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French conservative favourite Fillon says Russia poses no security threat

PARIS (Reuters) - Former prime minister Francois Fillon, favourite to become the French centre-right’s candidate for president in an election next year, said on Monday that Russia did not constitute a security threat and it was “completely stupid” to push it away.

Francois Fillon (R), candidate in Sunday's second round of the French center-right presidential primary elections, and former candidate Bruno Le Maire (Top), both members of the conservative Les Republicains political party, attend a meeting with deputies in Paris, France, November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

French officials have been pressing for an extension of European Union sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine and suggested that further sanctions over its role in Syria may be necessary given the Russian-backed Syrian government attacks on rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

“You spoke about an enthusiasm to get closer to Russia. There’s no enthusiasm,” Fillon told TF1 television.

“I just see that it (Russia) is the biggest country in the world and we’re pushing it towards Asia in a completely stupid way. In no way does it threaten our security.”

After the U.S. election of Donald Trump, who has said he wants closer ties with the Kremlin and has questioned the cost of protecting NATO allies, some analysts predict an emboldened Moscow could become more assertive in eastern Europe after already annexing Crimea in 2014.

A senior pro-Kremlin lawmaker was quoted as saying on Monday that Moscow will deploy S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander systems in the exclave of Kaliningrad in retaliation for NATO deployments in the region.

Fillon’s comments are in tune with some in the French foreign policy establishment who accuse President Francois Hollande of pursuing an American-aligned “neo-conservative” agenda and thus weakening Europe as a whole.

Fillon meets another former prime minister Alain Juppe in a runoff vote on Nov. 27 for the conservative ticket.

But, given the 44 percent of the votes he secured in Sunday’s first round of voting for the centre-right nomination, many see him as being in pole position for a showdown with far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the election next spring.

Fillon also sought to clarify his position on the crisis in Syria. Under his premiership, Paris closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012, two years after he travelled to Syria to meet President Bashar al-Assad to promote bilateral ties.

He has previously proposed restoring some diplomatic links with Assad, although he has said the Syrian leader cannot be a long-term solution.

“The situation in Syria has been going on for four years. It’s not because the United Nations is offended or that what we’re seeing on TV is terrible that it’s going to stop,” he said.

“To stop, you need to reach an agreement. If you want to find an agreement, you have to speak with everyone on the ground. All those who complain about the violence offer nothing to find a solution. I propose to get out of this by speaking to those who can stop this massacre,” he said, without explaining his strategy.

Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Richard Balmforth