Foreign Minister interviewed on EU and Middle East
Foreign policy – European elections/European defence/Yemen/Iran/French jihadists sentenced in Iraq – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Inter
Paris, 28 May 2019
Q. – The European elections have been unprecedented in more than one respect. (…) How would you describe the EU’s new political configuration?
THE MINISTER – What strikes me first of all, and it’s reassuring, is that Europeans have woken up; what strikes me most is that the fear of stepping out of history has been overcome, and that we’ve witnessed a fine demonstration of democracy, because there was a much stronger turnout in this ballot than we’d imagined, of sometimes very spectacular proportions…
Q. – Has that surprised you?
THE MINISTER – Yes, and I’m delighted, first of all because the French President had called for an all-out effort – not only in France: other players had done so – and what was displayed was strong mobilization, an upsurge, people taking control of their destiny, as had barely been shown since the first election of the European Parliament by universal suffrage in 1979. So this is good news: Europeans are taking control of their destiny, so much the better, and personally that’s the main lesson I’ve learnt from this ballot.
Future EU leaders
Q. – (…) The President of the EPP [European People’s Party] was very clear on Sunday evening: “we won the elections, so the EPP’s candidate, Manfred Weber, will be President of the European Commission”. Do you agree with that?
THE MINISTER – There’s a second lesson we must learn from this ballot; the first is the waking up and the second is the new make-up; nothing will be the same as before. Until now, as you know, there’s been a kind of cohabitation between the EPP and the social democrats which has meant that, since 1979, the culture of compromise has led to a sharing of responsibilities between them; that’s over, and so we’ll have to get used to this new scenario. This new scenario is that there’s been an erosion of the EPP, a heavy erosion of the socialists, and also the emergence of a stronger central cluster, to which the Renaissance list in France will contribute very significantly, as well as the growth of the ecologists. All this is a new scenario, alongside the populist upsurge, so…
Q. – OK, but the EPP is in the lead, whether people like it or not, erosion or no erosion: they’re in the lead and they want to impose their candidate.
THE MINISTER – Yes, but they’re not in a majority… Well, we’re going to talk. Europe has also always been about the culture of compromise. (…)
Q. – (…) Who is France’s candidate?
THE MINISTER – (…) I very much like Michel Barnier – that’s a fact – but having said that, there’s a discussion to be had between the various heads of state, and we must also ensure that the European Parliament validates [the choice], so it’s not as simple as that, it must be discussed, and France must play its full role. But I think the second result, as I say, is that France will have a bigger place in the new configuration than it had before, greater strength, more capacity for intervention, thanks to the score achieved by Mme Loiseau’s Renaissance list.
Q. – People will remember “I very much like Michel Barnier”.
THE MINISTER – I’ve known him for so long, and I appreciate his qualities, but there’s also a discussion.
Q. – Donald Tusk must also be replaced as President of the Council. Enrico Letta, the Italian, who was sitting in front of your microphone yesterday, said that in order to talk to Trump and Putin you need someone who stands out, and he said his dream candidate would be Angela Merkel. What do you think of that?
THE MINISTER – Everything can be imagined; I’m not going to comment on those posts, which are subject to discussions about balance and compromise; for both posts, we certainly need figures who have strength, European strength, strength of conviction, and who also represent, from now on, European power, because I believe that what also emerges from this election is the affirmation of a power; Europe isn’t…
Q. – It must have a face, is that it?
THE MINISTER –It must be embodied. (…) Over the past few years we probably haven’t had a figure or figures who have been significant enough, who have embodied Europe, and now, with this surge that has just appeared, we need strong figures.
European Parliament/grand coalition
Q. – Two further questions about the European Parliament and what’s happening. So a grand coalition is afoot within the European Parliament, maybe with the EPP. Pascal Canfin was saying here yesterday that “it will be the EPP, minus Viktor Orban”. Is that also your position, a sine qua non position: an alliance, minus Orban?
