NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia/PARIS (Reuters) - Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy came under fire on Thursday for making an unofficial visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin at his residence near Moscow, where both men expressed regret for disagreements between their countries.
Paris has been highly critical of Russia's military intervention in Syria and French President François Hollande has said he sees no role for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a future political transition.
Sarkozy, who heads the conservative The Republicans party and is widely expected to make another run for the presidency in 2017, was slammed by the Socialist government over the visit.
French junior minister for higher education and research Thierry Mandon said Sarkozy had no business short-circuiting French foreign policy.
"Diplomacy is complicated, he is like a dog in a bowling alley in this affair," he said on France 2 television.
The vice president of the French parliament's France-Russia friendship group, green party member François Michel-Lambert, said Sarkozy's "parallel diplomacy" was damaging for the country.
"It is amazing that the former head of state does not have a sense of statesmanship," he said.
Russian warplanes have bombed some rebel groups that France and its western allies are trying to help in their struggle against Assad.
On his visit, Putin told Sarkozy he was pleased to see him.
"It's been a long time since we last saw each other. A whole year. In that time there have been a lot of events in Europe, in the world, and in our bilateral relations," Putin said.
Sarkozy said that despite the disagreements between France and Russia, he and Putin had always been able to find common ground. "We need to get out of this period of confrontation that we are currently experiencing," he said, without making any concrete proposals.
Former conservative minister Xavier Bertrand, who has declared his candidacy for the 2017 presidential election, defended Sarkozy's visit, saying he was free to meet who he wanted.
"It is about time we stop this cold war with Russia that has been going on for months and months," he said on iTELE television.
(Reporting by Denis Dyomkin in Moscow and Marine Pennetier, Elizabeth Pineau and Gregory Blachier in Paris; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Andrew Callus and Hugh Lawson)