France has brought 148,000 of its nationals home - Minister
COVID-19 – Interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to BFMTV (excerpts)
Paris, 6 April 2020
Q. – So the British Prime Minister is in intensive care, 10 days after testing positive for the coronavirus. What’s your reaction?
THE MINISTER – First of all, I know Boris Johnson well: he was my colleague as foreign secretary for several months. I’m also aware of his strength, and I’m convinced he’ll draw on his great resources and find the ability to get through this ordeal; in any case, I wish him a very speedy recovery. And this hospitalization also symbolizes the seriousness of the crisis affecting everyone, which makes it necessary to be extremely vigilant, whatever our job.
French people abroad
Q. – I’d also like to ask you about those French people who are currently abroad and would like to come back to France. A very large number, tens of thousands, have been repatriated, but how many of them are still waiting for the opportunity to return to our country?
THE MINISTER – We’ve said to travellers, to our compatriots who have been travelling abroad but don’t live abroad, that it’s desirable for them to return. And over the past fortnight, thanks to the efforts and outstanding action of the Quai d’Orsay’s crisis unit, we’ve been able to bring 148,000 French people back to France on a number of flights, in a situation in which there are virtually no more commercial air links. A hundred and forty-eight thousand French people in two weeks means hundreds of flights which we’ve largely initiated, in partnership with Air France. We’ve sometimes even chartered flights to enable our fellow citizens to return, and each country, each situation has been very complex, so in each case we’ve had to take a whole series of measures, because airports are closed, airlines and airspace are closed. And so a lot of French people have been worried and sometimes impatient. But I think the crisis unit, diplomatic posts and consulates have considered each case in the best possible way.
There are still a few thousand of them, fewer and fewer, but as we progress, more French nationals are making it known that they want to return and are in transit and that they want to break off their stay. That process is under way, and I think it’s been extremely well conducted by the teams at embassies and consulates and at the crisis unit.
Q. – A few thousand? Can you give a tiny bit more detail on that figure, though?
THE MINISTER – No, because you have more every day, and so when we made a count two weeks ago, there were 130,000, and we’ve repatriated 148,000. So you see, there have been new ones, and occasionally some make themselves known, and we deal with every case, even the most difficult ones.
There are still difficulties in the Philippines, where some of our compatriots are stranded on islands, there are still difficulties in Peru, where some of our compatriots are in the mountains, there are still difficulties in the Himalayas, specifically, and there are still difficulties in New Zealand because the airspace and airports are closed.
But in each situation we’re working hard to provide a response; it’s not always immediate. Our compatriots must be patient, and preferably not be too short-tempered with our colleagues, who are doing their best, but gradually we’re going to succeed in resolving every case.
Q. – You said 148,000 French people repatriated; that’s a considerable number, but it’s only the first wave, because there are also the French people who live abroad; we can see the world has ground to a halt, and there are fewer and fewer air links. How can we repatriate those who would like to return to France, those who can no longer remain abroad for professional reasons if they’re unemployed or if they no longer have the means to live abroad? Are you ready to face up to this second wave? There are around two to three million French people living abroad; it’s going to be a problem.
THE MINISTER – Yes, the figures you mention are enough to show the scale of the problem. And to expatriates and French permanent residents abroad, those whose homes are abroad, we’re saying, “stay at home as far as possible”, because you can imagine more than three million people moving in the future: it would be literally unmanageable.
I think a lot of our compatriots understand that reality. We’re saying to them, “stay at home but self-isolate, comply with the rules, comply with the rules we’ve imposed in France, but also comply with the rules imposed in the countries concerned”.
This position is shared by the majority of European Union countries, even though we have to ensure that the most vulnerable are identified, and if there are special cases we must obviously take them into consideration, and our embassies and consulates are available for that.
Those French people abroad are an opportunity for France, an opportunity and a source of richness: they contribute many things to our image, our influence, and their responsibility and dignity are reflected in their way of conducting themselves abroad. So I’d like to encourage them and hope they’ll embody that necessary vigilance, as well as the necessary expression of our country’s strength at this difficult time.
Q. – You yourself are a minister in self-isolation, whereas your usual job is to be a globetrotter, the head of French diplomacy. And France has a role to play in this global competition being played out to get masks from wherever they are. France has ordered four billion of them. Will we get them? Do you have the means to charter the planes and persuade those countries which have them to deliver them to France? I’m obviously thinking of China. Are you capable of putting France in a sufficiently good position to ensure those masks arrive here, where we need them, in particular in hospitals?
THE MINISTER – You said I’m self-isolating; I have to say this ministry was already used to remote working. So it’s probably the one that has adapted most quickly to the new international scenario. As far as I’m concerned, I’m self-isolating here, in the small two-room apartment I have in this ministry, but we’re continuing diplomatic activity because there are no more journeys, no more visits and no more foreign visitors, either; we use video conferencing as much as possible; we hold foreign ministers’ meetings by video conference.
We have very regular telephone contacts with a lot of our partners, including our Chinese partners, incidentally, with whom I have regular contacts, including about what you call mask diplomacy, too. I think one part of mask diplomacy has been forgotten, and I’d like to remind our viewers of it. In January it was actually France that delivered masks to China, during the crisis in Wuhan and Hubei, because China was then in great difficulty. And China appreciated that solidarity, because in return it donated to us more masks than we provided in our delivery.