THE MINISTER – Orban has developed an approach of breaking away from the European Union’s democratic fundamentals, undermining a form of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, independence of the courts – it seems to me that he’s out of line.
Q. – Yes, but for the time being he’s still in the EPP, he hasn’t been thrown out.
THE MINISTER – Well, I’m not in the EPP and I think it has to put its house in order.
Q. – Ah, that’s very clear! And no coalition, at any rate, with the EPP until it has put its house in order, to use your words? Yes?
THE MINISTER – I’m saying that the EPP must put its house in order; it’s up to them to shoulder their responsibilities.
Q. – Are you urging the Greens to join this grand coalition? Yannick Jadot yesterday, also speaking here, seemed to be against this; what do you say to him? Are you saying that if a grand coalition is formed, the ecologists must be in it?
THE MINISTER – If there’s a grand coalition, the ecological imperative, which is also emerging from these elections, must be represented politically – I’m convinced of this –, but it’s represented politically in various strands, so this force, which also came through during the ballot, must assert itself and carry weight in decision-making. Let me take a specific example, but one which in my view is very significant. Given the European Union’s responsibility when it comes to trade, can we make deals with countries if they don’t comply with the Paris climate agreement? No. So we’ve got to say so, and we’ve got to have a majority to do it. (…)
Q. – Does that mean you’re going to rip up all the treaties signed with Trump and the United States?
THE MINISTER – Yes, the new ones; there’s no treaty with Trump, we’ve already voted against the fact that discussions are being opened with the United States without the Paris Agreement being taken into account – this is a very strong point on which there may be a majority tomorrow at European Parliament level.
Q. – We’re going to let the listeners speak, Jean-Yves Le Drian. They’ve got a lot of questions to ask you, especially on international issues. (…)
Q. – [Listener:] Good morning, Minister. I understood that our president had ranked France among progressive countries. Yet it turns out that France is selling weapons to a reactionary, if not medieval country – Saudi Arabia –, and these weapons are contributing to the plight of Yemen’s civilians, which the UN has described as a humanitarian disaster. What’s more, the DGSI [Directorate-General for Internal Security] has summoned journalists who revealed these sales, the only purpose of which is to intimidate all journalists. So isn’t France – like the pseudo-democracy it is – actually a reactionary country?
Q. – Thank you, Marc, for that question, about arms sales and the journalists summoned to the DGSI. Jean-Yves Le Drian will answer you.
THE MINISTER – On the second part, the answer is very simple. There are documents classed as confidential or secret, they’re called classified documents. And anyone unauthorized to have them in their possession is subject to legal proceedings. This, incidentally, is what’s happening to M. Squarcini at the moment. It’s part of the way the state has to function, and if there are no more “secret” or “confidential” or classified documents to ensure our country’s security, well, we get into an extremely complicated situation. So I stand by this point of view.
Q. – Are you trying potentially to intimidate sources or journalists or both?
THE MINISTER – Any unauthorized person who has secret documents, is responsible for them and passes them on is subject to the law. The law states that you aren’t entitled to distribute these documents. This isn’t something against journalists or whoever else, it’s just how things are. (…)
On Yemen, that’s another situation. But you can’t talk about Yemen like that without talking about the history of Yemen, because what has happened in Yemen? In 2015, the Yemeni government which emerged from the Arab Spring, headed by Mr Hadi, was toppled by a group called the Houthis, armed by Iran. Not only was it toppled, in that same country both al-Qaida and Daesh [so-called ISIL] were also thriving; we know al-Qaida was training in Yemen those who came to attack us here in France; all those people against Mr Hadi. And, moreover, with Hadi kicked out, these groups attacked Saudi Arabia with rockets, with missiles.
Q. – So you understand Saudi Arabia’s position.
THE MINISTER – No, no, let me finish my point: I’m saying that you can’t talk about the situation in Yemen and arms sales to Saudi Arabia without putting everything into context. So taking that as a starting point, yes (…) it’s a nasty war, yes it must be stopped, yes the Saudis and Emiratis must stop, yes we’ve got to be extremely vigilant about arms sales to those countries. That’s what we’re doing, we’re fully abiding by a treaty which concerns the arms trade, it’s an international treaty we are scrupulously abiding by.
