By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron refused a Kremlin request that he take a Russian COVID-19 test when he arrived to see President Vladimir Putin this week, to prevent Russia getting hold of Macron’s DNA, two sources in Macron’s entourage told Reuters.
As a result, the visiting French head of state was kept at a distance from the Russian leader during lengthy talks on the Ukraine crisis in Moscow.
They were photographed at opposite ends of a table so long that it provoked satirical comment on social media and speculation, including by diplomats, that Putin might be using it to send a message.
But two sources who have knowledge of the French president’s health protocol told Reuters Macron had been given a choice: either accept a PCR test done by the Russian authorities and be allowed to get close to Putin, or refuse and have to abide by more stringent social distancing.
“We knew very well that meant no handshake and that long table. But we could not accept that they get their hands on the president’s DNA,” one of the sources told Reuters, referring to security concerns if the French leader was tested by Russian doctors.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Macron had declined the test and said Russia had no problem with this, but it meant that a 6-metre (20 feet) distance from Putin was required in order to protect the Kremlin leader’s health.
“There is no politics in this, it does not interfere with negotiations in any way,” he said.
A second source in Macron’s entourage said he instead took a French PCR test before departure and an antigen test done by his own doctor once in Russia.
“The Russians told us Putin needed to be kept in a strict health bubble,” the second source said.
Macron’s office said the Russian health protocol “did not seem to us to be either acceptable or compatible with our diary constraints”, referring to the length of time that would have been required to wait for the results.
When asked specifically about DNA theft, Macron’s office said: “The president has doctors who define with him the rules that are acceptable or not in terms of his own health protocol.”
On Thursday, three days after Macron and Putin had their socially-distanced meeting, the Russian leader received Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The two men shook hands, and sat close to each other, divided only by a small coffee table.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov; Editing by Catherine Evans)