PARIS — If there was a time when European leaders were expected to rise to the occasion and put petty differences aside, it was during Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s tour of European capitals almost one year since Russia invaded Ukraine.
And yet predictably, they couldn’t help themselves.
Initially, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife had other plans for Wednesday. They were going to spend the evening at the theater.
But as images of Zelenskyy’s triumphant arrival in London started beaming out of the United Kingdom, followed by a solemn address in Westminster Hall and later a meeting with King Charles III, the mood in Paris shifted. Suddenly it was important to get Zelenskyy to the French capital, as well.
According to an Elysée official, the visit was “decided quite spontaneously … on the hoof.” Despite meetings in London and Brussels already scheduled over the two-day visit, Zelenskyy was able to squeeze in a quick dinner in Paris on Wednesday evening.
But France doesn’t do casual. Within hours, preparations were kicked off to give Zelenskyy an honors ceremony at the Invalides monument in Paris — a memorial to French veterans steeped in history. But it was canceled at the last minute when it became clear Zelenskyy wouldn’t get there on time.
Arriving in Paris for dinner at 10 p.m. — late even by continental standards — Zelenskyy couldn’t help a tongue-in-cheek reference to Macron’s “spontaneous idea” to organize a get-together, before turning to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and thanking him for “finding the time” to fly over to Paris.
In the end, Zelenskyy’s visit to Paris yielded its symbolic moments, too. Scholz and Macron were able to show their joint support for Ukraine, and the French president awarded his Ukrainian counterpart with the Légion d’honneur. Macron and Zelenskyy then flew together to Brussels Thursday morning on the French presidential plane.
But why had the French president passed on an opportunity to match the pomp and circumstance in London from the start?
Zelenskyy’s team and the Elysée Palace had indeed been in talks for several weeks over organizing a visit to Paris, according to the same Elysée adviser. But ultimately a specific invitation from Paris never came, reports the Wall Street Journal.
It appears now that Macron was gunning for much more than a leg on a European tour. The French president wanted Zelenskyy to come to Paris for “a diplomatic initiative” on the anniversary of the invasion, said a French government adviser.
But with the prospect of a possible Russian offensive to mark the beginning of the invasion on February 24 last year, that idea had to be abandoned. There were also other considerations.
“A Zelenskyy visit doesn’t come cheaply … The question is why make him come here?” said a senior French official familiar with the preparations. In other words, the Ukrainians may be touched by European honors and ceremonies, but what they really want is weapons.
Zelenskyy displayed that during his European tour, turning up the heat on Western allies to increase weapons deliveries and asking for fighter jets, tanks and long-range artillery to help reconquer Russian-occupied territory. In London, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged he would start training Ukrainian pilots and said “nothing was off the table” when it came to sending fighter jets to Ukraine.
Macron may have felt that was too high a price to pay.
Pauline de Saint Remy, Jason Wiels and Elisa Bertholomey contributed reporting.