Q. – Let’s get down to the basics of the hot topics you’ve got on your desk, and particularly, of course, relations with Russia, since the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the opposition figure to Vladimir Putin who returned to Moscow a week ago now; Navalny arrested, put in custody until 15 February, numerous judicial proceedings against him and also demonstrations yesterday in very many Russian towns and cities – at least 65 – demanding the release of the Kremlin’s main enemy, with hundreds of arrests.
Q. – Yes. Apparently there have now been 3,500 arrests. What can you do? Is there nothing to be done about Vladimir Putin’s regime, except to say it’s not good and we’d like him to be released, which Europe said yesterday?
THE MINISTER – First of all, I find this authoritarian drift very worrying. I think the undermining of the rule of law through these collective, pre-emptive arrests is intolerable. I also think the success of the multiple demonstrations throughout Russia is impressive.
Q. – What does it reflect, in your opinion?
THE MINISTER – Sorry. Having said that, the Navalny case doesn’t date from yesterday. It dates from last August. We said at the time – and I’m repeating it today to the Russian authorities – that full light must be shed on the Navalny case.
Q. – At the time when he was poisoned and hospitalized in Germany, in Berlin.
THE MINISTER – Yes. I even said so, I believe, here on your airwaves. The fact that he was poisoned was an attempted assassination. It was done with a Russian product, Novichok.
Q. – Banned internationally.
THE MINISTER – Banned internationally and produced in Russia. It was done in Russia, with a Russian chemical product, on a Russian figure. So it seems natural to me that an investigation should be carried out, with clarification and transparency.
Q. – Yes, but Vladimir Putin couldn’t care less.
THE MINISTER – I repeat it today, and I say to myself: ultimately – I was wondering about this – ultimately if by some chance there had been clarification and transparency on the issue, maybe this [protest] movement wouldn’t have happened yesterday. But I think the Russian authorities wanted to take a position of denying reality. Having said that, we also can’t accept it. In the last quarter [of 2020] we imposed sanctions, we took measures against the entourage, including President Putin’s entourage. The European bloc – because measures of this type can only be taken at European level – took measures to ban a number of figures from travelling and freeze their assets.
Q. – A number of Russian dignitaries.
THE MINISTER – Yes, absolutely.
Q. – The Kremlin accuses Washington of interference. It’s not even bothering to describe the European Union’s position.
THE MINISTER – It’s not for me to comment on how President Putin is handling the current situation in Russia. What I’m convinced of is that it’s a very worrying drift which slightly undermines the desire for trust and security we may have vis-à-vis Russia. An initiative was taken in Brégançon at the end of August 2019.
Q. – Is it finished?
THE MINISTER – It’s not finished, but it’s not making much progress.
Q. – Yes, but that means Russia is still an interlocutor and that Vladimir Putin is still an interlocutor with France and the European Union.
THE MINISTER – I wouldn’t put it like that. I’d say that despite everything, Russia isn’t going to go away. Despite everything, geography is stubborn. Russia is our neighbour and we have issues of security and trust; and we’re stubbornly seeking a way to ensure that forms of discussion can take place, while being extremely clear and extremely firm about the authoritarian drift we’re seeing.
Q. – But there’s been Ukraine, there’s Crimea, there’s been Georgia. I’m not going to go through the whole list.
THE MINISTER – Yes, but Russia won’t be going away.
Q. – There are the videos posted online by Navalny, which show the fortune and the absolutely staggering palace Vladimir Putin allegedly has.
THE MINISTER – No, the sanctions. We’ve taken them.
Q. – So there are the sanctions and there’s also…
THE MINISTER – Tomorrow a meeting of European Union foreign ministers will be talking about this too.
Q. – But first of all, should we step up the sanctions, and secondly, what do you say about the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which basically could also be a means – interrupting the work – could also be a means of exerting pressure, to tell Russia we don’t agree?
THE MINISTER – That question is more for Germany.
