French President Emmanuel Macron hopes the repatriation of the body of General Charles-Etienne Gudin, who was killed in Russia more than two centuries ago, could play a symbolic role in his diplomatic courting of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Gudin, one of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's favorite generals, succumbed to gangrene three days after a cannonball destroyed his leg in an 1812 battle 20 kilometers east of the Russian city of Smolensk. Bonaparte reportedly sat at Gudin's side as he died.
If all goes according to French officials' plan, Gudin's remains will be returned to Paris in 2020 and reburied with great fanfare in a ceremony Macron hopes Putin will attend.
Gudin's heart is already in the French capital, having been transported there by his loyal troops. In July, a one-legged skeleton was discovered in a wooden coffin in a park in Smolensk. Subsequent DNA tests established it was Gudin's.
If the Kremlin agrees to France's request, Gudin, who was 44 when he was killed, will be reburied in Les Invalides where the tombs of Napoleon and other military war heroes are located.
Russian specialist Hélène Carrère d'Encausse told Le Figaro newspaper that Macron "has a sense of symbols" and sees a reburial ceremony as possibly helpful in his four-month diplomatic campaign to coax Russia into the Western fold.
"President Macron is trying to put Franco-Russian relations back on track," she said.
Ahead of last August's G-7 summit in Biarritz, Macron showed how adept he is at using symbols and history when he hosted Putin at his summer residence on the French Riviera. Macron hailed the impact Russian artists and writers had on France, saying they served as a reminder of how Russia is essentially a European nation.
It was a far cry from 2017, when fresh from an election victory in which he beat two pro-Kremlin challengers, Macron berated Putin at a joint press conference at the Palace of Versailles. Standing beside the uneasy-looking Russian leader, Macron blasted Russia for seeking to meddle in Western elections by spreading fake news, disinformation and falsehoods. He condemned brutal tactics, including the use of chemical weapons, allegedly employed by the Moscow-partnered Syrian government to regain control over the war-torn Middle East country.
Macron's about-face has made some of France's allies nervous, especially Russia's neighbors in Central Europe and the Baltic States. They fear that in his determination to move from hostility to rapprochement with the Kremlin, he risks falling into a trap of rewarding bad behavior for little in return.
But Macron has countered that "Europe would disappear" if it does not rethink strategy toward Russia, and that prolonging hostility will push the Kremlin into the arms of an assertive China, which also is courting Russia.
Earlier in December, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Kremlin will look favorably on a request for the return of Gudin's remains.
"We know that French and Russian archaeologists indeed made such a discovery and performed a DNA analysis that proved 100% correct," Peskov said. "So, those are indeed the remains of General Gudin. We know that it is big news for France, and we also know that the agenda has the topic of returning these remains."
He added, "If France sends an official request, Russia will respond positively to returning these remains."
French officials have confirmed that Macron raised the issue in December with Putin during the Ukraine peace talks in Paris. Le Figaro said the reburial "could become a symbol of Franco-Russian fraternity."
Before considering an official tribute to Gudin, Elysée Palace advisers researched Gudin's life to ensure he was safe from reproach or possible historical embarrassment, French magazine Le Point reported. The advisers were mindful of the political controversy in 2018 surrounding Macron's praise of General Philippe Pétain as a "great soldier" during commemorations of the centenary of World War I.
Jewish leaders and Macron's political foes argued that Macron's praise was ill-deserved, as Petain became a Nazi collaborator. Macron was forced to justify the homage.
Gudin appears to have passed the "honor" test. He is seen as a valiant warrior, above politics. He served the monarchy before the French Revolution and loyally commanded the armies of the French Republic.