INTERVIEW – For the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2020 saw the convergence of a series of trials that “have shaken the very foundations of the multilateral order and undermined the values of our democracies”.
By Isabelle Lasserre for Le Figaro
LE FIGARO.- Have you ever seen a worse year in your ministerial career?
Jean-Yves LE DRIAN – We have had a terrible year. It started with an escalation in violence following the assassination of the Iranian General Soleimani, which could have led to conflagrations across that part of the Middle East and upended action against Daesh. Then there was a heightening in the brutalization of the world, alongside the COVID crisis, with the economic and social consequences we are still feeling today. It was also a terrible year because it saw the Trump administration forge ahead with its extremist and nationalist ideology, going so far as to withdraw from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic.
It was a terrible year because in France, in Europe, we saw a campaign of hatred and violence, and suffered terrorist attacks. Because crises have worsened, the latest being that of Nagorno-Karabakh, a genuine, hard war, with modern weapons, between two States. Because Turkey stepped up hostile acts, threatening security across the Mediterranean. Because France’s major partners have suffered dramatic events, like Lebanon where the crisis has deepened. A terrible year, lastly, because the Sahel has seen political upheaval. All that to the backdrop of Brexit, which is itself a major rupture. We have therefore seen the convergence of trials, shaking the very foundations of the multilateral order and undermining the principles of our democracies. On several occasions, in this series of cold showers, we have even wondered if the world was not coming to the end. And yet we have held firm.
This year, Europe has shown its ability to resist and protect, even doing away with a number of taboos. This resilience was the fruit of considerable diplomatic efforts.
Are we out of the woods?
We have certainly held firm! We have managed to save what is essential. The World Health Organization has survived and agreed to change. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme has been saved, notably thanks to the efforts of the Europeans, while prevailing winds could have been the death of it. We saved the Paris Agreement, despite the withdrawal of the Americans, and also the Global Coalition against Daesh, whereas the US announced its abandonment several times. We organized an international response to the crisis in the Sahel, including the launch of the Takuba Task Force, bringing together European special forces.
We preserved European ideals and unity, despite Brexit. This year, Europe has shown its ability to resist and protect, even doing away with a number of taboos. This resilience was the fruit of considerable diplomatic efforts, bolstered by patients and obstinacy, never bluff and short-termism. Building on all that, we now need to work to reshape Europe, particularly ahead of the French EU Presidency in 2022.
What do you think of Donald Trump’s diplomatic success, orchestrating normalized relations between Israel and Arab countries?
We are for anything that helps calm tensions in that part of the world, including the normalization of relations between Israel and these countries. So it is good news. I do note, however, that alongside this normalization, Morocco recalled its commitment to the resumption of negotiations in the Middle East conflict and the need for a two-state solution. That is also France’s line. We need to build on this calming of tensions to begin a new cycle. This may be the moment for initiatives. In any case, France will make initiatives, and I will soon be meeting my German, Jordanian and Egyptian colleagues again, to envisage resuming talks.
Europe has matured, it has asserted its sovereignty and power, and it is now working to reshape the transatlantic relationship in a new posture.
Have you seen changes in the world since Joe Biden’s election?
So far, the new American authorities have refused all contact, true to “one presidency at a time” principle. But everyone heard Joe Biden’s statements during his campaign and after his victory. Three international challenges will be addressed differently. Firstly, the climate. Biden has said he intends to return to the Paris Agreement, no minor change while the European Union has decided to step up its requirements in this field. Starting in late January, we will have American partners with similar goals to ours. Secondly, health. The new administration has announced its will to return to WHO and foster universal access to vaccines. Lastly, the JCPOA. Here too, Biden could re-join the JCPOA. There is now a desire for dialogue, even if room for manoeuvre is limited by the Iranian electoral calendar. I will visit Washington just after Biden is sworn in, in part to discuss that.
