Foreign Minister discusses terrorism, NATO and Brexit
Foreign policy – Fight against terrorism/Syria/Iraq/NATO/Russia/Brexit – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to “Questions politiques” on France Inter
Paris, 15 December 2019
Q. – There are French jihadists – about 60 men, fighters – currently imprisoned in north-east Syria, in Syrian Kurdistan, under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Do you think such a situation is tenable for long, especially the idea France still has that they should be tried where they committed their crimes, i.e. on the ground, through transfers to Iraq? Can this still be done today when Baghdad is dragging its feet and the situation in Iraq itself is becoming increasingly chaotic, just remembering that more than 800 people have been killed in the crackdown of recent weeks?
THE MINISTER – I think that by talking only about French foreign fighters, we greatly underestimate the risk and dangers posed today by the jihadist foreign fighters of Daesh [so-called ISIL] who have been in prison or camps since Daesh’s territorial defeat – which, I remind you, happened only in March; that’s very recent – and there are around 10,000 fighters in prison, including a few French people, a few Belgians, a few Moroccans, but 10,000 fighters who are mostly Syrians and Iraqis and are ready to resume fighting, because Daesh isn’t dead! Daesh exists there, it also exists underground in Iraq – hence the questions about the unstable situation currently existing in the country, and Daesh is ready to resume fighting, so we must be extremely vigilant. (…)
Q. – But France has a responsibility to its nationals!
THE MINISTER – Of course it has a responsibility to its nationals, but I’d like to remind people here that they’re fighters against France!
Q. – Of course, but they’re French!
THE MINISTER – No, I’m repeating it because people sometimes forget…
Q. – Can we remain in this status quo?
THE MINISTER – They’re enemies of France, they’ve fought against France!
Q. – Absolutely! Absolutely! Can we remain in this status quo?
THE MINISTER – I’d just like to remind people that the attacks committed previously weren’t all by French jihadist fighters. That’s why I’m very worried about the 10,000, and I’m not the only one. Yes, that’s the reality, we focus a lot on the 60 – fine, we have to focus, but there’s still an overall problem which is very worrying today. That’s why I began my remarks earlier by drawing attention to the global terrorist risk existing today.
Q. – But you say we must be vigilant; what does that mean we should do?
THE MINISTER – (…) There’s the basic principle we’ve always endorsed, namely that French fighters, male and female, must be tried wherever they committed their crimes. That’s true of our position, but it’s [also] true of the other Europeans’ position. Today…
Q. – But there’s also the “Cazeneuve protocol”, as it’s called…
THE MINISTER – It’s not the same thing!
Q. – It’s not the same thing, but it allows mothers and children, for example, to return to France.
THE MINISTER – I’ll get back to the Cazeneuve protocol. Those players, those fighters from jihadist groups, are in prisons in north-east Syria, and when the political settlement comes, the question of their trials must inevitably be asked, and we must ask it. We thought it was possible to set up a specific judicial mechanism in coordination with the Iraqi authorities; we talked to the Iraqi authorities about it – not solely for France, incidentally, but other European countries. Today, given the situation in Iraq, which we may come back to, that scenario isn’t feasible in the short term. In the medium term, it’ll have to be resolved in the framework of the comprehensive political settlement that began very slowly in Geneva with the launch of the Consultative Committee, aimed at remodifying the Syrian constitution to end up with a process, a road map for peace in the country. We’re not there yet, but today all those groups are in secure locations…
Q. – In prisons – to be brief – in Syria, in Iraq, in…
THE MINISTER – In Syria, in Syria!
Q. – Are they reliable?
THE MINISTER – They’re being kept secure by the Syrian Democratic Forces and American units, and we’re contributing in our way, to ensure they’re kept completely secure in the long term. The Cazeneuve protocol is another thing. (…) As soon as we were able to bring back unaccompanied children, vulnerable children and orphans from those camps, we did so, in March. But we’re in countries at war, territories at war, and it’s not enough to say that, you also have to go and look for them. We’re ready to continue, provided the access conditions are made possible, but basically we’re staying very firm on this positon.
