Russian President Vladimir Putin, who held his first meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, denied allegations that Moscow meddled in the French election.
Speaking during a joint press after the two leaders met at the Palace of Versailles, Putin said that the fact he met with Marine Le Pen, Macron's far-right rival in the French elections, does not mean Russia attempted to sway the race.
After Macron's decisive May 7 victory over Le Pen, an open Putin admirer, the Russian president said in a congratulatory message that he wanted to put mistrust aside and work with him.
Addressing reporters after his meeting with Macron, Putin described Le Pen as a politician who wants to develop friendly ties with Russia and said it would be strange if Moscow rebuffed overtures from European politicians who want to strengthen relations.
During the fraught election campaign, the Macron camp alleged Russian hacking and disinformation efforts, claiming that thousands of hacked campaign emails had been put online. Replying to a reporter's question about the allegations, Putin asserted on Monday that the claims are not based on facts and insisted there is nothing to talk about.
Macron's camp had also banned two Russian news outlets at the time – state-funded Sputnik news agency and RT TV channel – from having media access to his campaign headquarters, saying they were spreading propaganda rather than reporting real news.
With Putin alongside him, the 39-year-old Macron repeated the accusation in a reply to a journalist's question, saying: "During the campaign, Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign.
"They behaved like organs of influence, of propaganda and of lying propaganda," he said.
The French president told reporterts that he had a frank exchange of views with the Russian leader and that the two had aired their disagreements on a number of subjects. France's president added, however, that the friendship between the two countries lay at the heart of his meeting with Putin.
Touching on the topic of Syria, Macron said that he wants to cooperate with Putin and prefers a democratic transition in the war-torn country, but not at the cost of Syria becoming a failed state. He added that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that would draw reprisal from France.
Russia and France back different sides in the Syrian conflict, with Putin behind Syrian President Bashar Assad and Macron part of a western coalition that supports rebel groups and has accused Assad of using chemical weapons in the past.
The newly-elected French president also said that he discussed the status of gay men in Chechnya during his meeting with Putin. Dozens of men suspected of being gay were reportedly detained, tortured and in some cases killed in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia.
Macron, who took office two weeks ago, has said dialogue with Russia is vital in tackling a number of international disputes. Nevertheless, relations have been beset by mistrust, with Paris and Moscow backing opposing sides in the Syrian civil war and at odds over the Ukraine conflict.
Fresh from talks with his Western counterparts at a NATO meeting in Brussels and a G7 summit in Sicily, Macron was hosting the Russian president at the sumptuous 17th Century palace of Versailles outside Paris.
Amid the baroque splendor, Macron used an exhibition on Russian Tsar Peter the Great at the former royal palace to try to get Franco-Russian relations off to a new start.
The 39-year-old French leader and Putin exchanged a cordial, businesslike handshake and smiles when the latter stepped from his limousine for a red carpet welcome, with Macron appearing to say "welcome" to him in French.
"It's indispensable to talk to Russia because there are a number of international subjects that will not be resolved without a tough dialogue with them," Macron told reporters at the end of the G7 summit on Saturday, where the Western leaders agreed to consider new measures against Moscow if the situation in Ukraine did not improve.
"I will be demanding in my exchanges with Russia," he added.
Relations between Paris and Moscow were increasingly strained under former French President Francois Hollande. Putin, 64, cancelled his last planned visit in October after Hollande said he would see him only for talks on Syria.
Then, during the French election campaign, the Macron camp alleged Russian hacking and disinformation efforts, at one point refusing accreditation to the Russian state-funded Sputnik and RT news outlets.
Two days before the May 7 election runoff, Macron's team said thousands of hacked campaign emails had been put online in a leak that one New York-based analyst said could have come from a group tied to Russian military intelligence.
Moscow and RT itself rejected allegations of meddling in the election.
Putin also offered Macron's far-right opponent Marine Le Pen a publicity coup when he granted her an audience a month before the election's first round.
Nonetheless, Russia's ambassador to Paris, Alexander Orlov said on Monday that he expected this first meeting between the two men to be full of "smiles" and marking the beginning of "a very good and long relationship."
Orlov, speaking on Europe 1 radio, said he believed that Macron was "much more flexible" on the Syrian question, though he did not say why he thought this. Putin would certainly invite Macron to pay a visit to Moscow, he said.
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