Q. – How do you assess the record of France’s external action?
THE MINISTER – I judge our foreign policy record to be positive overall. In line with our commitment, we’ve withdrawn militarily from Afghanistan, to forge civilian cooperation with that country. The intervention in Mali has been more than useful: it’s been decisive. We’ve brought about reconciliation with several major states whose relations with France were a bit strained: Algeria, China, Japan, Mexico, Poland and Turkey.
The recognition of Palestine’s status as a non-member observer state at the UN is also a step forward. Other fundamental initiatives have been taken that are steps in the right direction, such as the establishment of economic diplomacy, the adaptation of our diplomatic network to the 21st-century world, our policy of supporting development and Francophony and – even though it must be broadened – clear progress at European level towards genuine budgetary discipline combined with growth.
You have to understand that the international context has changed and that it’s in this new framework that our power of influence can be exerted. The 1990s were years of trust in globalization, after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the 2010s are years of mistrust in globalization, because there’s been the financial crisis, which has fuelled tension linked to sovereignty; because the distribution of power is evolving within the international system, without our being able to predict the exact outcome; because the China/United States tandem fascinates people, with renascent power on the one hand and reluctant power on the other, but it’s still undecided; and because the evolution of the Arab transitions adds to this perplexity.
So we’re living in a period I’d call strategic hesitation, which is leading to a wait-and-see world, at the very time when the underlying problems are building up and require clear, concerted responses. In this context, France must play her full role as a power of influence, a landmark power that helps resolve this crisis of collective ambition.
Q. – On Syria – a major crisis in the most troubled region on the planet – isn’t France taking a wait-and-see position?
THE MINISTER – The Syria tragedy, if it continues, may be the worst humanitarian and political disaster of the beginning of this century. The dead, injured, displaced people and refugees number hundreds of thousands in Syria and the neighbouring countries. Unless the conflict is stopped, the prospect is of the country exploding, a sectarian ultra-radicalization of the two camps and the destablization of every component of that already explosive region. The Syrian cauldron, along with the Iranian nuclear programme – and the two are linked, moreover – is currently the biggest threat to peace.
We can’t resolve the conflict alone, but we’re constantly taking the initiative.
We intend to continue a four-pronged approach. Firstly, to carry on pushing for a political solution: the United States must commit herself fully, the talks with Russia must be stepped up; for a long time we’ve been proposing a Geneva II, following on from the Geneva meeting in June 2012, which almost succeeded.
The second decision is that we’re going to increase our support for the moderate opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, which must be broadened and unified and must clearly guarantee each community respect for its rights in the event of regime change. In order for there to be no ambiguity, we propose to classify the Al-Nusra Front – which is opposed to Bashar al-Assad but is a subsidiary of al-Qaeda – as a “terrorist organization” in the UN sense.
The third decision is to talk to our European partners about the arms embargo. On the one hand, there’s no question of the resistance fighters and civilians continuing to be bombarded: they’re legitimately demanding means of protecting themselves. On the other hand, we can’t supply them with weapons that might fall into the hands of the regime or terrorist movements.
Finally, we’re fine-tuning our investigations and action plans in the face of the possibility of Assad using chemical weapons. We must move, and move fast.
Q. – François Hollande said the use of chemical weapons would bring about a “lightning” response. Well, it seems that some have been used…
THE MINISTER – There are indications to that effect, but no evidence. We’re delving into that important issue.
Q. – After the confusion during the uprisings in Tunis and Cairo and then the intervention in Libya, isn’t France reflecting the American confusion on Syria?
THE MINISTER – I don’t think so. These Arab transitions will take time. The situations aren’t the same in each country. We support these movements and the causes and values that have driven them. We support them at economic and political level, and at the same time we want two principles to be respected: fundamental freedoms (freedom of expression, women’s rights etc.) and the possibility of changeovers of power, pluralism. Those peoples must be able to decide freely if they want to continue, accelerate or take another path.
Q. – In Syria, don’t the military radicalization of Damascus and the Islamism within the opposition invalidate the past two years of wait-and-see policies? Shouldn’t there have been a military intervention?
THE MINISTER – A year ago, we organized in Paris the big conference of the Friends of Syria, and we were the first to recognize the Syrian National Coalition. We’ve been very active on humanitarian assistance. We were also the first to accredit a Coalition ambassador in Paris. We supported Moaz al-Khatib, the Coalition President, in his brave proposal of dialogue with certain elements of the regime. We took part – and I myself was one of those who held the pen – in “Geneva I”. We belong to the core of players who carry weight.