Q. – Yes, in other words you haven’t managed to persuade Germany.
THE MINISTER – I’ll let Germany answer.
Q. – OK. And on sanctions? Can we envisage a toughening of the sanctions?
THE MINISTER – On the sanctions, we must make them genuinely operational, and the discussion on this point will take place tomorrow at European Council level.
Q. – Are you calling for Alexei Navalny’s immediate release?
THE MINISTER – We have been for a long time. We’re calling for him to be released and we’re calling for clarity on his attempted assassination. There was an attempted assassination. We’re trying to find out how there was an attempted assassination in a country subject to the rule of law.
Q. – A very small clarification: do you believe he took inordinate risks by returning to Russia? Or do you believe he played his role as an opposition figure, risking his life?
THE MINISTER – I think this approach deserves a lot of respect. He has the courage of his convictions. He’s probably the one who should be most satisfied with how yesterday went.
Q. – Paradoxically, despite his supporters’ arrest?
THE MINISTER – Paradoxically. I’m not talking about the pre-emptive and collective arrests, which are absolutely intolerable. I’m talking about the whole movement that manifested itself yesterday. It’s really quite impressive. Especially because it was very cold.
Q. – Yes. Apparently with demonstrations even in towns and cities where it was -50°C. If we look towards the West, you obviously witnessed, as we did, the global spectacle of Joe Biden’s investiture. It was very impressive and especially powerful to hear him talk, insisting on the unity of a country we told ourselves was profoundly torn apart. What struck you the most? Seeing President Biden’s investiture or seeing the pictures of ex-president Donald Trump getting onto Air Force One for the last time, to the sound of My Way by Frank Sinatra?
THE MINISTER – No, what struck me the most was Joe Biden’s speech. I was very struck by the dignity of that speech and its gravity, and also the reminder, in many passages in the text, of the need to protect democracy, because that’s the issue, after all. The United States, a very old democracy, almost fell victim to a populist insurrection fuelled by fake news, by a virality which, in a way, sustained an artificial reality for a sector of the population who thought it was true. In other words, I think a sector of Americans lived amid the idea that the election had been stolen from them, when that wasn’t the factual reality.
Q. – And they still think it, and despite everything 74 million of them voted for Donald Trump.
THE MINISTER – Yes, 74 million of them voted. And so it struck me greatly, that determination, that appeal for unity; and also the fact that in the speech he mentioned problems linked to information.
Q. – Yes, in his first speech, the first after being sworn in.
THE MINISTER – The manipulation of information, the need to establish the truth, the collective battle against lies. It really was a great debut, and that was the most impressive thing for me listening to that speech.
Q. – Do you think it was a lesson for all democracies that are slightly weaker today? And secondly, do you think on the basis of that speech there may be effective actions to attempt, basically, to control social media more? Is that desirable?
THE MINISTER – Obviously, beyond what’s happened in the United States, all democracies may feel weakened by what’s happened there. And so the need to strengthen the democratic functioning of States which are [democratic] is absolutely essential. Together we must probably devise a renewal of democracies, a revitalization of the rule of law and respect for our fellow citizens. In any case, if that’s the challenge the United States wants to tackle, we’re obviously a stakeholder. But it’s very clear that in Europe, too, we’ve been worried about those backward slides and threats.
Q. – But is anything going to change in the international system? Or will we remain in the “America first” system with Joe Biden? Are the Americans going to return to the concert of nations as people say? Can we imagine more multilateralism than it’s been possible to exercise in recent years under the Trump presidency, in particular?
THE MINISTER – “America first” meant America alone. The “America first” theme manifested itself as America alone, and during that time many of us, including the Europeans, tried to keep things on their feet: the climate agreement, the Iran agreement, the initiatives around the WTO and multilateralism. In short, we tried to keep things together. New areas are now very clearly opening up.
Q. – New areas, or is it the return of American leadership? And if it’s the return of American leadership, is that good news for Europe or is it not very good news for Europe and European leaders?