Q. – How many are there today?
THE MINISTER – I haven’t yet said, about the Cazeneuve protocol, that there happens to be an agreement with the Turks – we can reach agreements with the Turks; it’s respected, which means that when fighters of French origin from terrorist groups are on Turkish territory, the protocol ensures they’re not only arrested by the Turkish authorities but also transferred to France through very specific channels and rules and subsequently tried in France.
Q. – Two hundred and fifty, that’s it; we have around 250, according to…
Q. – Yes, just a figure; how many are there today, 250?
THE MINISTER – A little over 200.
Q. – Do you think those same people we recover through the Cazeneuve protocol are people we can try properly in France? In plain language, do we have a sufficient legal arsenal to prepare a case file?
THE MINISTER – Don’t worry, we prepare documentation, of course.
Q. – (…) So conducting trials in France poses no problem…
THE MINISTER – Conducting trials in France poses no problem, no problem, for people transferred under the Cazeneuve protocol coming from Turkey.
Q. – (…) You delivered a speech in Prague a few days ago, an important speech not only on the future of the Atlantic Alliance but also on what we can expect, what we can hope for – or lose hope of – in terms of Defence Europe, following the very harsh language and words uttered by President Emmanuel Macron in the magazine The Economist, when he talked about a “brain dead NATO”…
And do you understand the concerns of the eastern countries – you went to reassure them – about that very diagnosis of NATO’s brain death, but also about the fact that, in the same interview, the President spoke of his rejection of enlargement to include the Balkans, for the time being at least, and called for a new relationship with Russia – all points which, when combined, do create some unease in Warsaw and Prague, the Baltic countries and Bucharest?
Do you understand that unease?
THE MINISTER – Yes, but ultimately that NATO summit proved the President right, because the summit, which has just been held in London, had as its first aim – that’s why it was planned not to last very long…
Q. – It was celebrating the anniversary, the 70th anniversary of NATO’s creation.
THE MINISTER – It was celebrating the 70th anniversary of NATO’s creation.
Q. – Instead we saw division, and a family gripped by resentment and acrimony.
THE MINISTER – No, because we finally saw a document, a declaration that took into account the need to consider NATO’s strategic guidelines for the future, and that was the President’s goal. We weren’t going to spend an anniversary congratulating one another and then each going back home, as if the risks and threats were the same as 70 years ago! The President, using quite a provocative expression, recalled the…
Q. – That’s putting it mildly!
THE MINISTER – Yes, but there are reasons for that: he reminded everyone to think together about the security challenges…
Q. – And about the very meaning of the Atlantic Alliance!
THE MINISTER – About the meaning, about the fundamentals of the Atlantic Alliance, because there’s been some turmoil – it probably hasn’t been dispelled yet – about the strength of the transatlantic link. There have been questions about Europe’s role in the transatlantic link, there have been questions about solidarity between the allies. The very fact – we were talking earlier about the situation in Syria, but after all, we set up a coalition against Daesh and then one day, by chance, we find out that one of the coalition’s members, which is also a NATO member, has decided to invade part of Syrian territory…
Q. – Turkey, yes.
THE MINISTER – …to combat those who helped us defeat the Daesh terrorists, particularly those who helped us fight…
Q. – At that point, did you tell yourself NATO was finished, or not?
THE MINISTER – …recapture Raqqa, the city where all the terrorists who attacked us in France departed from. Crikey, are you kidding? It really raises questions!
Q. – At that point, did you tell yourself NATO…
THE MINISTER – And at the same time, virtually on the same day, the United States says, “we’re withdrawing from north-east Syria”, when the coalition’s goal was to combat Daesh. So we asked for a meeting of the coalition; eventually we and our European allies were satisfied and the United States decided to stay and carry on fighting Daesh, and fortunately the Turkish offensive stopped, but all that…
Q. – Yes, how can you combat Daesh without the Turks when you can’t manage to…
THE MINISTER – You do it with forces…
Q. – You can’t manage to agree with the Turks on the very definition of what terrorism is!
THE MINISTER – Yes, we’re still in disagreement.
