All regimes, democratic and authoritarian, are being shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. The trend towards nationalist withdrawal and controversy over the health crisis is difficult to break. As an unprecedented video-conference summit of the UN Security Council countries (the so-called P5) is coming up, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, answered questions from Le Monde on the telephone.
Q. – The Chinese Ambassador, Lu Shaye, was summoned to the Quai d’Orsay for writing about the West’s response to COVID-19 in what were deemed unacceptable terms. Is this an isolated case or does it illustrate a more aggressive change in Chinese diplomacy?
THE MINISTER – Since the beginning of the pandemic crisis, I’ve spoken to my Chinese colleague four times. We have relations of dialogue and cooperation which cause us to say what we think. We have principles.
I cannot tolerate the staff of our care homes for the elderly being slandered by anyone, including the Chinese Ambassador [who has accused French staff in old people’s homes of abandoning their posts]. I made this known.
In the hours that followed, a statement by the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry dispelled any misunderstanding, emphasizing the need to work together in a new multilateralism. We expect, like China, to be shown respect.
Q. – Is Beijing trying to take Washington’s place in the concert of powers?
THE MINISTER – I read and hear that the world after [the crisis] will be nothing like the one before. I share this hope, but it’s a prediction. My fear is that the world afterwards will be very much like the one before, only worse.
It seems to me that we’re seeing a widening of the divides that have been undermining the international order for years. The pandemic is a continuation, by other means, of the struggle among powers – first, with respect to the already longstanding challenge to multilateralism. Major players are backing out of their political commitments, as illustrated by America’s decision to suspend its contribution to the World Health Organization [WHO], when this is the only global organization capable of fighting the pandemic. Others are stepping into the breach.
This struggle also systematizes the power relationships that had been developing much earlier, with the exacerbation of the China-US rivalry. And finally, it is an extension of international competition, if not confrontation, to every sector. The same thing is continuing, during this crisis, in the area of information. I’m thinking of so-called “infodemics,” and of the political sphere, where we are trying to compare crisis-management models.
Q. – You mentioned WHO; the direction it has taken is very controversial. Do you share this criticism?
THE MINISTER – This crisis has revealed a twofold problem in the multilateral health system. We must restore the resources that WHO needs to better fulfil its standard-setting mission, and that of warning and detection.
It would be advisable to establish a high council on human and animal health, modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to communicate the science based on the work of acknowledged experts.
The other problem for WHO is coordinating between major initiatives and major global health actors: the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; Unitaid etc. France is a major contributor and is working to ensure that the response to the pandemic is massive and coordinated, especially for the most vulnerable countries and in Africa.
Q. – Before the health crisis there was a difference of approach between the Americans and the Europeans towards China, between confrontation and the search for compromise. Will the Europeans take a harder line?
THE MINISTER – Europe must become geopolitical. It must act wholly in line with its history, but also shoulder its responsibilities at the international level.
The European Commission had said in early 2019 that China was both a partner and a systemic rival. That does not keep us from having working relations, from collaborating. I am thinking, for example, of the implementation of the Paris climate agreement. But that can only happen if China respects the European Union as such, which is not always the case. Sometimes Beijing exploits divisions within the EU.
Q. – Are you resigned to losing the United States as an ally?
THE MINISTER – The United States is a major power which seems unsure about playing its leading role globally. This is causing it to withdraw into itself and is making collective action to tackle the great challenges of mankind difficult. Consequently, China now feels able to say, “I hold the power and leadership”. We would like the United States to fulfil its responsibilities and maintain a relationship of trust with its allies.
Yet the challenge above all is for Europe to exercise its sovereignty and find its destiny as a leader. It needs to imagine itself in this role. It shouldn’t just question itself and how it will overcome the crisis and defend its sovereignty as regards security, generally, so it doesn’t need to depend on the outside.
Q. – Emmanuel Macron has expressed support for cancelling the debt of African countries. Beijing, which holds 40% of it, isn’t in favour of that. Haven’t you turned other people’s money into a generous-sounding slogan?
THE MINISTER – The President’s initiative to ease the debt of African countries has been accepted and validated, because there’s been a moratorium until the end of the year, including by China, on the repayment of bilateral public and private debt.