THE MINISTER – There are several observations in what you say. The renewal is that multilateralism is going to get moving again – first of all with the first decisions taken by President Biden, on the return to the Paris Agreement, and it’s the right time: there’s great urgency because the meeting is in Glasgow at the end of the year. They [the Americans] are coming back; we’re going to resume the discussions. The fact that they’re coming back to the World Health Organization, which they’d left, when it’s the only organization – it may have its shortcomings, but it’s the only organization at global level that deals with health problems. At the height of the pandemic, the United States left the organization. It’s coming back.
Moreover, you can see that on security matters, there was a real issue, which isn’t talked about much, with the Russians, which existed and which still exists: the issue of regulating strategic nuclear weapons. The treaty that follows on from the START treaty and is now called New START, which together, between Russia and the United States of America, regulates and controls the nuclear weapons that can potentially be fired at each other, was expiring in February. He [President Biden] has just rekindled the desire to talk about the follow-up to the treaty. So the game’s resuming on issues we Europeans had tried to keep on their feet.
Q. – The world order is restored.
THE MINISTER – Well, having said that…
Q. – Leadership or not?
THE MINISTER – Having said that, the four years won’t have been an interlude. Europe, with which the United States of America says it now wants to restore all ties – the transatlantic relationship will no longer be the same as before. We’re not going to turn the clock back four years, it seems to me.
Q. – What’s changing? What’s changed?
THE MINISTER – Because in the meantime – and this may be indirectly linked to Trump –, in the meantime the European Union has gained confidence, the European Union has grown up, the European Union has overcome its naivety. The European Union has asserted that it can start having a posture in terms of security. The European Union has said and indicated that, with regard to trade, you really mustn’t go too far and that if the United States imposes taxes, it can impose them itself. The European Union has asserted that on a number of major industrial issues – I’m thinking in particular of digital technology – it can have its own sovereignty. So the Europe that is here now is no longer the same as the one that existed four years ago, and Joe Biden is going to find a different Europe.
Q. – You suggested a few days ago that you were quite worried about Iran, saying it was acquiring its nuclear capabilities, What should we do? That question sounds a bit stupid and a bit broad. What are you expecting of the United States? And what can the European Union do, given that you say that in a way, thanks to Trump, it’s no longer the same as five years ago and that it’s more powerful? On Iran, what do we do? What are we waiting for?
THE MINISTER – When I was saying earlier that we’d kept things on their feet, it also concerns the Vienna agreement, generally known as the JCPOA – i.e. the agreement signed in 2015 which enabled us to avoid nuclear proliferation and prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, with all the consequences…
Q. – So we’re not going to go backwards.
THE MINISTER – It’s still there.
Q. – In the meantime, things have happened.
THE MINISTER – But in parallel with the American withdrawal in 2018, the Iranians progressively unravelled the key elements.
Q. – They resumed enrichment of their uranium.
THE MINISTER – They resumed enrichment at 20% and are in a position to produce uranium…
Q. – Should we lift the sanctions…
THE MINISTER – …uranium metal, which is a…
Q. – Should the US sanctions, of which they’re the victims, be lifted?
THE MINISTER – It’s a very dangerous situation, because Iran’s access to a nuclear weapon would have huge geostrategic consequences.
Q. – Of course.
THE MINISTER – We must find a way to return to the Vienna agreement. And this also applies to Iran. We’re in the opposite situation to the one Trump wanted. Trump wanted maximum pressure to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Q. – Yes. And Tehran is currently demanding, above all, that sanctions be lifted in order to fulfil its obligations.
THE MINISTER – With maximum pressure, in fact, the result is that Iran isn’t far from being able to acquire nuclear weapons. So we have to embark on discussions on the basis of the Vienna agreement, on the basis of the JCPOA. Well, the question you then ask is who starts. Well, that’s part of diplomacy. We’ll see how it all goes…
Q. – Yes, exactly.
THE MINISTER – But what I note is the American desire to restart the process, and that’s a source of satisfaction enabling us to return to the previous commitments, but everyone must return to the previous commitments.
