Armed Forces Minister explains French policy
Fight against terrorism – Syria/Iraq/G5 Sahel – Interview given by Mme Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces, to the daily newspaper Libération website
Paris, 14 January 2018
Q. – What state did you find the armed forces in when you took office seven months ago?
THE MINISTER – This ministry has undergone two sets of constraints in recent years. First of all, the growing number of commitments in theatres of operation like the Sahel and the Levant, but also in France with Operation Sentinelle. The other trend, begun a longer time ago, is the transformation of the Ministry, with the end of conscription and with budgetary constraints, which led to 60,000 job cuts between 2008 and 2016. This pincer effect is having very severe consequences: a need to regenerate equipment but also personnel. Regeneration and modernization will consequently be two major challenges in the next military estimates bill, which we’re working on. But what struck me most was the service personnel’s strong commitment. There are two categories of people in the world: those who are ready to give their lives to defend their country, and everyone else. This voluntary and reasoned commitment imposes a duty on us.
Q. – Is the army experiencing burn-out?
THE MINISTER – Nothing suggests to me that the Ministry is experiencing such a crisis. However, the triggering of Sentinelle in 2015 created additional pressure, making it necessary to thoroughly reorganize the missions rota. Today, it [Sentinelle] is planned in the same way as the other missions. Service personnel don’t go idle, but periods of training, rest, and operations abroad and in France follow a normal cycle.
Q. – The President said the war against Daesh [so-called ISIL] in Syria would be won by the end of February. What will signal that victory?
THE MINISTER – After years of fighting, it will be a milestone. It doesn’t mean Daesh will have disappeared. The pseudo-caliphate no longer has any territorial hold, but the terrorist movement is bound to continue its action clandestinely. The Armed Forces Ministry will therefore develop its provision. In Syria and the Levant, France is intervening as part of a coalition, which itself will develop. At the end of 2017, we brought two Rafales home to this country from our base in Jordan. Four planes are left, backed up by two stationed in the United Arab Emirates. There will be other adjustments in 2018, the objective being a downward revision of our provision, which deploys 1,200 men and women as part of Operation Chammal. We’re at the disposal of the Iraqi authorities to continue and indeed broaden the training we provide them with. We’d like to switch from a military intervention approach to a goal of political stabilization.
Q. – What will allow us to say this war is over?
THE MINISTER – What’s important, firstly for Iraqi leaders, is for the military victories to pave the way for a political stabilization phase, with a general election in May as an important milestone. It’s not solely about ending the fighting: the peace must be won.
Q. – France’s enemies include some French people. Do you believe, as the Government Spokesperson said, that the Syrian Kurdish judicial institutions “are in a position to ensure a fair trial”?
THE MINISTER – We’ve been accused of conducting specific actions against jihadists of French nationality. I entirely refute that. The victory in Raqqa had symbolic value because the people who ordered the attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis were there, but their nationality doesn’t matter much. As for the French people arrested in the Levant, I remind you that those people left on their own initiative to join a terrorist organization which is carrying out fighting in the area and is still seeking to commit attacks in France. The issue of repatriating those people – who, after joining Daesh, are currently being held by the authorities and military forces that liberated the territories where they developed – shouldn’t distract from the war situation in the region. As for Syria, the situation is complex because we don’t have diplomatic relations with that country, which, moreover, doesn’t control the territory where jihadists are captured. In the part held by the Kurds, the local authorities will decide on the French nationals’ possible responsibility concerning crimes or offences committed on that territory, given their membership of a terrorist organization. In Iraq, the situation is simpler: it’s a state which has institutions and which we have close relations with.
Q. – Those jihadists who fall into the hands of Iraqi forces risk the death penalty…
THE MINISTER – France is opposed in principle to the death penalty. All over the world, French nationals who are not terrorists risk the death penalty if they commit crimes in countries which apply it. The diplomatic network lends them the assistance due to all French citizens, but each country has rules.
