Foreign policy – Mali/G5 Sahel/Middle East/Brexit – Interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to the daily newspaper Sud-Ouest (excerpt)
Q. (…) Did the postponement of this G5 Sahel summit enable us to ease the tensions we felt at the end of last year with our African partners?
THE MINISTER – Since our intervention in 2013, which enabled us to prevent Mali becoming a new terrorist haven, the threat has changed a lot. More and more harassment actions are taking place against the armies of the countries concerned and against civilians; the terrorists’ goal is now to destabilize states. Secondly, the threat is spreading to an increasingly vast territory. Finally, the terrorists are exploiting inter-community conflicts. All this is creating a new scenario; so we need a new response. That’s the aim of this Pau summit, which is going to testify to the unity among both the African and European stakeholders, enable everyone’s commitments to clear objectives to be clarified, and remobilize everyone, including on the development challenges.
Q. France’s image seems to have deteriorated in the region, among a sector of the population…
THE MINISTER – I’m sad to see that. There’s impatience among these populations, and a strong feeling of insecurity. A great deal is expected of France, which sometimes seems like the scapegoat for this dissatisfaction. However, I welcome the mobilization by the Sahel heads of state in the fight against terrorism and their refusal to get dragged into an anti-French mentality?
Q. Would you say the tension in the Middle East has diminished?
THE MINISTER – We’ve just experienced a very serious period. Today we’re seeing an interruption to the escalation, not a de-escalation yet. The Ukrainian plane crash tragically illustrates the need to find a way back to diplomacy.
Q. What’s your explanation of the crash?
THE MINISTER – Iran has made some public statements [Ed.: Tehran admitted to shooting the plane down “by mistake”]. The investigation must now run its course. Iran now wants this, and France is available to provide all the necessary technical resources. Responsibility must now be clearly established.
Q. How can de-escalation be achieved?
THE MINISTER – Firstly, negotiation must be given another chance. President Macron has always shown he’s taken the initiative. Secondly, we must recall the need to continue the fight against Daesh [so-called ISIL] with Iraq, because the risk is that we forget the main goal! The international coalition, which has mobilized nearly 70 countries and international organizations, is a coalition against Daesh, not against Iran! We must strongly reassert this obvious fact, because the terrorist group hasn’t yet been eliminated; admittedly it’s lost its territorial hold, but it still has some formidable underground networks.
So we must reaffirm the coalition’s role and do so in close agreement with Iraq, in full respect for its sovereignty. Finally, we must prevent a nuclear proliferation crisis being added to this instability.
That’s why we want to remain in the Vienna agreement, because it enables us to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Let’s imagine what the crisis would be like in the region today if Iran possessed nuclear weapons…
That’s why we don’t share the United States’ position and we condemn the way Tehran is gradually unravelling the agreement.
Q. One of your predecessors, Bernard Kouchner, said General Soleimani “deserved to be killed 25 times over”. Do you agree?
THE MINISTER – The United States took the decision to neutralize General Soleimani alone, independently of its allies and without informing us, for its own reasons which relate to its own security analysis. It wasn’t a decision by the coalition. The general wasn’t just anyone: he was on the European list of terrorists and he was behind many actions to destabilize the region.
Q. Libya is tearing itself apart again. What is France’s position? Does it still support the official government in Tripoli, or Marshal Haftar?
THE MINISTER – This instability and chaos are due to clashes between militias, all sorts of trafficking, the predation of resources that should benefit all Libyans, and increasing interference by foreign powers.
We can’t leave things as they are. An international conference is going to be held in Berlin. That’s a good initiative. All the Libyan and international stakeholders will be there, including the United Nations and the African Union. We all agree on certain principles: there will be no military solution, no solution exempt from international law, and no solution that involves interventions by foreign countries that use Libya as a battleground.
Q. Brexit will take place on 31 January…
THE MINISTER – Clarity at last, after three years of uncertainty! A transition phase is now going to begin to establish the type of relationship the European Union will have with the United Kingdom in the future. We must be mindful to protect the EU’s interests, because we don’t want an unfair competitor on our doorstep that practises dumping.
Secondly, we must have a strong and calm relationship, in particular in the security field, because, with or without Brexit, the UK is still in Europe and we’ll still have to defend shared interests. That’s why we’d like a comprehensive agreement and not just a trade agreement.
Q. You travel a lot; don’t the strikes which have lasted for nearly a month and a half alter France’s image abroad?
THE MINISTER – I’m struck by the power of France’s and the French President’s image abroad. Everyone clearly sees how difficult it is to reform, especially pensions. But other countries have done it. The message France is sending today – on the climate, multilateralism, rejecting confrontation between powers – is well understood.
Translation courtesy of the French Embassy in London