||Last Updated: May 4th, 2007 - 10:29:26
During his 12 years in office, outgoing President Jacques Chirac, an admirer of Russian culture, proved a reliable ally of Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.
Chirac, along with former German Chancellor Gerhard SchrÚder and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, often sided with Russia in major international disputes.
Both candidates in the runoff, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal, have proven during the campaign to be more critical of Russia than Chirac ever was and more committed to forging a united front within the European Union on critical issues, including defense and energy policy.
From Russia's perspective, "neither of the two candidates is a positive," said Leonid Slutsky, a senior member of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee.
"But we are ready to have good relations with whichever candidate wins," said Slutsky, a Liberal Democratic Party deputy.
Although the French president exercises considerable control over foreign policy, Chirac's successor will face resistance to sharp shifts in direction from the tradition-bound foreign policy establishment.
French businesspeople in Russia say their interests will not be significantly affected by the outcome of Sunday's vote.
During the campaign, Sarkozy and Royal broke most dramatically with Chirac's support of Russia on the issue of human rights, indicating that the rhetoric coming out of the Elysee Palace over the next six years could have a sharper edge.
Francois Fillon, a top adviser to Sarkozy, said during a televised debate last month that the conservative front-runner "wants to change the way foreign policy is conducted."
"Sarkozy will tell Russian leaders with utmost frankness that the manner in which the Chechen crisis was handled was unworthy of a great country like Russia," he said.
Spokesman Axel Poniatowski said by telephone that Sarkozy's pragmatism in foreign policy would be tempered by his concern over humanitarian issues. He added, however, that Sarkozy, whose father fled the Soviet occupation of Hungary during World War II, would reserve his sharpest criticism for private meetings with the president.
Royal has been more outspoken on human rights. In a major campaign speech, she hailed the slain investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya as an "exceptional woman" who was "assassinated."
Royal promised to be "uncompromising" as president in denouncing the rollback of rights in Russia.
Thomas Gomart, director of the Russian/NIE Center at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, said by telephone that Royal was "likely to become even more critical" following the recent crackdown on the Dissenters' Marches in Moscow and St. Petersburg and in the run-up to the State Duma elections in December.
The issue most likely to affect Russian-French relations is not Chechnya, however, but the European Union -- specifically, French solidarity with its European partners.
The EU was central to the campaign. Chirac was often criticized for his reluctance to push for enlargement of the EU, economic reform and the draft European constitution, which French voters rejected in a 2005 referendum.
Sarkozy and Royal both support closer integration with the EU, much as Chancellor Angela Merkel has done in Germany. Both candidates advocate working more closely with the EU to develop common defense and energy policies, which will directly affect relations with Russia.
In their responses to the U.S. plan to install elements of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Moscow fiercely opposes, both candidates emphasized common European security concerns.
"I don't see how we can say that this is a Czech or Polish issue," Sarkozy said in an interview published last month in Le Monde. "It is an issue faced by Europe as a whole unless we renounce all aspirations toward a European defense policy."
Sarkozy has also spoken of his admiration for the United States, leading his opponents to dub him an "American conservative with a French passport."
Following a visit to Washington last September, Sarkozy responded to criticism with a swipe at Chirac's close relationship with Putin: "When I think that those who disapprove of my visit with Bush are the same ones who would shake hands with Putin, it makes me quietly laugh," he said, Reuters reported.
Defense has not been a priority in Royal's campaign, but she has called for renewed efforts to develop a common European defense policy.
Russia prefers to deal with European countries one-on-one, however, enabling it to play EU member countries against one another.
Yuly Kvitsinsky, first deputy chairman of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, said a good relationship with the EU was in Russia's interest.
"But with a weak EU, because a more unified EU could start to throw its weight around. The possibility of further [European] economic integration poses a threat to Russia," he said.
The impact of such integration could be felt most acutely in the area of EU energy policy. Both Sarkozy and Royal support the participation of state-owned Gaz de France's participation in the Nabucco pipeline, which would reduce Europe's dependency on Russian natural gas.
France's highly developed nuclear power industry affords it greater independence in making energy policy than many of its neighbors, particularly Germany.
Under Chirac, France went out of its way to avoid confrontation on energy issues, even when oil major Total, along with other foreign companies, was cut out of plans to develop the Shtokman gas field. As the French political elite smarted from Moscow's abrupt decision, Chirac awarded Putin the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.
The next French president may well face a new challenge. The Arctic Kharyaga oil and gas field, which Total is developing under a production sharing agreement, has recently come under pressure from the Russian government.
In the first round of the election, nearly 50 percent of French citizens in Moscow voted for Sarkozy. Royal finished a distant third with just 17 percent, said Jean-Pierre Lallin, a representative of Sarkozy's party who was present when the votes were counted.
Lallin predicted that his man would receive more than 60 percent of the votes here on Sunday.
While the new president is likely to adopt a more critical stance toward Russia and to promote integration with Europe, most observers believe business will continue as usual.
"I think we will come to an understanding with whichever candidate wins the job," Kvitsinsky said. "Experience shows that the French president operates within the tradition of relations with Russia, actively developing commercial ties and exchanges."
In 2006, France became the eighth-largest exporter of goods to Russia and the fifth-largest European foreign direct investor, according the economic mission of the French Embassy.