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Can France be seen as at war with Russia as it gave guns to Ukraine?

French experts give their views on whether this makes the country part of the conflict

Anti-war protesters in France, holding a banner that says “Sauvons L’Ukraine (Let’s save Ukraine)”

France cannot be considered to be at war under international law, but Russia may yet react to the EU’s giving of weapons to Ukraine Pic: Vivian Song / Shutterstock

As France and other countries in the European Union supply weapons to Ukraine to help it fight against the Russian invasion, French politicians and experts give their views on whether this equates to being at war.

It comes as Russia places France and several other countries on a ‘hostile’ list meaning individuals and businesses in Russia can reimburse large debts with these countries in roubles. The currency has plummeted since January.

Public service media FranceInfo has gathered expert opinions on the issue of what constitutes being at war.

What are the president and army minister saying?

President Emmanuel Macron has made his position clear. In a televised speech on March 2, he said: “We are not at war with Russia.”

Yet, leader of left-wing political party La France Insoumise and presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, prompted debate when he said: “I regret that the EU has decided to ‘send weapons necessary for war’. This makes us co-belligerents.”

He made the comment at a special session of the Assemblée nationale, on March 1.

Army Minister Florence Parly disagreed, saying that only “a direct involvement of our forces, or those of our allies, to support the Ukrainian army against Russia” would “make us a co-belligerent”, and confirmed that such involvement “is not an option”.

What does ‘co-belligerent’ mean? 

The term does not officially exist in international law (at least, no more than the word ‘belligerent’). Belligerent was used at the end of World War Two to denote different states of participation in the conflict.

The term “part of the conflict” has been preferred since 1977, according to changes to the Geneva Convention in 1949, on the protection of victims of armed war.

Julien Théron, a researcher at Sciences Po and a specialist in conflict and international security, is clear that neither France nor the EU is at war.

He told FranceInfo: “To participate in a war ‘officially’, you have to send fighting troops. France is not doing that [in the current conflict in Ukraine]. So under international law, it is not at all at war with Russia.”

He added: "Just because you are an ally of a country at war does not mean you are at war. [For example] Iran is not at war with Ukraine, although it is an ally of Russia."

Alain Pellet, Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris-Nanterre and former Chairman of the United Nations International Law Commission, agreed with Mr Théron’s assessment.

He said: "There are two bodies of rules in international law, the law of peace and the law of war. A country becomes belligerent only when one applies the law of war. 

“At present, France is using the law of peace: We are prohibiting ourselves from using force, but we are not stopping ourselves from using sanctions."

A change in EU doctrine? 

At this stage, France has joined a number of European countries to deliver deadly weapons to Ukraine, including missiles, machine guns, and rocket launchers.

The move has been seen as unprecedented within the European Union. 

The EU will finance the purchase and delivery of these weapons and other equipment, such as fuel and protective equipment, in a decision that has been described as unprecedented. 

Sylvain Kahn, a doctor of geography and associate professor of history at Sciences Po, told FranceInfo that the move was a "historic shift" and “a change of doctrine”.

He said: “Even during the war in Yugoslavia (1991-2001), the European Union never did this.”

European foreign ministers are also set to consider the possibility of using the "European Peace Facility" to fund the effort. This is a fund that allows member states to reimburse their military expenses incurred under the European flag.

The Russian response? 

While the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, has said that this “should put an end to the taboo of the EU not supplying arms to belligerents”, it has been suggested that the EU’s actions could be interpreted by Moscow as an indirect entry into the war.

Russia has reportedly compiled a list of “hostile” nations, which includes France. The list also cites other EU countries as well as the UK, Australia, Canada, Monaco, South Korea, the US, and Japan. It has been considered as one of the first overt responses from Russia to the sanctions imposed by international nations.

President Vladimir Putin has said that any debt [towards these “hostile” nations], whether from a Russian individual or company can be repaid in roubles, the [Russian] government said today (March 7). The Russian currency has lost 45% of its value since January.

Essentially, Mr. Putin considers these nations to be the reason why roubles have plummeted and therefore that they should share the burden of its lost value.

This rouble payment procedure applies to monthly payments exceeding 10 million roubles, in foreign currency equivalent.

Yet, international law precedent suggests that the EU’s actions cannot be legitimately considered acts of war.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is responsible for prosecuting war crimes committed in the Balkans in the 1990s, has ruled that "state control over armed forces" must be "comprehensive" in order for a country to be considered to have engaged in armed conflict. 

In an article on the issue, the Red Cross clarified that in order to be considered a “co-belligerent”, a state must "play a role in organising, coordinating or planning the military actions of the military group, in addition to financing, training, equipping or providing operational support to it". 

Support from France and the EU has not gone this far. The Elysée Palace has maintained that all support offered to Ukraine is merely defensive.

Yet, France has not denied that its involvement could risk the “escalation” of the conflict, due to the possibility of a Russian response. 

Mr Théron said that while “European countries” tend to respect European law, “Vladimir Putin, in an extremely open way, does not consider it as something major [to be respected]”.

But legal expert Alain Pellet told FranceInfo that “no matter how Putin interprets it”, international law states that “selling or giving arms is not an act of belligerence", and that Russia cannot be considered to be “in a state of self-defence".

Despite this, Russia has previously responded strongly to statements by French politicians. 

When Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire stated that France wanted to “wage a total economic and financial war on Russia”, former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted: “watch your tongue”, because “economic wars quite often turn into real ones”.

Mr Medvedev is also vice-president of the Russian Security Council, and a loyal supporter of President Putin.

Read more: Ukraine war: How French companies with Russian links may be affected 

This led the French Economy Ministry to backtrack, with Mr Le Maire later calling his words “inappropriate”, and admitting that they were not part of the “de-escalation strategy” that France and the EU are now pursuing.

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