Q. – The war of words keeps on escalating between the United States and Iran. Donald Trump is increasing the number of warmongering statements; a few days ago he sent an additional 1,500 soldiers to the Middle East, citing – I quote – “persistent threats from Iran”. Is war with Iran a possibility or a probability at the moment?
THE MINISTER – The tension in that region is extremely worrying. In this respect, we French, but also we Europeans – because the British and Germans have taken the same stance as us – have a very clear position: we must fight nuclear proliferation. And today Iran is abiding by the commitments it made during the Vienna agreements, which conclude that Iran can’t acquire nuclear weapons. We are co-signatories to this and are abiding by it, and note that Iran is too. I think the American initiative of breaking off this agreement is extremely dangerous. That’s the first point.
There’s a second point, namely that there’s been verbal one-upmanship since then, but also one-upmanship in terms of capabilities. A number of dangerous actions have been taken against vessels in the Arabian/Persian Gulf, and there have been attacks on oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia. But there are also thinly-veiled threats from the American authorities.
So we must get back onto the path of discussion. Iran also has to question itself, about the fact that it’s abiding by its commitments, admittedly, but it’s embarking on destabilization processes in the region, developing missiles sales and missiles transfers to terrorist groups. That’s not acceptable. We must talk about that.
Q. – Do you fear a war?
THE MINISTER – I don’t think the main players want one. I think the tension may lead to accidents. (…)
French jihadists in Iraq
Q. – On 27 February your colleague the Justice Minister, Mme Belloubet, made a statement about the fate of the French jihadists tried in Iraq, saying among other things that the death penalty had been abolished in France, that our country didn’t accept the death penalty and that if that was the case, we’d intervene to demand that the penalty not be implemented. Now we’ve got our backs to the wall because four French jihadists have been sentenced to that punishment in Iraq. How does France intend to intervene, primarily to ensure that the punishment isn’t implemented and that those people can possibly be tried in France, where the justice system is, after all, fairer than Iraq’s justice system? (…)
THE MINISTER – There are two principles which are not contradictory. The first is that those terrorists – because we are indeed talking about terrorists who have attacked us and have also spread death in Iraq – must be tried where they committed their crimes. That’s our position, and it’s also shared by several European countries concerned. So it’s up to the Iraqi courts to try them.
Secondly, we’re totally opposed to the death penalty, and we say so, including for the four people our listener has just talked about. We’ve already taken the necessary steps: I myself have said it to the Iraqi President, Barham Salih, to whom I reiterated our position. We’re against the death penalty everywhere, including in the United States, wherever it exists, and of course including in Iraq.
Q. – And so what about those four French people?
THE MINISTER – We’re stepping up our efforts to prevent the death penalty against those four French people. (…)
Q. – I have a simple question in the context of the new European Parliament that is being established and the policy the French President talked about some time ago now: don’t you think it would be timely to take advantage of this overhaul to push European defence policy a little further to the forefront – even further to the forefront –, particularly with our German partners, but also other countries?
THE MINISTER – I think that’s essential, and Europe must equip itself with the means to ensure its own security. While I was saying earlier that there was a European upsurge, I think this European upsurge must also lead to Europeans becoming aware of a certain weakness in their own security and the need to handle it together.
That doesn’t mean breaking with the Atlantic Alliance but it means asserting, within the Atlantic Alliance, a strong European identity and the capability of taking action together.
That’s already started. In a former life, I was Defence Minister. Only four or five years ago, when we talked about the possibility of creating defence capabilities together, pooling certain interventions, people took us for dreamers. That’s no longer the case.
At the end of the European Commission’s last mandate, before the European elections, some very significant initiatives had already been taken in this regard. You’re right, and it’s a necessity for the coming years. (…)./.