Lebanon: Interview of the French President
QUESTION – Mr. President, you decided a few days ago to add a tour of the Middle East to your visit to Lebanon in response to the urgent nature of the situation in Gaza. Does that tour still have any meaning following the launch of the Israeli ground offensive on Saturday evening? What are your goals now? Do you genuinely think you can succeed in halting the fighting?
THE PRESIDENT – It does not have less meaning just because it is more complicated. On the contrary, Israel’s launch of a ground offensive adds even greater urgency to the necessity of arriving at a ceasefire.
That offensive has been condemned by us and by our European partners because it makes the prospect of peace that much more distant and because it makes the supplying of aid to Gaza’s population more difficult. And I will be saying to the Israeli authorities that it is absolutely essential that they allow humanitarian aid through to Gaza.
But I wish to say once again here that we condemn just as firmly the continued firing of rockets, which is an unacceptable provocation. Hamas, which decided to break the truce and resume firing rockets into Israel, bears a heavy burden of responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.
What is urgent now is to halt the violence. We must find as quickly as possible a way of arriving at a ceasefire and allowing the peace process to resume. That is why I have come here, to assist in finding a solution. And it is in that spirit that I shall be meeting not only with President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, but also with President Mubarak and President Assad, because they can play a crucial role in putting an end to this escalation.
France, because it has been able to build a relationship of trust and friendship with all the parties, has a particular duty here: a duty to take every possible risk to help find a solution and bring back hopes of peace in the region. Will it work? Will we succeed in halting the use of arms? I have no idea. All I know is that if you do not risk failure, you also deprive yourself of the chance of success. And frankly, who could criticize me for trying everything possible to put an end to so much suffering?
QUESTION – This is your second visit to Lebanon in six months, the first one took place a few days after the election of President Michel Sleiman. What is your message to the Lebanese?
THE PRESIDENT – My message to the Lebanese people is a very simple one: continue! Continue the efforts underway, keep going along the road to dialogue and reconciliation, continue building together the free, democratic and sovereign Lebanon to which all the Lebanese aspire. All together, you are now achieving something that is extraordinary: you are reviving the Lebanese miracle. The international community, France especially, stands by you to support you in this.
When I last visited Lebanon in June, President Sleiman had just been elected and Lebanon was barely emerging from the deep political crisis it was going through. I came at the time together with the leaders of the main French political parties in order to tell President Sleiman and the Lebanese people as a whole that France’s support wasn’t the preserve of parties or persons, but the support of the entire French Nation.
This was only six months ago, yet you have since come a long way: the unity government was formed, Lebanese institutions are functioning, a President was elected, the government is working and the parliament is once again the natural forum for debate among the Lebanese. Tension has subsided, the security situation has improved, and legislative elections will be held soon. I also have in mind the national dialogue launched and steered by President Sleiman, which should ultimately achieve true national reconciliation, particularly by enabling the Lebanese to agree on a national defence strategy.
The next legislative elections will be held with the utmost transparency and in a spirit of democracy, without any violence. This is fundamental as the elections will be a decisive stage of the reconciliation process and the moment of truth for Lebanese democracy.
I have come to Lebanon today to again show France’s deep friendship, and my personal affection, for your country and the Lebanese people. I want to congratulate President Sleiman and all Lebanese officials on all the progress accomplished since the Doha Agreement and to encourage them to go ever further, with our support, for Lebanon to at last be able to enjoy peace and stability.
My present visit in fact concerns a very concrete aspect of this commitment, as I am coming to encourage our troops who are deployed in southern Lebanon under United Nations resolution 1701 and as part of UNIFIL forces. I chose to present my New Year’s greetings to the armed forces this year from this theatre of operations. This goes to show the importance I attach to France’s support for this mission which is crucial to regional stability and world peace.
QUESTION – The Lebanese parliamentary elections are scheduled for the spring of 2009. How important do you think these elections are, given that some people think they may be accompanied by security problems or the resumption of foreign interference?
THE PRESIDENT – As I told you, these elections are absolutely fundamental. What is at stake is to carry through the reconciliation process started six months ago by all the Lebanese parties. What is at stake is for the Lebanese to decide their future together, freely and peacefully. What is at stake is to fully revive the spirit of diversity, pluralism and tolerance which is at the heart of the Lebanese miracle.
This is why France is so intent on the holding of free elections, free from all violence, transparent and democratic, within the time provided for by the Constitution.
The responsibility for ensuring that the elections go smoothly lies first and foremost with the Lebanese themselves. It is up to them to appear united, to reject violence, and to deter all provocations and foreign interference attempts.
To accompany this important stage, France has announced that it was prepared, as in 2005 and if the Lebanese authorities so desire, to contribute to the smooth conduct of the elections alongside its partners of the European Union and of the international community.
QUESTION – Russia recently announced that it would give Lebanon 10 MiG-29 fighters as a gift and the United States promised to give tanks to Lebanon. Does France also intend to provide the Lebanese army with sophisticated armaments?
THE PRESIDENT – Since the war of the summer 2006, France has provided material support to the Lebanese army on several occasions through deliveries of munitions and various equipment, notably by overhauling all the front armoured vehicles of the Lebanese army. Deliveries of armaments and of a patrol boat for the navy are scheduled for the first quarter of 2009.
I would like to add that the defence cooperation budget for Lebanon has been maintained despite France’s very tight budget constraints. This will enable us to pursue the training actions we have been conducting for a long time to date and which, I believe, are particularly appreciated by our Lebanese friends. France is also participating, of course, in all UNIFIL components, with 1,615 troops and 447 seamen. We are thus contributing to the training of the Lebanese armed forces, notably the naval forces. Regarding the provision of equipment, the requests made by the Lebanese authorities are always examined with the greatest care.
QUESTION – Your opening up to Syria has led to the resolution of one of the problems undermining Lebanese-Syrian relations, through the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Do you think you will be able to bring Damascus to resolve other contentious issues, beginning with the delimitation of borders between the two countries?
THE PRESIDENT – By restoring dialogue with Damascus, I took a personal risk which I fully assume, notably vis-à-vis my Lebanese friends. Would the developments we have just discussed, and all that has taken place in Lebanon in the last six months, have been possible had we not taken that risk? I most definitely don’t think so.
But this dialogue – as I said from the start – had to be firm, demanding and to lead to concrete developments. This is what happened and I am pleased to see that progress is being made. The establishment of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria and the exchange of ambassadors which is to take place within the next few days, mark an historic and irreversible stage in the process of normalization between your two countries.
This does not make me unrealistic, however, I am perfectly aware that there are still many stages to go through.
Yet who would have thought only six months ago that we would have reached this point today? Lebanon and Syria are now on the path of a true dialogue that should enable the two countries to rebuild relations based on confidence and on respect for each other’s sovereignty. This is not simple, but I do hold the hope that you will succeed.
You should know, at any rate, that I will show the same determination in the future to monitor the realization of the other commitments made at the summit between President Michel Sleiman and President Bachar al-Assad, notably as regards the delimitation of the border or the resolution of the grievous issue of missing persons.
QUESTION – The International Tribunal for Lebanon is to start work on 1 March 2009. Will you respect its verdict, whether the accused are Lebanese or foreigners?
THE PRESIDENT - France is one of the countries most strongly committed to supporting international justice and the fight against impunity. We contributed significantly to the creation of the commission of inquiry and have since unreservedly supported the Tribunal’s work. We welcomed with great satisfaction the announcement of the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on 1 March 2009. I wish to add that we have total confidence in the Commission’s work and that we shall of course abide by the decisions the Tribunal may be led to take.