A skeleton for diplomacy: how a plan to reconcile France and Russia fell apart

LE BOURGET, France – The plan to repatriate the skeleton of a Napoleonic general who died on a Russian battlefield two centuries ago was supposed to unite the leaders of two long-disagreed nations.

The remains of General Charles Étienne Gudin, who was killed in action in 1812 during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, would be repatriated with official pomp, and French President Emmanuel Macron would welcome his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, to a funeral that would serve as a symbolic burial of the hatchet.

Instead, General Gudin’s return to French soil on July 13 was much more low-key: his coffin was airlifted in a private plane chartered by a Russian oligarch and was greeted with a small ceremony in a grim hangar at Le Bourget airport, near Paris. , next to a decommissioned Concorde jet. Presidents were nowhere in sight.

“It was not repatriation that was originally conceived,” said Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, French historian of Russia.

Once seen as an opportunity to capitalize on history for diplomatic purposes, the plan was ultimately sunk by France’s reluctance to accept Russia’s increasingly harsh domestic and foreign policies. The outcome of the project also spoke of the special relationship between France and Russia, shaped by a complicated shared history filled with obscure middlemen and backdoor diplomacy.

The case of General Gudin, declared Ms. Carrère d’Encausse, “reveals the complexity, the difficulty for France in this Franco-Russian relationship”.

A favorite of Napoleon, General Gudin distinguished himself in combat before being hit by a cannonball on August 19, 1812, while the French army was marching on Smolensk, in western Russia. His left leg was amputated and he died of gangrene three days later.

The fate of his grave remained a mystery until 2019, when Pierre Malinowski, an amateur history buff, launched a research with a team of Russian and French archaeologists – and the explicit support of the Kremlin.

Mr. Malinowski, 34, a former corporal in the French army and a former collaborator of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the long-time French far-right leader, had made himself the favor of the Russian authorities through a series of archaeological projects linking France and Russia.

In May 2018, he was invited to celebrate Mr. Putin’s fourth term. A few months later, Mr. Malinowski inaugurated the Moscow-based establishment Foundation for the development of Russian-French historical initiatives in the presence of Dmitri S. Peskov, spokesperson for Mr. Putin. Mr. Peskov’s daughter, Elizaveta Peskova, is the vice-president of the foundation. Mr. Peskov declined a request for an interview.

So when Mr. Malinowski launched the search for the general’s remains in the spring of 2019, French diplomats were worried.

“When we heard about the case, we wondered,” said Sylvie Bermann, French ambassador to Russia from 2017 to 2019, noting that the Kremlin had long promoted far-right French figures to the service of its interests.

In July 2019, Mr Malinowski’s team found a rotten wooden coffin under the foundations of a nightclub in Smolensk. Inside was a one-legged skeleton, later confirmed by DNA tests on several of his descendants to be that of General Gudin.

Mr. Malinowski remembered kneeling near the coffin and whispering: “General Charles Étienne Gudin, Count de La Sablonnière, I will take you home.” “

In Paris, the discovery did not go unnoticed. Bruno Roger-Petit, adviser to Mr. Macron on historical and commemorative issues, invited Mr. Malinowski to the Élysée in August 2019 to discuss next steps.

“I walk into the office and he says to me: ‘Reuniting Macron and Putin with a general of the empire, that would look pretty cool,” “Malinowski said. “And that’s how it started.”

Mr Roger-Petit said in an interview that he initially envisioned a joint funeral chaired by Mr Macron and Mr Poutine on the occasion of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death last May – the kind of big symbolic bilateral event rarely seen between Mr Putin and a Western leader.

Mr Roger-Petit said Mr Macron approved of the idea. A few days later, Ms. Carrère d’Encausse addressed a letter to Mr. Macron, claiming that she could be “an embodiment of reconciliation” between France and Russia.

The discovery came as Mr. Macron, who had sought to restore relations with Russia since his election in 2017, had just invited Mr. Putin to his summer residence in the south of France.

The presidents discussed General Gudin’s return over a dinner during the visit, according to Ms Bermann, who said this was seen as “an opportunity for rapprochement”.

Aleksandr Orlov, longtime Russian ambassador to France until 2017, said the repatriation was meant to “remind us that apart from the disagreements we have today, there are other things that bring us together.” .

Some of Mr. Malinowski’s other plans have aligned with Kremlin interests as well. Last year, he organized the reburial of the remains of French soldiers who died in the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856. The burial took place in Crimea, a former Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014, despite the opposition from most of the Western powers.

“Our projects,” Ms. Peskova said, “are cultural, historical, diplomatic and political”.

She added: “We look like Putin’s puppets, but it’s not on purpose.”

At the start of 2020, the repatriation of General Gudin seemed to be on track. The coronavirus pandemic was expected to delay plans by several months, but Mr Peskov said many new electrical outlets that the Kremlin would respond positively to a request for French repatriation.

The demand never came.

In August 2020, Aleksei A. Navalny, Mr. Putin’s most prominent opponent, was poisoned in an operation that was later found to be orchestrated by the Kremlin.

Mr. Macron’s enthusiasm for a rapprochement with Mr. Poutin has weakened considerably. Plans for a joint presidential ceremony have been postponed, diplomatic exchanges have ceased and communications with Mr. Malinowski have dried up.

“We have entered a phase of total freezing,” said Christian Bourdeille, president of Paris Napoleon 2021, an organization that helped plan the ceremony.

“Gudin, really, was the word to avoid,” he added. “Because everyone knew it was an extremely sensitive issue.”

In early April, Mr. Malinowski received messages from a close advisor to Mr. Macron warning him that the French Foreign Ministry was blocking the return of the remains and suggesting that he repatriate them instead in private.

“It would bypass diplomats,” read a post seen by The New York Times. “We have to find a way around this. “

Ms Carrère d’Encausse and Mr Orlov said the French Foreign Ministry has long expressed skepticism about Mr Macron’s reset policy.

Deprived of French support and as Russia becomes increasingly worried about a possible diplomatic episode, Mr. Malinowski went through a backdoor by filing a request for the remains on behalf of Albéric d’Orléans, the one of the descendants of General Gudin.

After all bureaucratic hurdles were overcome, General Gudin’s coffin left Moscow on July 13 in a private jet owned by Andrei Kozitsyne, a Russian oligarch who funded several of Mr. Malinowski’s projects.

Mr Malinowski’s cheeky gesture ruffled the feathers of the French government, and initially only a small private ceremony was scheduled for the flight’s arrival.

But the controversy grew in conservative media on France’s refusal to honor a Napoleonic general, and at the last minute, the government sent Geneviève Darrieussecq, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, to attend.

Ms. Darrieussecq announced that the remains of General Gudin would be buried at the Invalides, where other military figures lie, as part of a national tribute to be held on December 2, the anniversary of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.

The move took many by surprise. But honoring a Napoleonic general will appeal to the conservative voters Mr. Macron is courting ahead of next year’s presidential election, and for whom Napoleon embodies a lost greatness.

Mr. Roger-Petit said that Mr. Macron had always wanted General Gudin to lie at the Invalides.

“What matters is the result,” he said.

To date, France has not invited Russia to participate in the December tribute.

Mr. d’Orléans, the general’s descendant, said the return of General Gudin’s remains had been too politicized.

“My feeling,” he said, “is that we have missed a unique opportunity to improve relations between France and Russia.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.

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