Is your diplomatic action a continuation of that of the previous term, or do you intend to set it apart?
I am not one to break away from the past. I am here to serve the effective and pragmatic diplomacy desired by the President of the Republic. That is my hallmark. At international level, what we want to see is the return of France’s strength and ambition in three main areas.
Firstly, the protection and safety of our citizens in the face of the terrorism that faces them at home but is rooted in the crises that are developing in our immediate environment. Protection also means addressing the climate challenge. Next, in the economic area, an ambitious France is a France that is capable of promoting its interests and capacities to conquer new markets. It is also a more economically attractive France, and diplomacy’s role will be to seize the opportunities offered by the reforms initiated by the President in support of competitiveness. Lastly, a strong and ambitious France is also an influential France. That concerns outreach and culture, and defending our values. And of course, all that will be tied in with a renewed European dimension.
The priority is a “Europe that protects”. How can European defence be constructed with 27 countries with such different strategic visions and interests?
The Europeans are increasingly aware of the need to ensure their own defence. That need was clear both during the NATO Summit in Brussels and during the last European Council meeting. At the Council, there was a genuine leap in practical terms towards pooled common defence, with the creation of a European Defence Fund which should – and this is a first – be endowed with €500 million, the validation of preparatory action – meaning the pooling of research in the area of defence – and support for the concept of permanent structured cooperation and the decision to jointly finance the deployment of Battlegroups. This is considerable progress, of which we need to ensure proper implementation in liaison with the Minister for the Armed Forces.
But we don’t have the same rules of engagement as Germany or comparable forces…
The aim is not to create a European army, but rather to affirm our desire to ensure our security together. Each Member State has its own history. Each has its own traditions for its rules of engagement. But we are taking the necessary steps for there to be a degree of common action.
Last time I visited Gao, in Mali, as Minister of Defence, I flew in a German attack helicopter. That would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Following the 13 November 2015 attacks, the Europeans decided to activate Article 42-7 of the Treaty of Lisbon, involving the mobilization of their capacities alongside France. That was an essential moment in the awareness of the dangers we need to face together. And now that is starting to come about through concrete agreements.
Washington believes that the Syrian regime is prepared to use chemical weapons again. That is a “red line” for the French President, who has raised the possibility of strikes by France, even on its own. What is the current position?
Once the use of chemical weapons is documented and we are convinced that we can identify the perpetrators, we will respond. The President’s position has been extremely clear on this point. This is also a demonstration that the 2013 agreement on the dismantling of Syria’s nuclear arsenal, under the notable auspices of Russia, is once again being flouted.
The President has spoken of an “aggiornamento” of French foreign policy borrowing your words: “Daesh [Arabic acronym of the Islamic State organization] is our enemy; Bashar is that of the Syrian people”. Was it you who convinced him?
That is his own vision of the situation. Our realism is two-fold. Realism means not making the departure of Bashar al-Assad a prerequisite for negotiations. Realism also means not implying that there could be a solution to the conflict based around him. I find it difficult to see how the millions of refugees who have fled him or been forced into exile by him could return without change in Syria.
And what do your Russian interlocutors say?
Have you heard the Russians say that Bashar al-Assad is the future of Syria?
Is Bashar al-Assad an ally in the fight against terrorism?
I have seen nothing to suggest that.
Is the war against Daesh in Syria and Iraq about to be won?
Things are progressing significantly. The city of Mosul in Iraq, the capital of the Daesh-proclaimed Caliphate, is being taken back by the Iraqi army. In Raqqa, the group’s Syrian capital, the progress of the forces supported by the Coalition is tightening the noose. This struggle is therefore bearing fruit, despite the risk of the remaining Jihadist fighters falling back and spreading out, particularly in the Middle Euphrates region.
However, negotiations for a political solution to this conflict, which in six years has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced or made refugees millions more, are not progressing. Yet our security cannot be fully ensured, beyond the military defeat of Daesh, unless we bring an end to the chaos that reigns in Syria. We therefore need to act to break this deadlock.
