Minister discusses EU, Russia, US, Middle East and Africa
Foreign policy – Multilateralism/European Union/arms sales/Libya/Sahel/French jihadists sentenced in Iraq/Syria/Algeria/United States/Russia/China/Iran – Excerpt from the interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to the weekly magazine Le Point
Paris, 12 June 2019
Multilateralism and defence
Q. – You’ve been criss-crossing the planet for seven years, first at the Defence Ministry, then at the Quai d’Orsay. What’s your diagnosis of the way the world is going?
THE MINISTER – Today we’re living in a world that is becoming faithless and lawless. In the wake of the war, in 1945, the great principles of the Charter of the United Nations triumphed, at least in the texts. Despite the Cold War and the division of Europe, this idea of the world order encouraged international cooperation and law. Today we’re witnessing the disintegration of this multilateral order, which is being eroded, challenged, attacked. Pure power relationships dominate international relations, and confrontation prevails over compromise. America favours isolationism and exclusively bilateral relationships. The Russians obstruct the United Nations Security Council and violate treaties and even borders, as in Ukraine. The Chinese seem to want to turn the multilateral bodies into tools serving their ambitions. That’s dangerous for the way the world is going. Look at the major international nuclear agreements that are now being undermined. I’m thinking of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which has been violated, or the New START Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which could expire in 2021, leaving us in a world with no regulation. In addition to these behaviours, there are other major risks, like terrorism.
Q. – What can Europe do faced with such a picture?
THE MINISTER – We must continue to adapt our software if we don’t want to step out of history and become a mere playground for others. We’re obviously continuing to talk to everyone, but we’re being clear-sighted: some of those great powers are seeking to weaken and divide us. Europe must lose its innocence; it must stop being naive. It must shoulder its responsibilities and not be ashamed of its strengths, which are very real. In today’s world, we must protect ourselves against strategic attacks. It’s essential.
Q. – How?
THE MINISTER – I note that things are moving in a positive direction: in the field of defence, for example, we launched an initiative in Bratislava in 2016. Many of our partners watched us with scepticism. Today, the same people are encouraging us to go further, and the European Union has just created a European Defence Fund, which should have a budget of nearly €13 billion to support the development of European defence capabilities. But our role is first and foremost to defend and reinvent multilateralism. Together with Germany, Canada, Japan and others, we’ve launched an initiative to this effect: the Alliance for Multilateralism is a gathering of democracies committed, like us, to the major international institutions.
Arms exports to Gulf
Q. – On arms exports, we’re still waiting for a common European approach.
THE MINISTER – But international and European rules already exist! And we’re applying them.
Q. – France and Germany don’t take the same position on sales to authoritarian Sunni states in the Gulf region. Can they support each other strategically without being aligned?
THE MINISTER – France and Germany are mutually-supportive! We work together all the time. Take the Franco-German cooperation treaty of Aachen, signed on 22 January, which organizes greater convergence between us. It includes several articles that strengthen our defence cooperation, including in the armaments field. We’ve also embarked on two major hardware projects with Germany: the next-generation fighter aircraft and tanks. Or take another example: when I went to Gao, Mali, in 2017, I was transported by a German helicopter, a scenario that would have been impossible a few years earlier. Germany is beginning to shoulder its responsibilities in European defence, including in external operations. But it’s true that the German position on exports to the Gulf countries is a six-month moratorium, even though this doesn’t always prevent German equipment being exported.
Q. – Which France didn’t decide on!
THE MINISTER – I think we need to explain things again in more general terms. Ultimately, why are we exporting weapons? Firstly, because it’s necessary to guarantee our own sovereignty in terms of military equipment. If we want to maintain a sovereign industrial and technological defence base, we need to export. It’s the guarantee of our safety. We often forget that. If we didn’t sell fighter planes to foreign countries, we wouldn’t have the capacity to upgrade our own.
Q. – Our arms trade in the Gulf is sparking debate.
THE MINISTER – The real issue is Yemen. A terrible war is going on there, which originated in a Houthi coup d’état in 2014 against the government of Mr Hadi, who himself emerged from the Arab Spring. The Houthis are encouraged and militarily supported by Iran. In Yemen, there’s also Aqpa (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), not to mention Daesh [so-called ISIL]. And I haven’t forgotten that it was originally the Houthis who bombarded Saudi Arabia with rockets, inside its borders. What we’re saying today is that this war must stop and that it won’t end in a military victory. We’re talking to everyone and telling the parties they must enter into the peace process initiated by Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy. And we’re also saying that to the Iranians.
