When French President Emmanuel Macron met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, the future of European security was on the table.
But many Internet users were more interested in the table itself – an ornate, 20-foot behemoth at the Kremlin, where the two leaders faced off at throwing distance.
The seating arrangement produced a flurry of memes and speculation. To some, the table seemed indicative of the chasm between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis, as NATO leaders warn of an impending Russian invasion. Others joked that the presidents would have had to shout to make themselves heard. Meme-makers edited images of the Last Supper or figure skating duos onto the table.
The real reason for the seating arrangement: Coronavirus protocols, Russian officials said, due to the French president’s reluctance to allow Russian authorities to screen him for infection.
Macron declined to take a Russian PCR test, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed to reporters Friday, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
“Certain leaders follow their own protocols and do not expect to exchange test results with the host country,” he said. “We understand that, it’s a normal global practice, so we activate an additional protocol to protect the health of our president and guests at the same time. Social distancing is maintained on a larger scale then.”
Peskov said that while Putin sometimes “communicates with his guests directly, side by side” and sits with them in front of a fireplace in his office or shakes their hand, “negotiations with some other visitors are held at a table.”
A French official from the presidential palace said Macron’s team had concluded that conditions that would have “allowed for a lesser distance [between Putin and Macron] were not acceptable to us and chose the other option proposed by the Russian protocol.” The official added that the Russian conditions would not have been “compatible with the constraints of our schedule.”
The uber-long table also figured in Putin’s recent bilateral meetings with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the leaders of two countries with which Russia has pursued deepened ties.
But three days after his talks with Macron, Putin hosted Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev – and the two leaders shook hands and sat close together.
Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez was also seated close to Putin during his visit to the Kremlin last week. Once he arrived in Russia on Feb. 2, Fernandez took two PCR tests before his meeting with Putin, Argentinian newspaper Página 12 reported.
Putin, 69, has been cautious about protecting himself from the coronavirus. Journalists are required to get tested before attending events featuring Putin, and ahead of his end-of-year news conference in December, they had to show negative results from three PCR tests.
Russia has faced a major surge of the omicron variant in recent weeks that saw a number of people in Putin’s administration get infected.
The Putin-Macron talks themselves produced no major breakthroughs. The table incident, however, has become a humorous sideshow to high-stakes diplomacy taking place over the Ukraine standoff, as officials in Moscow and Paris have found themselves fielding questions about the striking setup.
A Reuters report on Thursday quoted two sources in Macron’s entourage saying that French officials refused to allow Russian health professionals to administer a PCR test to Macron out of fear that Russia would hold onto Macron’s genetic material.
“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 source told Reuters.
Another source told Reuters that Macron instead took a French PCR test before departing for Moscow and an antigen test provided by his personal doctor after arriving.
Neither the Kremlin nor the Élysée presidential palace in Paris has confirmed the report about French concerns over Russian authorities obtaining Macron’s DNA.
Macron’s reported concerns about giving Russia access to his DNA were greeted with humor online. Some observers speculated about what possible use of DNA the French president might have feared, while others pointed out that DNA samples could also have been extracted from the plates and utensils with which Putin and Macron dined.
Frederic Zenhausern, director of the Center for Applied Nanobioscience and Medecine at the University of Arizona, said PCR testing for the coronavirus is “really international” and uses the same core technology everywhere, so it would be strange for Russia not to accept the results of a French test.
But potential concerns from the French side that Russia might extract and glean information from Macron’s DNA seem largely unfounded, he said. Covid PCR tests are designed specifically to collect information about the coronavirus’s nucleic acid, rather than a broad swath of genetic information. And they are unlikely to capture enough cells for robust genetic sequencing, Zenhausern said.
Theoretically, though, it’s possible to sequence cells from a nasal swab – or from saliva collected from a coffee cup, for example. That could shed light on a person’s risk factors for genetic conditions like heart disease and depression, Zenhausern said.
The notion that Russia would be interested in collecting Macron’s DNA “doesn’t really make sense in terms of the level of information they could get,” he said. “I don’t think that would add any strategic value here.”
Peskov insisted Friday that the length of the table – and the Kremlin’s coronavirus precautions – did not reflect political considerations and had no influence on the outcome of negotiations.
“There is no politics in that, and everyone shows complete understanding, and, importantly, the procedure does not interfere with the talks in any way,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Rick Noack contributed reporting from Paris.