By François Clemenceau for Le Journal du Dimanche
Trump and US democracy
Q. – A week after the assault on the Capitol and three days before Joe Biden’s investiture, do you have doubts about the robustness of American democracy?
The Minister – Like many French people, I’m still haunted by the shock those extraordinary scenes caused. No one could have imagined witnessing that day of insurrection in Washington. It’s paradoxical, because democracy had just shown its vitality through a record turnout in the ballot. And yet this historic vote was undermined by the repeated spread, over the past four years, of fake news, which erodes democracy by enveloping a sector of the population in a parallel, artificial reality, all stoked by a head of State who opposed the election’s validated results. Those who had shut themselves off in an alternative truth believed him.
Q. – But in the face of the insurrection, American democracy held firm…
The Minister – Yes, and it was even reaffirmed, because it has antibodies that manifested themselves in a spectacular way: the law, justice and Congress. I was firmly convinced the insurrection wouldn’t reach its conclusion. Ultimately it’s a victory for democracy, for reason and truth, because yes, those words still have a meaning. But it shows us we must remain vigilant. In democracy, nothing is ever a given. In a State where the rule of law applies you must always appreciate the importance of checks and balances.
US-Europe relations under Biden
Q. – Do you think these four years with Donald Trump were a mere interlude?
The Minister – It would be an error of judgment, internationally and in terms of the transatlantic relationship, to tell ourselves we’ll be going back to the previous situation. That’s not the case, because the major global challenges have deteriorated in the past four years, and the new American authorities are going to be conscious of that. But also because in the past few years Europe has changed. It’s come to terms with itself more, it’s become more responsible by becoming aware of its own power. So the time has come [for it] to set out its sovereignty agenda and redefine, with the United States, a more balanced transatlantic partnership, because it’s in the Americans’ interest to have a strong Europe with them, in a healthy and trustful relationship where each side respects itself.
Q. – Joe Biden has already chosen his diplomatic team; what are you expecting of it, in terms of the Franco-American relationship?
The Minister – The new team being put in place knows how haphazard, uncertain and sometimes antagonistic and disorderly the transatlantic relationship, and our relationship, has been over these past four years. It knows we can return to a serene relationship. We share the same history and values, and we believe in multilateralism. But while we’re caring friends and allies, we also set high standards.
US-France relations under Biden
Q. – You know your future counterpart, Antony Blinken, well…
The Minister – I’ve known him since the autumn of 2011, when he was in Barack Obama’s team at the White House and I was focused on defence issues in François Hollande’s presidential campaign. I’m delighted to have him as a partner. We’re going to meet very soon, as soon as his appointment is endorsed by the Senate. The smoothness and quality of our discussions will deliver results. I think he’s fully grasped this new scenario and there will be no return to the previous state of affairs.
Q. – Are there any disputes you’d like to resolve before tackling the major areas, the most urgent crises?
The Minister – The issues that get on everyone’s nerves are the tariff wars and taxes on steel, the digital sector, Airbus and more specifically our wine industry, to take a very significant example. If we could quickly find an approach enabling us to resolve this dispute with Europe and France, it would be a step forward. It may take time, but in the meantime we can always declare moratoriums.
Q. – What are the priority issues to be tackled with the Americans that directly affect French people’s security?
The Minister – I think the Biden administration’s priority will be to try and reconcile the country with itself, but I’d draw people’s attention to the very short-term deadlines we must be actively working on, be they Iran, the climate, the arms race or the health crisis, of course.
Q. – What’s the urgent thing about Iran?
The Minister – We stuck with the Vienna agreement against all odds. By withdrawing from the agreement, the Trump administration chose the strategy he called maximum pressure against Iran. The result is that that strategy has only heightened the risk and the threat. So we must halt that process, because Iran – I’m saying it clearly – is currently equipping itself with a nuclear capability. There’s also a presidential election in Iran in mid-June. So it’s urgent to tell the Iranians enough is enough and take measures to bring Iran and the United States back into the Vienna agreement. It won’t be sufficient. We’ll have to hold tough discussions on ballistic proliferation and on destabilization by Iran and its neighbours in the region. I’m bound to secrecy about the timescale of this kind of issue, but it is urgent.
Q. – The arms race is a matter for the Americans and the Russians…
The Minister – Unless there’s movement in the next few weeks, there will be no more tools to regulate nuclear weapons between Moscow and Washington. The New START Treaty is going to expire, and the very strategic balance of the world’s two biggest nuclear powers risks collapsing. We haven’t seen that since the 1960s. Europe is affected first and foremost. Initiatives must be taken with the Europeans to ensure these major issues aren’t decided on above our heads.
Q. – On the climate, what are you expecting from the new American envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry?
The Minister – There too, things are happening quickly. COP26 in Glasgow is directly linked to the Paris Agreement. Everyone will have to set out their new ambitions. The European Union has said its new goal is to reduce its CO2 emissions by 55% by 2030. But we expect the two biggest polluters, China and the United States, to decide by the end of the year and follow Europe’s example.
Q. – Joe Biden has promised the United States will return to the WHO. That’s encouraging…
The Minister – It’s essential, to strengthen the only global tool that manages health prevention issues, and exert its [the US’s] full weight against China, which wants to use the WHO to assert its power. But above all to ensure the WHO eradicates this pandemic. As long as there’s the slightest trace of coronavirus in the world, no one will be safe. Everyone will have to be vaccinated, otherwise the world will remain compartmentalized.
Q. – On terrorism in the Levant and the Sahel, do you think the United States will want to do more and better under Joe Biden than under Trump?
The Minister – I get the feeling American investment will continue there, probably with fewer jolts and more regularity and clarity. In Iraq, Daesh [so-called ISIS] is still present, posing major risks, and the situation on the ground must be stabilized through military but also political and economic means. In the Sahel, the coalition France is leading with its European partners and the G5 Sahel forces still needs the United States’ technical and logistical support.
Q. – Emmanuel Macron demanded clarification from NATO, particularly about Turkey’s role. Are you hopeful this will be achieved?
The Minister – The summit of heads of State in 2021 will be the summit of clarification. In 2020, the organization reflected on its future in terms of cohesion and values – and Turkey is part of this – but also on the new threats, and this includes combating terrorism.
Q. – Joe Biden also intends to convene a summit of democracies very soon. Don’t you fear that behind this plan lies an attempt to create a common front against China?
The Minister – We’re ready to take part in it depending on the content. Developing partnerships to uphold our democratic values suits me. But on China, we don’t wish to create a bloc-against-bloc approach, even though we don’t put China, which Europe regards as a partner, competitor and systemic rival, and the United States, which is our ally, on the same level. As a democracy, we’re in favour of being able to form coalitions, issue by issue, for example on disinformation or digital regulation. That’s how my German counterpart and I created the Alliance for Multilateralism. If the United States is engaged in a similar process, we very much welcome it.
This interview was originally published in Le Journal du Dimanche on 17 January 2020