Q. – Who we don’t sell weapons to…
THE MINISTER – No, but others do! As for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, we have a strategic partnership with them. And I can vouch that the sales we make to Saudi Arabia comply with the Arms Trade Treaty, in particular Articles 6 and 7. We’re very vigilant about this and about strict compliance with the European position of 2008, especially on weapons that could be used to deliberately strike civilians. We examine each sale of equipment on a case-by-case basis.
Q. – Those points are contested by NGOs.
THE MINISTER – Yes. That’s their right. I’m Foreign Minister, I describe things as they are and as we do them.
Q. – Let’s move on to Libya. How is France operating in that country?
THE MINISTER –That’s not the same subject at all! Why are we interested in Libya? Because it’s a question of our and Europe’s security. That country, which is so close, is prey to militias and extremist groups. Its fate also affects our close friends in the region. Their safety is at stake and ours is linked. Stabilizing Libya means reducing the various forms of trafficking in the Sahel, including human trafficking, and combating terrorism. And finally, it’s also a way to control immigration. Those are more than enough reasons for us to deal with Libya.
Q. – Didn’t France choose the Haftar camp?
THE MINISTER – Absolutely not. We’re in favour of a lasting political solution negotiated within the United Nations framework. Political talks have already been held twice in Paris, and in Palermo and Abu Dhabi since 2017. An agreement exists which hasn’t been respected. A ceasefire is therefore necessary to find the way back to negotiation. We’re saying this to Mr Fayez Sarraj, head of the provisional government that emerged from the Skhirat accords. We’re saying it to Marshal Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army, appointed to that post by the Tobruk assembly. When some of Daesh’s terrorists created pockets in Derna and elsewhere, Haftar fought them. But silencing the weapons and getting back now to political initiatives is a matter of urgency, because no one can prevail by force alone.
Q. – Of France’s political figures, you’re the most familiar with the situation and developments in the Sahel. What do you think about it?
THE MINISTER – What I observe is that there aren’t so many terrorist groups in the Sahel. They have barely 1,000 fighters. They can carry out suicide operations, but they’re no longer in a process of territorial conquest and occupation, as was the case when they wanted to seize Mali and turn it into a sanctuary. Today they can strike and act over a broader area stretching as far as Burkina Faso. So it’s a more diffuse and asymmetrical war. The other new feature is that these groups play on community rivalries, as can be seen around the Fulani. They’re now choosing religious targets. I’m very struck by the fact that the latest attacks in Burkina Faso targeted Christian believers in a church. In the fight against terrorism, Barkhane is doing a good job. But the armies of the countries concerned must restructure, particularly with the support of the EUTM Mali mission. The G5 Sahel Joint Force, set up by African heads of state in Bamako in July 2017, is a fine initiative: its goal is for Africans’ security to be ensured by Africans themselves. Together with others, we support them. It takes a long time, it’s not easy, but it will pay off in the long run – provided also that political, stabilization and development efforts follow. I may sometimes have shown a certain irritation, feeling things weren’t moving fast enough, but we’re resolutely continuing our efforts.
French nationals sentenced to death in Iraq
Q. – Eleven French people have been sentenced to death in Iraq. What’s your stance?
THE MINISTER – Those French nationals tried in Iraq for belonging to Daesh left their country to join the ranks of a terrorist organization which, among other things, has killed and tortured Iraqis. It’s logical that they should be tried where they committed their crimes and where justice claims jurisdiction. This is a general rule that applies to everyone, all over the world, regardless of the crime or where it was committed. Obviously we respect the judicial sovereignty of the Iraqi state. Three women held in Iraq have already been sentenced to life imprisonment. However, on the death penalty that may be imposed, the Iraqi authorities know we’re opposed to it and that that’s an inviolable principle. We tell them this, and we’ll continue to do so resolutely. We’re urging them to commute the death penalty handed down to the French nationals. We’re doing so all over the world, incidentally. During their trial in Iraq, the French nationals receive the same consular assistance as others throughout the world. Seven other French people have been sentenced to death in recent years, including two in Indonesia, one in Algeria and one in the United States. We’re assisting them.