Q. – Including the Americans…
THE MINISTER – Yes, but Iran too, and there’s a long way to go.
Q. – Is a meeting already scheduled between Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden?
THE MINISTER – No, not to my knowledge. I’m going to have…
Q. – And between you and Antony Blinken?
THE MINISTER – Yes, that’s going to happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, between Antony Blinken and myself. It so happens that Antony Blinken is an especially outstanding Francophile who knows our country well and who, regarding the future transatlantic relationship, I think, in the initial statements he made at his hearing in the Senate, has a stance that allows us to think we’re going to reconnect with multilateralism, because multilateralism also means everyone abiding by the rules, and that path is going to be open. (…) That won’t prevent Antony Blinken from defending American interests.
Q. – Clearly.
THE MINISTER – And we’re not going to enter a period of euphoria, but a structured dialogue with, I think, a desire not only for us each to protect our own interests but also for everyone in the transatlantic relationship to take into account all the world’s challenges and our responsibilities in that regard. So I think we’re in a new phase.
Q. – (…) We have yet to talk about another superpower that we haven’t mentioned until now, namely China – in this case, before talking about the Sahel – and the issue of relations with China, which is still very complicated, very tense.
Q. – We’ve just seen that the European Commission sort of leaked the agreement between the European Union and China, and in fact you can see there are actually quite a few question marks. People are wondering: wasn’t Europe in a bit too much of a hurry to reach an agreement with China, when Biden hadn’t yet taken office? Isn’t that bad manners? Doesn’t it also, basically, mean giving China even more power? How do you respond to all these criticisms, and how do you defend that agreement?
THE MINISTER – It’s catching up a bit, really, because until now, at European level, some very significant openings have been allowed for Chinese investments. This is an agreement on investments; in this agreement we’ve obtained not only more equality but greater ease for companies that want to set up in China. There’s no obligation…
Q. – Including access to the services market.
THE MINISTER – Yes, and also no obligation to transfer technologies as was previously the case with openings in a number of sectors, and the chance to have a presence, to create subsidiaries: for example, the RATP [Paris public transport operator] could now create a subsidiary in China.
Q. – And no obligation either for China to respect human rights, and particularly the rights of Uighurs.
THE MINISTER – I’m coming to that. So this aspect is a rather positive aspect, and it’s a kind of rebalancing. We’re only at the beginning. For the time being, there’s only a political agreement. The agreement must then go before the European Parliament in particular, but must also be validated by all the European bodies. And in the agreement there’s respect for the standards of the International Labour Organization, i.e. abandoning forced labour in particular, and that’s aimed in particular…
Q. – But that won’t resolve the issue of forced labour for the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, for example.
THE MINISTER – That’s part of the package.
Q. – Even the Elysée Palace says it won’t affect this specific situation.
THE MINISTER – But it will. The fact of abandoning – in the agreement China abandons forced labour by signing the conventions of the International Labour Organization. So we’ll have to be very vigilant when it comes to implementing these measures, in particular in Xinjiang with regard to the Uighurs, of course. It’s not… So now it’s about vigilance on the implementation. Maybe China had an interest in this signature being speeded up, but since it was also in our own interest…
Q. – And maybe also [that of] Germany, which may have had an interest in defending its industry and may have been in a bit more of a hurry. The feeling was that France may not have been in as much of a hurry as Germany on this issue.
THE MINISTER – We have to find a good compromise with everyone. And I think we took a political action where we must subsequently be extremely vigilant, in particular on the application of International Labour Organization standards.
Q. – But does that mean we’re setting ourselves apart from the United States, which is in a head-to-head battle with China? Or do we have a special, unique voice? Where are we on this?