But we should not consider that the Trump presidency was a mere interlude and that we will return to the “old” transatlantic relationship. Much has changed in four years. Power balances have shifted further, and the priority of the clash between China and the United States has become clear, and other powers have demonstrated their offensive capabilities, while the trade situation has deteriorated. Europe, too, has changed. It has matured, it has asserted its sovereignty and power, and it is now working to reshape the transatlantic relationship in a new posture. Not one of rivalry, but to seek a more balanced relationship while asserting its own identity. That is new. We are optimistic, as the United States needs strong allies. It is in its interest to have a balanced transatlantic relationship.
NATO and the EU have spoken up against Turkey. Has the tide really turned?
Since the autumn, Turkey has forged ahead with operations across the Mediterranean rim region, regardless of international law and its commitments as an ally, placing before us a succession of unacceptable faits accomplis. In addition to this negative behaviour, it has engaged in hate campaigns against France and Europe more generally, attacking our values and seeking to destabilize us. Contrary to what Turkey sought to achieve, these excesses have led our partners to take note. This took place in two phases. Firstly, the statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at NATO, calling upon Turkey to clarify its positions and commitments as an ally, and asking it to put an end to its destabilization activities. And then the European Council decision to impose immediate sanctions linked to the Eastern Mediterranean situation. The Council also asked Turkey to clarify its commitments and values. If it fails to change its ways, further steps will be taken in March.
Emmanuel Macron has become a key player in times of crisis. He works to make France’s voice heard in difficult situations.
Has France’s global image changed with Emmanuel Macron? Is he a divisive figure internationally?
France’s international image has improved since his arrival. Emmanuel Macron is looked to. He has become a key player in times of crisis. He works to make France’s voice heard in difficult situations, to promote the values of the Republic, and to assert our role in the world, as members of the United Nations Security Council. Lastly, his straight-talking is more of a plus-point, as it is frankness that resolves deadlock. That does not resolve the crisis, but it does avoid deadlocks and sticking with the status quo.
In retrospect, was he right to describe NATO as brain-dead?
By putting his foot in it, stating a fact that everyone had observed, he brought change. Emmanuel Macron raised four doubts: as to American engagement, as to the Europeans’ will to contribute more to their own security, as to values and coherence between members – like Turkey – and, lastly, as to the strategy of asking just who the enemy is today. Everyone was thinking those questions, but none dared ask them. At the initiative of France and Germany, a working group produced a report which has just been released and which proposes a code of conduct and a review of the Alliance Strategic Concept. Things have changed. Without Emmanuel Macron, nothing would have changed.
Are there still crises where France can have an impact alone?
France has an impact when it is a leader, and often, France leads the way alone. It no doubt cannot resolve things alone, but it can unite others around it. That is what gives us our singularity and our strength. If France had not taken the initiative in the Sahel, nothing would have happened. The same goes for Lebanon.
Even with an initiative, nothing much is happening in Lebanon.
For the message to be heard, the only solution was to speak vigorously, building on our historic friendship with Lebanon. It is because of France’s initiative that the whole international community is on the same wavelength we are. Nobody wants to commit funds until Lebanon has implemented its reforms. For me, Lebanon is Titanic without the orchestra. The Lebanese are drowning in total denial of their situation, and there isn’t even music.
After four years of the Trump administration, times have changed. We are considering how to build a more sovereign Europe, in a rebalanced transatlantic relationship.
When we see that it is impossible to change Germany’s strategic culture, are you not afraid that Joe Biden will bring Berlin back under the American security umbrella?
I do not share this view. We, the French and Germans, are prepared to reinvent the transatlantic relationship, which will not be that of the past. My German counterpart, Heiko Maas, and I are together preparing our first visit to the incoming US administration, which I would like us to make together.
After four years of the Trump administration, times have changed. We are considering how to build a more sovereign Europe, in a rebalanced transatlantic relationship. We can now speak together of strategic autonomy.
What are your thoughts on the Brexit deadlock?
The Cassandras predicted that the British would break Europe; that European solidarity would crumble. But European unity has held firm. On the three points of divergence today – fair competition, or the fact that if you want to play in Europe you have to follow the rules, ensuring that fisheries are not a bargaining chip, and the issue of governance – the Europeans stand united.
This interview was originally published in Le Figaro on 13 December 2020