Interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to the daily newspaper Les Echos (Paris, 20 July 2017)
Q. – In Paris on 13 July, Donald Trump said that “something could happen with respect to the Paris accord”. Is that a turning point in his position?
THE MINISTER – That sentence wasn’t spoken by accident. I believe it makes sense. I can say that this declaration is significant and certainly not inconsequential. The American decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was a very great disappointment. That disappointment is shared by many of our partners. But the world hasn’t stopped turning. At the G20 in Hamburg, the implementation of the Paris Agreement was described as irreversible, and the universal nature of the agreement hasn’t been called into question. France will be at the forefront of international initiatives to ensure that, despite everything, the Paris Agreement is a success. That’s the purpose of the summit the President announced for 12 December. Lastly, the climate plan must be a tool for our attractiveness. France can attract investors, researchers and businesses in this area, if it gives itself the means to do so.
Q. – What’s Emmanuel Macron trying to do by talking in this way to one of the most controversial figures on the planet?
THE MINISTER – I’m struck by the President’s conduct. He says in public what he tells people in private. But he does so with great warmth. The Macron method is effectiveness and pragmatism. That’s my approach too. Donald Trump is the President of the United States; we’re celebrating the centenary of America’s entry into war alongside us. The American President had to be here. Hosting meetings with foreign heads of state, with a concern to find common ground on the major international challenges, doesn’t mean giving up our interests or values. When the President hosts a meeting with Vladimir Putin, he doesn’t conceal any of his disagreements. When he sees Donald Trump, first at the NATO summit in Brussels and then in Paris, he signals to him his disagreement on the climate or certain industrial issues like the protectionist measures planned on steel. But they talk, and the United States remains our ally.
Q. – You’re Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. We’ve heard little from you on Europe, a subject often mentioned by the Head of State. What goals do you have in mind?
THE MINISTER – I’ve been very active in Europe since the first days of my mandate. My first visit was to Berlin, I was at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels on Monday and I’ll be going to Rome for the second time next Monday. I share with the President a vision of a united Europe that protects people and protects itself: against the distortions of internal competition and against unfair behaviour by certain partners. In this context, the main goal in my view is to strengthen the Franco-German engine. That’s taking shape in a spectacular way at the moment, as we saw on 13 July at the joint Council of Ministers and the defence and security council, both chaired by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Specifically, many things have made headway in recent months, particularly at the European and bilateral levels in the defence sector. We have, if I may say so, an opportunity: many armaments on both sides of the Rhine are reaching the end of their lives at the same time. The project for a Franco-German combat plane by 2030-2035 is exciting, but it’s not the only one. Economic and trade issues and the migration issue will be central to our action in the coming months. As the President said, we must also think about the broad equilibrium of the European contract, because solidarity can’t be one-way. That was the thrust of the President’s statements when he challenged the idea that Europe could be a “supermarket”.
Q. – Between the United Kingdom, which is drifting away, the United States, which is criticizing them [the Germans] sharply, and Russia and Turkey, which have tensions with Berlin, the Germans find themselves, in a way, forced into a one-to-one with Paris. What are you asking of them?
THE MINISTER – We’re expecting them to invest more and agree to go further on the economic construction of the Euro Area. But we’ll discuss all this again dispassionately after their elections in September. We’re all very optimistic on that point.
Q. – You were François Hollande’s defence minister for five years. What’s your view of the controversy sparked over the budget savings imposed on the military this summer?
THE MINISTER – The Head of State and Head of the Armed Forces solemnly expressed to the whole military, on 13 July in the evening, the pledge made during the campaign that the trajectory enabling the armed forces to be given [financial] resources of 2% of GDP by 2025 will be honoured. He even indicated the first step in that effort: €34.2 billion in 2018. I would have liked to have that package. It’s substantial. Of course, the cancellations in 2017 are hard for all ministries, including the Quai d’Orsay, to digest. But they were necessary in order to meet our deficit targets, and in the long term, it’s the trajectory that matters.
Q. – What do you think about the resignation of the Chief of Defence Staff?
THE MINISTER – General de Villiers is a great soldier, with great integrity and stringency. Without changing his commitment, the President made a different decision for this year from the one his chief of defence staff wished for. The latter acted accordingly. I respect his decision.