We are proposing a set of basic principles in order to enable the resumption of political and diplomatic action around Syria. The first is to combat all forms of terrorism, while the second is to absolutely prohibit any use or manufacture of chemical weapons. The third is to ensure the distribution of humanitarian aid to all those in Syria who need it. The fourth is a political solution including all components of Syrian society, supported by the United Nations: and in particular the permanent members of the Security Council and regional countries.
On this basis, we need to encourage the implementation of de-escalation zones, negotiated at Astana [city in Kazakhstan where Russia, Iran and Turkey sponsor negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition], explore all avenues for dialogue, and put in motion a transition process involving all those who adhere to these principles.
Could France take part in the Astana process?
We can work with all those who think they can adhere to the relatively simple principles that were set down by the French President during President Putin’s visit to Versailles. That is what I have said to my counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, at the President’s request. I say the same thing to all our major interlocutors on Syria.
France has never stopped talking to Russia, with no results. Why should anything change now?
I cannot go into details, but I believe there is a window of opportunity at the moment. The continuation of the Syrian tragedy has become a source of shame for the whole international community. I think everyone, including the Russians, is conscious that there is no military solution to the conflict. With a new method, based on establishing robust basic principles which appear unquestionable to me, and without establishing rhetorical prerequisites but rather creating new ties between the various stakeholders, we must be able to move forward.
What needs to be done to stabilize Libya? Should Field Marshal Hafter be included?
In my view, this is now a major issue: the security risk is growing in Libya, in the context of trafficking of all sorts, and even of people. The Central Mediterranean migration route is once again the largest one, and we have no Libyan State interlocutors. We cannot be satisfied by this situation.
As early as 2014, I warned publicly of the risk that Daesh would bed down in Libya. That has happened. The scope of Daesh’s action in Libya has been reduced, particularly around Sirte, Derna and Benghazi, but the Jihadists have split up and the threat remains. Libya is a totally failed State where all structures now need to be rebuilt. Since taking office, I have visited Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, and I will soon visit Italy to discuss this issue and help seek an agreement.
The framework needs to remain that of Skhirat [Moroccan city where an agreement, signed in December 2015 under the auspices of the UN, enabled Fayez Al Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to be established], but the architecture needs to be adjusted under the supervision of the UN and with the sponsorship of neighbouring States. Like Prime Minister Sarraj, General Hafter [who disputes the authority of the GNA based in Tripoli] is part of the solution. In any case, France cannot remain silent and Libya is a priority of our President.
In Ukraine, the President of the Republic said that solutions other than the Minsk agreements were needed if no results were achieved within a few months. What does that mean?
There is currently no alternative to the Minsk process. Nobody is currently envisaging another forum, neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians. That is why we believe it is essential for the process to move forward, even in small steps. It is now important that both parties make the necessary gestures and that there is a positive movement, be it through exchange of prisoners, through real withdrawal of heavy weapons near the Line of Contact, through mutual recognition of identity documents, or through the abandoning of the blockade on one side and of expropriation of businesses on the other.
Things now need to happen before another meeting in the Normandy Format [bringing together Russian, Ukrainian, German and French leaders] on the basis of a neutral observer: the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe].
Is there still a consensus on the European sanctions against Russia?
Yes. But we need to remind actors that the sanctions can be reversible once things move forward. That is not the case for now. Gestures of political will are needed in Ukraine.
Did Donald Trump’s failure during his visit to Brussels in May to publicly reassure NATO members that he was prepared to implement Article 5 [which provides for automatic collective defence in the event of an attack on one of the Member States] undermine your confidence?
Article 5 is binding upon the United States insofar as it is party to the North Atlantic Treaty it signed up to. Moreover, the only time Article 5 has been activated was after the 11 September attacks. In Brussels, Trump gave very firm statements and essentially delivered two messages: he drew back on the very categorical statements he had made on NATO’s obsolescence and insisted the Europeans invest more in their own security, which appears utterly desirable from France’s perspective too.
Donald Trump is invited to the Champs-Élysées ceremony on 14 July (Bastille Day). What do you expect of him?
