair, competent judiciary.”

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The process for selecting judges needs radical improvement, he said. “If you put rotten people in an independent institution, they can demolish the democracy, as we see,” the ambassador said, referring to recent Constitutional Court decisions that nullified key anti-corruption laws. Zelensky is in a standoff with the court in his efforts to remove the chief judge, Oleksandr Tupytsky, and others regarded as corrupt and even pro-Kremlin.

Macron, Merkel talk to Putin

France and Germany are the mediating countries in the Normandy Four process, trying to find an end to Russia’s seven-year war against Ukraine, which has left the Kremlin in control of 7 percent of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea and parts of the eastern Donbas. The conflict has killed 13,000 people and displaced 1.5 million others.

But the leaders of the two major European Union powers, Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have drawn criticism for having an online discussion on March 30 with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine without the participation of Zelensky. Critics say the three-way talk undermined Ukraine and even the European Union.

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The Kyiv Post editorialized on April 2 under the headline “Betraying Ukraine” in castigating France and Germany for the meeting. “France and Germany made fools of themselves and stepped on Ukraine’s toes. But it doesn’t appear that they achieved anything.” The Kremlin issued a statement after the call, again blaming Ukraine for the war and provocations that have led to an escalation of fighting.

De Poncins said the Kyiv Post is “wrong,” he said. “France is not betraying Ukraine.”

Given that Germany and France are mediators of the conflict “it’s absolutely right for the two mediators to discuss with one party. We have done that with Putin and we will do the same with Zelensky. It’s normal diplomatic life.”

He said “it’s part of our strategy to keep the line open and get a good result for Ukraine, in particular, and the Donbas. Macron could have said ‘I’m fed up, we’ll never sort it out.’ It’s not his character. He’s tough and he wants to find a solution.” He also said that France coordinated with Ukraine and the EU, both before and after the phone call.

France and Germany, however, angered even more people by issuing a joint statement on April 3 calling on both sides to de-escalate fighting, as if Ukraine’s territory was not being invaded by Russia.

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Twitter outrage went along the lines of retired U.S. General Ben Hodges, who called it “one of the most pathetic statements I’ve ever seen. To equate the Ukrainian side with the Kremlin’s aggression, by calling on both sides to ‘show restraint and de-escalate’ is disgusting. It’s like calling on the French Maquis to de-escalate against the Wehrmacht occupiers” during World War II.

De Poncins said that the joint statement was misinterpreted and conceded that, from a Kyiv perspective, “maybe it was not clear enough.”

He said the two nations meant to call on the armed forces on both sides of the war’s contact line to stop shooting at each other and to resume a cease-fire reached on July 20. However, it has been the Kremlin-backed side that has not lived up to the cease-fire and that has killed at least 28 Ukrainian soldiers, many in the last month, since the start of 2021.

Regardless, he said France is not confused about who is to blame: Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is the victim. Moreover, he said, Russia is the biggest obstacle to peace.

“The problem is Russia and the lack of willingness to move ahead,” the ambassador said. “It’s clear that we’re frustrated by the Russian attitude. We have said that publicly many times.”

Yet, in the face of Russian intransigence, France is not willing to call for tougher sanctions against the Kremlin at this time.

“It is not time to soften the sanctions for sure,” de Poncins said. “To go further on sanctions is a political decision that is not under consideration at the moment.”

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Zelensky has been ratcheting up calls for NATO to grant Ukraine a path to membership in the political and military alliance, known as the Membership Action Plan, or MAP. In April 2008, when the issue came up at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, Romania, then-U.S. President George W. Bush supported a MAP for Ukraine, but France and Germany torpedoed the idea since the now 30-member alliance makes decisions by consensus.

France doesn’t appear to have changed its mind, 13 years later.

“It’s too early to say,” de Poncins said. “The last step was enhanced membership partner for Ukraine. Has the time come to discuss MAP now? I don’t know. We do not expect a quick answer to that. We take note of the request.”

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