Moreover, the European Union also supported China then. So in a way, mask diplomacy works both ways.
It so happens that given the crisis in China, the production system for masks has developed considerably, and now that China has entered a new stage and the pandemic has spread, China is currently the world’s mask factory.
The role of French diplomacy is to be the spokesperson on the ground, handling the orders organized by Health Minister Olivier Véran. In a way I’m Olivier Véran’s “broker”: I ensure we identify Chinese companies on the basis of their reputation, the quality of service, the safety of the supply, and all our teams alongside the Ambassador to China, among others – but it’s also true for other products in other countries – are mobilized to ensure the masks actually arrive. I can tell you that the airlift we’ve put in place is under way and the masks ordered will arrive following a whole series of flights that are going to be taking place regularly between now and the end of June.
Q. – (...) A few days ago the French President mentioned a secret initiative with US President Donald Trump. Can you tell us more about it? Are France and the United States indeed working together, and on what subject?
THE MINISTER – The President is currently having very many conversations with many heads of state; he has indeed had conversations with President Trump, but also with President Xi and President Putin.
The French President’s intuition is that the so-called P5 countries, i.e. the countries that are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, must take initiatives to try and coordinate their respective actions to combat the pandemic and, at the same time, prevent the pandemic from having serious security consequences, because that may cause additional instability.
So the goal is to ensure that the five Security Council members can talk together, and maybe consider what the United Nations Secretary-General – I’m talking to him tomorrow at President Macron’s request – is calling for so there can be an initiative for a humanitarian truce.
It’s quite difficult to implement, but progress is being made on that path and it’s an initiative which President Macron would like to see succeed.
COVID-19 in Europe
Q. – Has Europe been equal to the crisis? Could Europe die from the virus? We saw the European Commission President apologizing to Italy for a lack of assistance to a country in danger. It really is an extraordinary situation. So what can be done to make Europe equal to this crisis and respond to the requests of countries which need it?
THE MINISTER – I think Europe was slow off the mark for various reasons, firstly because probably no one anticipated the scale of the pandemic; secondly because it wasn’t really at the heart of its remit; thirdly because there was a bit of institutional prevarication. And there was the fact that States were taking initiatives. In short, there was a delay at the start and Italy suffered from it, and I understand the strong feelings in Italy. But I have to say that Europe has done a good job making up for it since, firstly through the practical solidarity we’re seeing every day, not least because French patients are now receiving treatment in Germany, Luxembourg, maybe the Czech Republic – those are examples of distinct, practical, physically visible solidarity. It isn’t for show, it’s genuine.
There are other forms of solidarity the European Union has put into practice, be it the European Central Bank’s huge effort to make €750 billion available to allow States to continue their activities and support economic activity, not least because a huge research effort was decided in order to come up with a vaccine, not least because the European Investment Bank decided to commit additional funds to help businesses, not least because a few days ago the [European Commission] President, Ms von der Leyen, offered huge sums of money to help countries cope with the employment crisis and with short-time-working.
In short, the instruments which were available to the European Union were mobilized, including by breaking a number of what were considered major taboos – I’m thinking of the Stability Pact, I’m thinking of State aid.
All this has allowed greater flexibility and the fact that the rules can allow States to take action to fight this pandemic properly. But action is still needed to ensure that no one is forgotten and that everyone moves together towards the recovery. In this respect, discussions are focusing on the need to have a special fund, to ensure that during the crisis we can identify a new mechanism to allow every European State to be up and running again, to provide a boost, to ensure industrial sectors can be stimulated and put to work again, and everyone is put on an equal footing when this new reality emerges.
It’s this point in particular which the Eurogroup finance ministers will be discussing tomorrow. It’s essential because, otherwise, Europe will ignore solidarity and fail in its destiny.
You were talking earlier about the fact that there’s no longer any obvious leadership in the world; Europe must maintain its position of power, and undoubtedly for Europe this phase, this crisis will act as a catalyst for its radical reform, if I can put it like that. It’s true that Europe is facing its destiny, but I think it holds all the cards to get through this difficult time and be a strong, mutually-supportive, pragmatic, sovereign Europe in the future.
Q. – Will there be a new world order after this crisis?
THE MINISTER – What we mustn’t do is believe, after the crisis, that what we went through was a parenthesis, and that after the crisis we have amnesia and everything goes back to what it was like before. That isn’t possible. The serious crisis of the ’39-45 war is in fact often compared now to the new – this time, pandemic – crisis which we’re going through. After the ’39-45 war, States decided to unite and create tools to prevent another global conflict. It was at that point that the United Nations was created; even the World Health Organization was created as well. It was then that the word “multilateralism” started being used, States joining together for a world order. We’ve forgotten that period a bit, those tools have grown weaker over the past few years, and I think this pandemic must serve as a wake-up call, it must allow us to revisit, reshape the relationship which States have with one another in the face of new dangers, new threats, emergent issues and new challenges; these are the so-called global public goods, central to which are health and the climate.
If what we call the international community doesn’t take this new situation into consideration, well, yes, it will miss the opportunity presented by this period and we won’t learn the lessons of this pandemic. (...)./.