2017 marks the centenary of the United States’ entry into the First World War alongside France. I am very pleased that American troops will be parading on the Champs-Élysées and am delighted that the American President has accepted the President of the Republic’s invitation. It is a great way to highlight the history that unites our two countries.
We have been allies of the United States since its independence. We have had disagreements, such as on climate change today. But there is strong cooperation between us on major issues for both our countries, such as combating terrorism. I would like this constructive relationship to endure.
Are there any means of putting pressure on the United States as regards the climate?
Above all, we need to speed up ratification by States of the commitments they made at COP21. I raise this subject with all my interlocutors around the world. Three European countries have still not ratified it. Secondly, there is domestic pressure within the United States from governors, mayors and business leaders who have announced that they will continue implementing the Paris Agreement, and we need to continue our efforts to convince President Trump. Lastly, France will work for new steps to be taken on this matter, which is essential for the planet’s future.
During his speech in Riyadh, Mr Trump was very aggressive towards Iran and described it as a source of destabilization and terrorism. Does France take the same view?
We have requirements of Iran. The first is the strict and meticulous implementation of [nuclear] non-proliferation commitments, and this has been met for now. The second relates to our strong concerns regarding the ballistic tests developed by Iran. These are the difficult aspects in our relationship. Otherwise, it is a great country worthy of respect, and which in return must behave constructively in its regional environment: Iran has to respect the complete integrity and sovereignty of its neighbours. Concerning terrorism, it has to be fought everywhere, wherever it stems from.
France is close at the same time to Qatar and to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Who is right in the major crisis between them?
This is a strategic region for France and we have very intense partnerships with several countries. We even have defence agreements with Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar. We believe this crisis is damaging for all the Gulf States. It is in their interests to bring it to an end, and our position is clear.
Firstly, all forms of support for terrorism need to be combatted, whatever they are, and it is the responsibility of the Gulf States to do so both together and individually. Secondly, the settlement of this crisis needs to take place within the Gulf Cooperation Council and not through external interventions. We therefore support the mediation by the Emir of Kuwait. Lastly, we believe that the Gulf States need to commit to a form of de-escalation. Division is not in their interests.
The G5 Sahel counter-terrorism force will be launched in Bamako on Sunday, but the Security Council has refused to commit to funding. Is that a problem?
I am very pleased to see this joint force established. We have always said that the region’s security needed to be ensured by the Africans themselves. The importance of this step must not be underestimated. The resolution, adopted unanimously by the Security Council, was essential for the force’s legitimacy and to facilitate European funding. The support the United Nations could provide will be discussed in a report from the Secretary-General in October before the Security Council, during the French Presidency.
Is this force destined in the long run to replace MINUSMA [UN force in Mali] or Operation Barkhane [French counter-terrorism operation in 5 Sahel countries]?
For the moment, the G5 Sahel involves one battalion per country, with equipment that remains limited. So it needs help to build strength. This force aims first and foremost to secure borders, particularly in areas where terrorist groups are active. It is engaged in counter-terrorism. Supporting it in the long term is a priority for Operation Barkhane.
How long for?
Until the situation has been pacified.
That could take a very long time…
When we intervened in 2013, we faced territorial and militarized terrorists who had occupied the northern half of Mali and threatened its southern half. This terrorism is now opportunistic and focused on harassment, but became dangerous again once the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims” was created around Iyad Ag Ghaly who has managed to unite disparate groups, including among the Fula. That has led to greater awareness among regional countries and increased their desire to participate in counter-terrorism. To combat this new type of terrorism, we have to be able to attack sources of funding, including drug trafficking networks.
You have spoken little in public of development and human rights. Are these not important subjects?
On the contrary, they are essential. But I am after effectiveness, not publicity. When I meet Egyptian President el-Sisi, for example, I will be raising these issues in very frank terms, including by giving the names of individuals whom we are worried about. But if I discuss my actions in the press, that will undermine my effectiveness. As for development, it is also a crucial issue and will be a major focus of my work. It is unimaginable that we could resolve the Sahel crisis by military action alone.
Interview by Christophe Ayad, Marc Semo