Macron tells Eastern Europe - we should have listened to you over Russia

FILE PHOTO: Third ministerial conference of the Moldova Support Platform in Paris

By Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged on Wednesday that France should have paid more attention to Eastern European nations, which warned about a belligerent Russia before Moscow's forces invaded Ukraine.

Macron told a security forum there should be no division between "Old Europe" and "New Europe", referring to enduring divergences between eastern and western European Union members over matters such as Russia.

"Some said you had missed an opportunity to shut up. I think we also lost an opportunity to listen to you. This time is over," Macron said to applause during a speech at the GLOBSEC think tank in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.

He was alluding to a remark in 2003 by then-French President Jacques Chirac, who said east European nations who sided with the United States and Britain in their decision to invade Iraq that year, opposed by some major western allies including France and Germany, had missed a "good opportunity to shut up".

The remark shocked east European countries and contributed to an enduring mistrust of Paris by EU's newest members that has re-emerged since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

In the aftermath of the invasion, eastern EU countries such as Poland criticised Macron for keeping communication channels open with Russian President Vladimir Putin, or for saying that Russia should not be "humiliated" in the course of international efforts to end the Ukraine conflict.

On Wednesday, Macron also said Europe should build up its own defence industry and not only rely on the United States for protection, though he acknowledged the U.S. contribution in money and materiel had been crucial to forming a credible front against Russia.

"Let's be grateful and say thank you to the United States. But is this administration here forever?" Macron said. "That's why a European defence pillar in NATO is indispensable."

The United States has presidential elections in November, 2024 with Donald Trump - who as president said European nations should pay more for their own defence - likely to run again.

Macron said Russia had suffered clear setbacks in the war, including Finland's accession to NATO and losing legitimacy on the global stage.

"War is far from over but one thing is clear: Ukraine won't be conquered. We can see that what was supposed to be a 'special operation' is already a geopolitical failure," Macron said.

(Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by Mark Heinrich and Jon Boyle)