That’s a first action, which the Africans wanted and which must now be implemented. This much-needed shot in the arm – worth about $20 billion (€18.4 billion) – for 40 countries must enable them to invest more in combating COVID-19.
This initial result isn’t enough. Depending on the countries’ situation and in a multilateral framework, we’d like there to be debt cancellations accompanied by an investment plan in the fields of health, education etc. The same determination will have to be shown, and that also concerns China.
Q. – Do you think the shockwave of the pandemic could sweep away some African regimes?
THE MINISTER – We must be vigilant without developing disaster scenarios. The scale of the health crisis in Africa is impossible to predict. The pandemic has reached 52 out of 54 countries, but the number of cases detected is relatively low, probably because the African health system isn’t sufficiently structured to identify all the people affected.
There are grounds for optimism, like the young age of the population and the experience in handling pandemics. There are grounds for pessimism too, like the weakness of health systems, the risk of an accelerated spread in major urban centres, the number of displaced people etc. So it’s important to anticipate the development of the pandemic, because a violent economic shock will come, whatever happens.
French people returning to France from abroad
Q. – Following the return of the French people stranded abroad, how are you going to deal with the issue of expatriates, some of whom – particularly in Africa – would also like to come back?
THE MINISTER – We’ve mobilized a large number of actors to help bring home French citizens who were temporarily abroad. With the help of Air France, we’ve brought back nearly 170,000 French citizens amid greatly reduced air traffic, border closings etc. Now, within the EU framework, we’ll organize flights to accommodate anybody who is left.
Regarding the 3.5 million French people who live permanently abroad, we’re going to consider specific measures for the most vulnerable people. As for the others, we’d like them to stay where they live and observe the containment or precautionary rules imposed by the countries where they live. That requires a minimum level of safety. We’re going to offer a health support mechanism to every French community in the most exposed countries, remote monitoring, remote medicine, medical evacuation capabilities if necessary, and educational and social support.
Q. – You called for a “major explanation” with Turkey about its contradictory alliances. Is there a Turkish taboo in NATO?
THE MINISTER – There’s a question mark over the [Atlantic] Alliance’s objectives and long-term strategies at a sensitive time when the major arms control agreements dating from the Cold War are in the process of collapsing.
In that framework we’re wondering about Turkey’s behaviour. Its presence within NATO, while choosing Russian anti-aircraft capabilities; when, in Libya, it gets Syrian proxies transferred to take part in the conflict and mobilizes significant capabilities (ships, drones etc.), as in the Bay of Misrata; when immigration becomes a matter for blackmail; when, in the eastern Mediterranean, vessels take part sometimes in NATO’s action to establish its presence, sometimes in securing the areas it appropriates…
That’s a lot!
When Turkey demands solidarity, it must at the same time provide clarification. That hasn’t been done, the pandemic doesn’t allow it, but we won’t be able to avoid that clarification.
Q. – How can we ensure the anti-jihadist operations in the Sahel continue in this period of global health crisis?
THE MINISTER – The pandemic that is also affecting those countries is complicating the implementation of the Pau agreement [concluded in January]. But the momentum that emerged from Pau is still working. There have been operational gains in the tri-border area. The Malian army has returned to Kidal. The Takuba force is mobilizing.
Admittedly there are negative factors. I’m thinking particularly of the case of Soumaïla Cissé [opposition figure abducted in Mali by jihadists], or the provisional redirection of Chadian forces towards Lake Chad following Boko Haram attacks.
Poland/Hungary/potential EU sanctions
Q. – Poland and Hungary are exploiting the crisis to ride roughshod over democratic norms. Are they destroying the European project from within?
THE MINISTER – In the debate about the best political system for resolving the crisis, there’s one tendency that advocates the authoritarian model.
I’m convinced that the democratic model is currently proving its own authority. Democracy, information, transparency and freedom must deliver in order to win. If you don’t have transparency or trust, you don’t win. That’s the message I could send to our European partners.
Q. – Can we contemplate European sanctions against those countries?
THE MINISTER – That question will be asked at the appropriate time, and I imagine it could be asked at one of the next European Councils. But the priority is to fight the pandemic./.