Q. – It’s astonishing within the same alliance, whose purpose is to guarantee the security of a group of countries belonging to it!
THE MINISTER – The issue was raised at the coalition’s meeting in Washington, namely: is everyone really determined to carry on fighting Daesh? In the end the answer was yes, but it’s very useful that it was raised. The same thing was raised at NATO level, in particular for there to be rights and duties for the various Atlantic Alliance members in relation to one another. So that job of reflexion on the Alliance’s future strategy was decided on; there’s a group of experts, wise men, who are soon going to issue conclusions; they’re going to prepare it [the strategy] in the course of 2020 so we can have a clarification of the Alliance’s strategy.
Q. – The Alliance was created against the USSR; can we say today that NATO’s purpose is also to guarantee the security of certain – particularly European – countries against the risk of Russian attacks?
THE MINISTER – NATO is a defensive alliance, it’s an alliance of collective security, and it’s important today to identify the risks and threats that all the Alliance’s members face.
Q. – Is Russia one of those?
THE MINISTER – We’ve always said Russia is a threat. We’ve said Russia is a threat because we’ve undergone it, we’ve undergone it through cyber attacks, we’ve undergone it through the major disagreement we have about Syria, we’ve undergone it through chemical interventions, through the manipulation of information, through the violation of the agreements on Ukraine and Ukraine’s autonomy. All this is a fact; it mustn’t be denied. But we also believe Russia is unavoidable, because the geography is there and we can’t avoid the geography. And so we must be capable of opening doors to dialogue with Russia without denying the difficulties, without denying the objections, without denying the questions, without being naive, but doors to dialogue where we can gradually establish what could be a structure of security and trust in Europe. That’s our approach; it’s what the President started when he hosted President Putin. I’m not going to tell you this attitude of trying to restore ties of trust without denying the rest has enabled the situation to improve in discussions on Ukraine, but in any case there was a meeting on Ukraine last week, last Monday, at heads of state and government level, with Mrs Merkel, President Zelensky, President Macron and President Putin, which enabled progress! So let’s try and handle the two things at the same time: making things secure – and we’re playing our full part on our commitments, in particular to some eastern countries, where we have our forces participating in what’s called the Enhanced Forward Presence, to show our determination to be firm in defending our allies – and at the same time we’re trying to begin discussions with Russia on the points we can discuss. You have to constantly handle the two things: firmness and dialogue.
Q. – (…) There’s obviously the general election result in the UK, with the very large majority for the Conservatives and “BoJo”, Boris Johnson. Can we at last say: that’s it, things are certain, certain at last, Brexit will take place on 31 January 2020?
THE MINISTER – There’s clarity at last. All the same, this has gone on for three years with questions, toing and froing, tensions, elections and contradictory statements, but now we can say that the UK will exit the European Union in an orderly way.
Q. – On 31 January?
THE MINISTER – On 31 January, I think votes are going to happen on the basis of the withdrawal agreement modified through discussions between Boris Johnson and the European Union, which preserves the integrity of the European internal market, avoids a physical border in Ireland and also provides guarantees about our rights, the rights of European citizens in Britain and vice versa. In short, it’s a well thought-out, well-designed withdrawal agreement which should allow an orderly exit on 31 January, and it will have to be passed by the European Parliament as well. (…) And afterwards – and this is the issue now –, afterwards there’s a period which will theoretically last one year, since we’ve now got to set out how we’ll live after the divorce!
Q. – But before talking about what happens afterwards, can you tell us how you received the result? Is it surprising and were you caught unawares by Boris Johnson’s fairly triumphant victory? It wasn’t necessarily expected in France!
THE MINISTER – The victory was expected, there was probably a certain weariness on the part of the British people, who wanted to be done with this soap opera, which was intolerable, and where there was no longer any clarity for people on both sides. Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party also probably adopted quite a radical position, which probably prevented a proportion of British people from voting Labour – in short, Boris Johnson won, it’s a major victory! (…)