Criticized at home for a lack of initiative on Ukraine, French President Francois Hollande will hold separate dinners on Thursday with the U.S. and Russian leaders in an attempt to unlock Europe's worst security crisis since the Cold War.
His aim is to orchestrate an ice-breaking first meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko on French soil, diplomats said, despite continued fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
French officials have gone to elaborate lengths to keep U.S. President Barack Obama and Putin apart in Paris, at Washington's request, before Friday's 70th anniversary commemorations of the allied D-Day landings in World War Two, which will see 18 world leaders descend on the Normandy beaches.
The French capital goes into security lockdown from mid-afternoon when Obama and Putin fly in, while Britain's Queen Elizabeth arrives by train from London to begin a three-day state visit, her fifth since taking the throne in 1953.
"This is an important occasion to express gratitude and fraternity, but it is also major international event which should serve the interests of peace," Hollande told a news conference after a summit of Group of Seven (G7) leaders in Brussels - a meeting to which Putin was pointedly not invited.
Asked if a Putin-Poroshenko meeting in France was possible, Hollande replied: "Yes...I invited (Poroshenko) so he could be there, because he represents the Ukrainian people who suffered a lot during World War Two. He will be there alongside President Putin. President Putin was informed of that."
Putin said in French media interviews on Wednesday that he was open to meetings with both Poroshenko and Obama in France. While the U.S. leader has so far not taken him up on the opportunity, the two countries' foreign ministers will meet on Thursday.
Underscoring the sensitivities, Hollande will rush from meeting the Queen at his Elysee Palace to a chic restaurant overlooking the Champs-Elysees avenue to dine with Obama before going back to his residence for a late supper with Putin.
Hollande has spent much of the week, first in Poland and then in Brussels, trying to create a diplomatic opening on Ukraine after sending Poroshenko a last-minute invitation to the D-Day ceremonies. Ukrainians fought in the Soviet Red Army that defeated Nazi Germany.