THE MINISTER – No, you absolutely can’t put the relationship we have with China on an equal footing with the relationship we have with the United States. That’s not our approach. We have discussions with China about a number of issues on which we’re partners. I’m thinking, for example, of the commitment on the climate: we won’t be able to achieve it unless we’re a partner with China, because it’s also China’s issue. Right. Let’s work with China on the climate, but let’s be firm and very clear about China’s behaviour towards the Uighurs.
Q. – You’re the man who, as head of the Defence Ministry, committed French troops to the Sahel. You spearheaded that battle against jihadism, at the moment when Mali was in the process of toppling over. It’s now eight years since French troops were committed to the most significant external operation to date.
Q. – And indeed, eight years later Emmanuel Macron talks about an adjustment to the French forces in the Sahel. What’s the nature of this adjustment? At what level and why? Isn’t it basically because the operation is in a bottomless pit, we can’t see where it ends, and we’re having ever more deaths without it apparently moving things forward? And, let me be specific, still French deaths.
THE MINISTER – No, no, no, no!
Q. – A lot of French deaths. I’m talking by comparison with the [other] European countries. Forgive me.
THE MINISTER – There are a lot of… There haven’t only been French and European deaths, and there have been a lot of deaths in MINUSMA, the United Nations force. Unfortunately. So there aren’t only French deaths. Now, we’re not going to do some grim audit, but on this issue, first there was a reorientation of our commitments at the time of what was called the Pau summit that was divided into what are called four pillars: stepping up the fight against terrorism – that really brought results in the course of 2020; strengthening the forces in what’s called the Joint Force, i.e. the force that brings together armed forces units from the five Sahel countries directly concerned. The strengthening of that force is starting to bring results, because obviously it’s the African forces themselves that will ultimately have to ensure their own security. Thirdly, there was a desire to ensure that States regained their position throughout their territory, that they recaptured…
Q. – Their sovereignty over often gigantic territories.
THE MINISTER – Including territories that are partly under the yoke of terrorist groups. And fourthly, it was about embarking on a sufficiently significant development process. On the four points of the pillar, on the four pillars of the Pau agreement, the first has brought results, and the second too because we’re seeing those armed forces gradually starting to solidify together. Now it’s important to move on to the third and fourth pillars, which aren’t sufficiently far ahead. And that’s going to be the focus of discussions at another summit, which will review what was begun in Pau and will take place in N’Djamena during February. Personally I think we need a sort of diplomatic surge, development surge…
Q. – So an offensive surge.
THE MINISTER – To ensure that the Sahel States genuinely take possession of their sovereignty.
Q. – So that we can leave?
Q. – Well, in the meantime, should we be negotiating with the jihadist leaders?
THE MINISTER – Absolutely not.
Q. – Absolutely not? The Americans did it with the Taliban, and that was unthinkable for so long.
THE MINISTER – It may not be a good solution. On the other hand, there are armed groups that are signatories to the Algiers agreement, what’s known as the Algiers agreement. The basis for peacefully resolving the conflict exists. It must simply be enforced, enforced by all the stakeholders, and that process unfortunately hasn’t been sufficiently activated over recent months.
Q. – What I don’t understand is that we’re disengaging, we’re asking…
THE MINISTER – I didn’t say disengagement.
Q. – No, no, I’m trying to understand. Are we asking the countries concerned, or the Sahel countries, to get a bit more involved?
Q. – That’s what they’re doing. We’re asking more of them still and what are we adjusting? Withdrawing a bit more, committing slightly fewer soldiers? We’re at over 5,000.
THE MINISTER – We said – at least, in Pau the President announced an additional effort. So the question is this: is the additional effort going to be maintained or not? But the goal, if you read the speech the President gave in Brest properly, when he presented his New Year’s greetings to the armed forces, the goal is still the same; we aren’t disengaging and we want to fight terrorism.
Q. – No, but we understood even so that a few troops were being pulled out.
THE MINISTER – We added a lot, so…
Q. – We’re just pulling out?
THE MINISTER – This can’t be done separately from also scaling up the Takuba force, which is the European intervention force with special forces.