Q. – What is the Iranians’ level of commitment to the Syrian regime?
THE MINISTER – Considerable. There’s also a certain relationship between the Iranian nuclear issue and the clashes in Syria. If the international community isn’t capable of stopping a movement in which Assad’s men are powerfully supported by the Iranians, how credible will we be in ensuring that Iran doesn’t acquire a nuclear weapon?
Q. – In what timeframe do you think Iran can acquire a nuclear weapon?
THE MINISTER – Not before the Iranian election in June. We’re totally hostile to nuclear proliferation. If Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, others in the region would do the same. Iran can perfectly well use civilian nuclear energy, but she can’t acquire an atomic bomb. In order to prevent that, we must negotiate and apply sanctions.
Q. – And in the event of failure?
THE MINISTER – All options are on the table, but the desirable option is for the negotiation to succeed.
Q. – Regarding Mali, the French military operation is being presented as a success. How can the peace now be won?
THE MINISTER – The improvements are considerable. In mid-January, the whole country risked falling under the cruel yoke of the terrorists, threatening the security of Malians and the neighbouring countries. Today, most of the terrorists have been neutralized. Security is returning. The elections are being prepared.
That doesn’t mean everything’s been resolved. We have yet to carry out successfully the transition of the African force into the UN force and ensure that North-South dialogue becomes a reality, that Kidal stops being a lawless area and that the elections are held on schedule. We still have to make a successful peace.
Q. – Doesn’t the failure to stabilize Afghanistan after a successful military operation suggest that caution is in order as regards the post-war situation in Mali?
THE MINISTER – We have to learn from the past, even though the circumstances are different. Avoid unclear, changing operational goals. In Mali, the goals are to stop the terrorists and restore the country’s security and integrity so that the country develops under peaceful conditions. We also have to link security, democracy and development closely, fight corruption and drugs, not tolerate any acts of violence and avoid becoming an army of occupation: this is why we said that it isn’t France’s job to remain forever in Mali.
Q. – Isn’t it a mistake to push for an election to be organized in July?
THE MINISTER – Certainly not. The current government and president are transitional authorities. There must be permanent institutions and a legitimate election.
Q. – Does Mali mark a return to France’s traditional policy in Africa?
THE MINISTER – As regards Mali, all the African countries supported the operation. I took part in a big meeting in Addis Ababa – a very moving one – where half the heads of state who spoke ended with the words “long live France!”. I’ve never heard that before. Many things are asked of us, of France. We do the maximum, but it isn’t our job to intervene everywhere.
Q. – Don’t you think relations between France and Germany have deteriorated over the past year, both at government level and, recently, with the Socialist Party’s text about Angela Merkel?
THE MINISTER – I was returning from China with François Hollande when we learned of this “bad psychodrama” from an agency dispatch. It’s legitimate to have useful discussions with our German partner but inappropriate to attack the head of a neighbour’s government and act as though Germany were responsible for our loss of competitiveness and for all our difficulties. “Yes” to debate, “no” to punch-ups. Let’s strengthen our partnership.
We have to explain to those of our compatriots on all sides, who may not have understood, that Germans aren’t French people speaking... German, and explain to the Germans that the French aren’t all “irresponsible cicadas” (1).
Europe can’t be built on solid foundations without a robust, equal Franco-German partnership, open to others. France and Germany account for half of Europe’s wealth and much more than half of its driving power. It’s together that we’ve got to build the Euro project, which will lead us away from the current depressing situation: growth, energy, defence, research, future investment. France on her own isn’t an option. But if Europe is in recession or quite simply stagnating, it has negative consequences on Germany too.
Q. – Isn’t Europe going through an existential crisis?
THE MINISTER – It isn’t just a crisis we’re going through, it’s a change in the world. Gone are the days when Europe was the world’s imperial centre. Production methods, communication tools, regulation methods, hierarchies between countries – everything has completely changed. France, with Europe, must be capable of confronting this radical change./.
(1) La Cigale et la Fourmi [The Cicada and the Ant] is a parable by Jean de La Fontaine, well known in France, about the virtues of hard work and planning for the future, in which the cicada is portrayed as mindless and improvident. It is similar to Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”.