Q. – You won’t demand the extradition of those jihadists wanted by the courts in France?
THE MINISTER – We’ll see. How many of them are there? In the Levant, there are 500 to 600 people; roughly 300 are reported dead. Those remaining are combatants determined to fight to the death, which explains the low proportion of returns to France: fewer than 20 in 2017. Returns took place above all in 2014 and 2015. As for children, some women arrested have asked them to be repatriated to France. Some 50 children have already come back, half of them under five years old. They’ve all been taken charge of by the justice system and placed in host families or with relatives.
Q. – Wouldn’t it be sound democracy to try those jihadists in France, to find out their motivations and itineraries?
THE MINISTER – In looking into their situations, the advantage to the French judicial authority is taken into account. But a lot of the people held in those theatres continue expressing their desire to come back and continue the fight in France. So the local authorities’ legitimate wish to try the crimes committed on their territory can’t be neglected.
Q. – Have French jihadists in Syria and Iraq switched to other countries, Afghanistan in particular?
THE MINISTER – We aren’t seeing huge numbers switching to other countries. But we mustn’t rule out individual cases of people leaving.
Q. – IS has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Kabul over the past few months. Are you afraid that Afghanistan is once again becoming the haven it was prior to 2001?
THE MINISTER – At the United States’ request, NATO has pledged to increase its troop numbers in Afghanistan by 3,000. France, which withdrew in 2012, isn’t taking part in this beyond our annual financial contribution to NATO, whilst supporting Afghanistan bilaterally, in the framework of the bilateral cooperation treaty with that country.
Q. – In Mali, where France has been intervening since 2013, the situation is deteriorating. How can we address the violence, which is increasing despite the 4,000 troops in Operation Barkhane?
THE MINISTER – Those 4,000 troops are actually spread out all over the Sahel area – a territory as vast as Europe –, not just Mali. And the response isn’t just coming from France. With other nations, France is supporting the G5 Sahel Joint Force. There’s also the UN MINUSMA [mission], and the EU Training Mission. These levers combined provide a response to the situation, particularly in Mali. The response mustn’t be just a military one, but must be accompanied by a growing presence of the Malian state and development assistance from us.
Q. – Elections are planned for April and July, which presupposes being able to restore the state’s presence over the whole of Mali. Isn’t Barkhane increasingly viewed as an occupying force?
THE MINISTER – No! Once again, the solution lies in the G5 Sahel [Joint Force], which is going to become more powerful. The goal of Barkhane is to find where the baton can be passed on. The Africans are saying this themselves: the security problem is theirs first of all. Barkhane can support and train the Joint Force, which it is doing and will continue to do. It should be operational in 2018.
Q. – So France is pulling out?
THE MINISTER – The priority is the Joint Force and the results it will be able to get. We’re doing a lot with other countries and the EU to find finance and equip the force. The area is large, the countries concerned are poor and their armies limited in terms of troop numbers. Donations have reached €250 million today. We also want to finalize an operational road map, which I’m going to do this week with the G5 defence ministers.
Q. – Has France asked the UK to commit itself to the Sahel militarily?
THE MINISTER – The UK is one of France’s main military partners. I’ll be accompanying the President to Sandhurst on Thursday for the Franco-British summit; it’s certainly a subject we’ll be tackling.
Q. – Do you have confirmation that jihadist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar was killed in a raid by France in Libya at the end of 2016?
THE MINISTER – I have no comment to make on the subject.
Q. – Is Egypt set to become a major buyer of French arms, even though it’s a dictatorship?
THE MINISTER – Egypt, like France, has been severely affected by terrorism these past few years. But this commitment to fighting terrorism mustn’t just be a solely military one. It must be carried out with due regard for the rule of law, and the French President has talked to President al-Sisi about this. Moreover, France exports arms in accordance with rigorous procedures, regardless of the country.
Q. – France also supplies arms to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which are bombing Yemen. A conflict which has killed 10,000 civilians…
THE MINISTER – Let me refer you to my previous answer. Moreover, France is mobilizing to try and get a solution to that conflict, which has reached deadlock today and has resulted in an unacceptable humanitarian situation. We’re urging the Emirates and Saudi Arabia to open up access to humanitarian organizations./.