Q. – Are NGOs criticizing the budget cuts in your own budget, to development aid?
THE MINISTER – The cancellations in 2017 are significant because the mushrooming deficit is too. What will matter, which will be decided with the President, is the trajectory, as I’ve told you.
Q. – With multilateralism being challenged by the Americans, do the major agreements still have a future?
THE MINISTER – We’re fervent champions of multilateralism and very determined to highlight the challenges of reciprocity: its advantages and its fairness, provided there is indeed genuine reciprocity, because we’re not naïve. Multilateralism is France’s choice, our strategy. It’s a strength, with the European Union as a vehicle for it. The President’s guidelines are clear. Today there are threats of a rift in sectors other than trade, like diplomacy and security. That was the case when President Trump threatened to leave NATO or opposed the United Nations’ taking part in peacekeeping operations. There’s the temptation of self-absorption which is very clearly shown by President Trump. Will this last? The best way of protecting multilateralism is to keep it alive. We’re working on this, at the UN and elsewhere.
Q. – What outcome do you see to the conflict between Qatar and its neighbours?
THE MINISTER – The whole region is really tense, and the various sides are heavily criticizing one another. It’s six weeks since diplomatic relations with Doha were broken off and borders were closed. France is talking to everyone, and the President has had conversations with each of the leaders. We have relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and also Egypt. We’re sending messages of peace, and we totally support Kuwait’s mediation. We think this issue must be resolved within the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Emir of Kuwait, who was accepted by both sides as a mediator, will enable a first step to be taken, namely the implementation of mutual trust-building measures. The window is narrow, but it exists. I was able to get an idea of this by going there and talking to people I’ve known for a long time. What matters is also that this crisis in no way affects the action of all the countries in the region to combat terrorism.
Q. – You’re in charge of foreign trade. France’s trade deficit remains abyssal…
THE MINISTER – The figures are indeed extremely worrying: €48 billion last year. And this year it will probably be even higher. This situation will be improved first through the implemention of the reforms programme on which the President was elected. Making our businesses more competitive and being able to encourage investment and attract it from abroad, to produce in France, will change things. That’s why you won’t see me commenting on foreign trade figures with my nose to the ground. What I want are practical reforms to improve concrete things.
Compared to our neighbours, France suffers from a lack of exporting companies: there are only 125,000 – half of which work with only one country. We aren’t competitive enough in this respect.
Q. – Laurent Fabius made economic diplomacy his hallmark. What’s your assessment of it and how are you going to carry on?
THE MINISTER – I’ve got a fairly clear vision of what’s got to be done. Firstly, I’m going to go on, as I did at the Defence Ministry, helping French companies, big or small, when I’m abroad. Secondly, I firmly believe there has to be simplicity and efficiency. That’s a principle I inherited from my experience as defence minister and regional president. In concrete terms, I’m going to take several steps to ensure that the whole of our public system supports exporting companies. I’m going to strengthen the seven [priority] sectors launched by Laurent Fabius, refocus them and probably add new ones. I’ll also be meeting their representatives in the autumn. I’d like to coordinate action too. I really am going to set up the famous one-stop shop in the regions, which has been talked about for a long time. In September I’ll be convening a meeting of the regional presidents jointly with Philippe Richert, who is President of the ARF [Association of French Regions]. We have to adopt a collaborative state-region approach on this.
Q. – And abroad, who will the companies’ contact be?
THE MINISTER – We’ve got to offer exporting companies simplicity; the only address they should remember is that of the French embassy, which must coordinate the operators’ work. We’ll support these companies in the search for new markets. What I want to achieve is the establishment of an export culture. This particularly concerns SMEs and MSBs (mid-sized businesses) and first-time exporters, who we’ve got to support more effectively. This of course concerns the large contracts too. I think it’s possible to reverse the current culture by redirecting it towards exporting, between now and the end of the five-year term.
Q. – Let’s turn to tourism, which you’re also in charge of. What new ambitions might there be for France?
THE MINISTER – I’m fully committed to the tourism sector and I’d like to reaffirm the twin goal of 100 million foreign tourists and €50 billion of tourism spending in France by 2020. This goal is within our reach, but we must remain fully mobilized in support of the whole industry, which showed how very resilient it was in 2016, with 83 million foreign tourists. We’ve got to work on the quality of the welcome we provide, without lowering our guard when it comes to the security of tourists.