PARIS (Reuters) - When NATO's 30 foreign ministers met in Bucharest in November to map out further aid plans for Ukraine and regional players under pressure from Russia, there was a notable ministerial absence: France.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna was with President Emmanuel Macron on a state visit to the United States, although U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken managed to make it to Bucharest.
For European allies, especially eastern states closer to the front lines, it was one more reason to fret about French policy on Ukraine and whether it is a weak link in the Western alliance that has been bolstering Kyiv against Russia's invasion.
Two days after the Bucharest meeting, in interviews with French and U.S. media outlets, Macron mixed his messages on Ukraine, adding to exasperation that has become increasingly public in some east European capitals.
On the one hand it was up to Kyiv to decide when to negotiate with Moscow, Macron said, but on the other he repeated comments that called for security guarantees for Russia when the day to negotiate came.
Russia's official TASS news agency retweeted his remarks.
"Oh FFS (for f***'s sake)," former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves said on Twitter, encapsulating the general feeling among many of France's eastern allies.
Ukraine's response was swift and blunt. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's top aide, Mykhailo Podolyak, said it was the world that needed security guarantees from Russia, not the other way around.
Such comments have made France's eastern European and Baltic allies in NATO angry and wary of Macron's intentions despite Paris providing substantial military and financial aid to Ukraine, diplomats and former politicians said.
The annoyance among eastern allies has undermined Macron's own policy agenda to beef up European "strategic autonomy" separate from the U.S.-led NATO umbrella, with eastern allies now trusting the United States more for their defence.
An eastern European diplomat said Macron had "misread" Russia once and the fear was he would do so again.
Asked by reporters to respond to critics about his latest comments on Russia, Macron said on the sidelines of an EU summit in Albania: "I don't think we should make a big deal out of that and create controversies where there's none."
He added: "I've always said...that in the peace negotiations at the end, there will be territorial issues, and they belong to the Ukrainians, and there will be issues of collective security for the whole region."
Macron’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this article.
NEVER SPEAK OUT LOUD
French diplomats and presidency officials underscore that France has never avoided giving Kyiv political, military and humanitarian aid, and that Macron repeatedly consulted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy before dealing with Putin.
But Macron's talk of security guarantees has also irked close Western allies who see it as inappropriate set against an invasion that has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians, laid waste to cities and left millions in winter cold and darkness.
"In foreign policy, you should never say everything out loud. Being right is not enough," Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, tweeted, without mentioning Macron by name but adding a pointed "sigh" at the end.
"You have to say it at the right moment, or you risk ending up with the opposite of what you wanted," he said.
The latest bout of criticism has stung Paris because it comes after Macron had recalibrated his message on Russia.
After irritating Ukraine and eastern Europeans when he said during his re-election campaign that Russia should not be "humiliated", Macron pivoted with a widely-praised speech at the United Nations in September saying neutral countries were being complicit by remaining silent about the conflict. France had also stepped up military aid to Ukraine and made it more public.
SEIZING THE MOMENT
In some ways, the mixed messages have been unsurprising.
The backbone of Macron's foreign policy since 2017 has been to launch initiatives and go against the grain. His comments in 2019 on NATO being "brain dead" caused no crisis in the alliance but rather stimulated constructive debate about its mission.
Macron rarely reverses comments he has made. He tries to explain, convince peers that he is right and demonstrate his prowess on the international stage, associates say.
He is typically energetic, enjoys confronting complex issues, and has a flair for seizing the moment.
However, an increasing number of critics and allies see his thrust on Russia as his major foreign policy mistake.
They note how he has remained aloof when it comes to the possibility of an outright Russian defeat, about which speculation has risen following a string of Russian territorial losses to a Ukrainian counter-offensive since the summer.
In the eyes of Moscow's former Soviet-era satellites in eastern Europe, Russia must be humiliated so their territorial integrity is never threatened again. But Macron believes any Russian defeat must be managed well, with an eye to history.
This reasoning enjoys consensus in France where schools teach that the Versailles Treaty which ended World War One by imposing crushing financial and territorial penalties on Germany fuelled bitterness and paved the way to World War Two.
East Europeans, however, fear Macron's dialogue with Putin makes him useful for a Russian leader who sees Washington as the fount of Western power and Macron as a tool to cause unease in NATO and exploit any French-German divisions.
A senior Russian diplomat said Macron stood out for having a vision and desire to preserve future relations between Russia and France rather than burn ties as others apparently wanted.
From the onset of his presidency in 2017, Macron sought a strategic "dialogue" with Russia. He invited Putin to the palatial halls of Versailles. The symbolism emboldened and flattered Putin, but yielded no breakthroughs of substance.
Nevertheless, Macron has doggedly sought to keep communication channels with Putin open, most recently to try to create a security zone around a front-line nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine repeatedly hit by shelling.
Without discernible results.
And although Macron said before his trip to Washington he would speak to Putin in "the coming days", no call has yet materialised.
(Reporting by John Irish and Michel Rose; editing by Mike Collett-White and Mark Heinrich)