French children in Syria
Q. – And on Syria?
THE MINISTER – That’s different, in particular because the situation of armed conflict is continuing. More than 400 French people are still in camps in north-east Syria, not to mention the Idlib area. We have no control over that area. We’re looking closely at the situation of children, particularly orphaned and unaccompanied children, on a case-by-case basis, and when we can, we try and bring them back, as we did in March with five children and on Monday with 12 others. But for adults, the definitive solution will have to be found in the framework of a special judicial mechanism, which we’re examining with the Europeans, among others.
Q. – What is your view about what’s happening in Algeria?
THE MINISTER – France’s only wish is for Algerians to find ways together to a democratic transition. That’s what we want for Algeria and what we’re hoping, given the deep ties connecting us to that country. We have confidence in the spirit of responsibility and dignity which has prevailed since the demonstrations began and which is admirable. And of course we’re keeping an eye on ensuring this can continue to be expressed freely. The solution is democratic dialogue. At these historic moments, we’ll continue to be mindful of Algeria and the aspirations of Algerians, with the respect and friendship which prevail in our relations.
Q. – What are your thoughts about Africa, which you’re travelling throughout?
THE MINISTER – What strikes me first of all is our African partners’ dynamism, youth and ambition. Our own ambition, that of the President, is to devise a new approach to development based on a genuine partnership. There mustn’t any longer be those who help on one side and those who are helped on the other. We’re facing up to common challenges together concerning security, the economy, technology, the climate and the environment. Take the African Union, which I’ve just had a strategic dialogue with in Paris, on 11 June: together we’re defending this multilateralism which produces concrete solutions and is at the heart of our efforts.
Q. – You met Donald Trump at the commemorations for 6 June 1944. Can we still talk to him? Is he still an ally?
THE MINISTER – The United States is our ally. We work with it on issues which are essential for our interests and security, particularly to fight terrorism together. We have points we agree on and points we differ on – that isn’t something new in Franco-American relations, for those familiar with the history. And we celebrated this common history last week during the Normandy Landings commemorations. Where our disagreement with this American administration is new is its choice to act unilaterally before any other consideration. It pursues its interests through bilateral negotiations and agreements, without always distinguishing between those who are allies and those who aren’t. The method is about power relationships. I personally think multilateralism remains key to our ability to build common rules, which benefit us more than they cost us.
Q. – Isn’t it in Europe’s interest to re-establish peaceful relations with Vladimir Putin?
THE MINISTER – We’ve got differing views and interests with Vladimir Putin, and we’re well aware of these. But we share the same continent and a long history with Russia. We value Russia’s anchoring in Europe and with Europe. I profoundly believe that Russia’s history and destiny lie in Europe. We’d like our dialogue to gain new momentum in the coming years, and we’re working to achieve this. A strong partnership depends on respecting our sovereignty and truthful dialogue. We can’t allow interference in our democratic processes. We can’t allow attempts to drive wedges into our European project and our Euro-Atlantic security system. We can’t accept violations of international law on Europe’s doorstep. But I remain deeply convinced that the future of our relationship with Russia lies in this anchoring in Europe and this strong partnership with Europe.
Q. – Is Europe equipped to deal with Chinese and Russian espionage?
THE MINISTER – It’s starting to emerge from its post-Cold War naivety. At last! For example, the European Union has adopted a European instrument to control strategic investment in order to more effectively detect the risks posed by foreign investment in our critical assets. It has equipped itself with a toolkit to respond to the cyberattacks targeting us. This work will continue in the coming months, particularly on the security of 5G networks. There’s still a lot to do, and building this genuine European sovereignty must be at the heart of the European institutions’ new mandate.
Iran nuclear agreement
Q. – Is the Iran nuclear agreement dead?
THE MINISTER – No, even though the latest threats from Iran about [only] partially implementing the agreement concluded in 2015 are worrying. It’s a bad reaction to a bad American decision. But there’s room for a more constructive approach. Firstly, Iran must continue strictly adhering to its obligations, as the IAEA is verifying, and not make the grave mistake of violating the agreement. Secondly, it’s in the Americans’ interest to show flexibility to allow a process of dialogue to be started with Iran. President Trump said he was willing to do this during his visit to Normandy last week. This would be a positive development. We’re working along those lines to safeguard the nuclear agreement and allow a comprehensive, long-term dialogue to bring results as regards regional stability and missiles./.