Q. – Even so, are we getting bogged down in Mali?
THE MINISTER – We’re making ourselves safe. It’s our southern border. If we leave that region in the hands of the jihadists tomorrow, [it affects] our own security and the security of those countries; we’ve got a duty of solidarity, but it’s also a matter of our own security.
Q. – Has the French army committed a serious blunder? Because you talk about security and we’ve all the same got to talk about what the French army has allegedly or perhaps done on the ground. Human Rights Watch is asking for an inquiry to be opened in Mali into a French strike. The human-rights-defending NGO has asked for an investigation to be opened following an operation which allegedly, potentially, led to the deaths of 19 civilians on the ground. Are you in favour of this?
THE MINISTER – That information is false. It has been refuted by Mme Parly and the French military authorities, but also very strictly by the Malian authorities. That’s what I have to say on the matter.
Q. – So it was neither the French nor the Malians?
THE MINISTER – A strike was made, yes. But it wasn’t civilians who were hit.
Q. – OK.
THE MINISTER – An operation was carried out against jihadist groups and then certain networks spread information saying that it was a wedding. If it was a wedding, it was an armed one.
ISLAMIST SEPARATISM IN FRANCE
Q. – Let’s come back to French political life for a little bit. What was initially called a separatism law, then a law on laïcité [secularism] (1), then a law to strengthen republican principles, is being discussed. Does this worry you? Do you think there’s a risk here of anti-French movements which you’ll face in a number of countries? And I’m not talking about the Americans, who don’t seem to understand very well what we’re doing with the law on laïcité? law. Do you fear reactions from a number of Muslim countries?
THE MINISTER – It isn’t a law against Islam.
Q. – But that isn’t what I said. I’m asking you if you’re afraid some people will view it as such.
THE MINISTER – It’s a law which seeks to guarantee the nation’s cohesion, which seeks to ensure we can meet two challenges which lie before us: the risk of separatism, by a number of extremist elements who don’t want to accept the rules of the Republic, quite simply the rules of laïcité, and who are at odds today with issues to do with freedom of conscience and with school. And, secondly, the other challenge is that of inclusion and the correct response to the Republican promise for a number of categories [of people].
Q. – Is the text balanced?
THE MINISTER – It’s the Les Mureaux speech the President delivered.
Q. – No, but is the text balanced? Many on the left wing of La République en Marche believe there are more…
THE MINISTER – I think as regards the commitments made, including on issues concerning school, including on the activation of support mechanisms in neighbourhoods, there’s really a balance to ensure that the law really is a law of national cohesion.
Q. – So you’re OK with it.
THE MINISTER – Well, with regard to other countries which could ask questions, I note, incidentally, that there’s a charter for Islam in France which has just been signed by several organizations.
Q. – Yes, but there’s an issue which very directly concerns you, as it happens – the training of imams and the possibility of foreign imams coming to preach in mosques in France and looking after communities. Are you in favour of this or should all the agreements with countries – Morocco in particular – be completely called off?
THE MINISTER – We think, on this issue, that imams must be trained in France. And we’re in rather positive discussions with a number of stakeholders, including the Moroccan authorities, to ensure that our country has its own particular imamate in order to avoid – and this isn’t the case for Morocco, but it could be the case for other countries – a situation whereby through this means, as well as through language courses, there could be penetration by foreign countries which could at some point influence the separatist temptations I mentioned at the start.
Q. – But you don’t want imams trained in Morocco to come to France?
THE MINISTER – We can have a contract with the Moroccan authorities. I went to Morocco to meet the minister for religions.
Q. – It’s why I’m asking you this question, because the official language of the Republic is that we’re done with foreign imams, full stop.
THE MINISTER – Yes, but they can be trained elsewhere.
Q. – Yes. Is the government…
THE MINISTER – And it’s possible with Morocco. (…)./.
(1) laïcité goes beyond the concept of secularism, embracing the strict neutrality of the State.