Official speeches and statements - June 23, 2021
1. Foreign policy - Sahel/multilateralism/Russia/China/COVID-19 - Excerpts from the interview given by Mr. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to BFM TV/RMC (Paris - June 18, 2021)
I’d like to start with the latest important information concerning France, namely Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. This operation is eight years old and has 5,100 French soldiers engaged in the Sahel, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania. Barkhane is ending as an external operation, did I hear that correctly?
As an external operation. So what does the end mean in terms of timeframe?
"End" means the end of one type of operation, and it means we’re transforming our action in the Sahel, but we remain in the Sahel, we remain in the battle against terrorism. But we’re going to fight it in another way, in a timeframe to be decided gradually after consultation with our partners, be they our G5 Sahel partners or our European partners. But the battle goes on, in a different way. Why? Because the threat is different. Incidentally, there has already been Operation Serval, which we turned into Operation Barkhane, because geographically it had moved, because the actions of the terrorist groups were different. And today, we think we’ve got to change our model in two areas. Firstly, by making it more Sahel-based, more European and more international - I’ll come back to this. And then, secondly, by ensuring that we strengthen the anti-terrorism dynamic of the military action in the framework of what we call Operation Takuba, with the Europeans. Those are two different operations. It’s no longer Barkhane. There is less grip, but perhaps more muscle.
So just to understand: in a year’s time, how many French soldiers will there be? There are 5,100 today; how many will there be? 3,500?
We’ll see. We’re going to discuss this with our partners... I haven’t got the figures. The figures aren’t fixed. We’re going to discuss the model. (...)
Will there be fewer French soldiers?
There’ll be fewer French soldiers, more European soldiers.
So, a European coalition?
An international coalition more than a European one, because there’s... The Coalition for the Sahel brings together 60 partners today - including partners such as Japan, the United States and the United Arab Emirates -, who are making their contribution and supporting the operation politically. And then there are the direct players, where there are now many Europeans. Who would have told us only eight years ago, when we launched Operation Serval - I was Defense Minister at the time, under the authority of François Hollande -, that Estonian, Swedish, Danish and Czech forces would be on the ground with us today fighting terrorism; because the Europeans understood there was a risk here to their security.
On top of that, French taxpayers won’t be the only ones paying.
Yes, European security is everyone’s concern, so it’s up to everyone to ensure security. There’s a new situation, a new approach, a new model whose main objective is to fight terrorism and help these countries’ forces structure themselves, modernize, strengthen themselves and be more effective within the framework of what’s known as the Sahel Joint Force.
Will we keep elite commandos?
Special forces. But there’s just one point, if I may, concerning the risks and threats in the region; I’m very mindful of destabilization in the Gulf of Guinea countries. It isn’t talked about much, but the spread of terrorism, through Burkina Faso in particular, is now affecting north of those countries, be it Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin or Ghana. There are risks there, and we’re doing a lot at the moment to ensure that those countries also organize themselves to ensure their own borders are secure and prevent terrorism from spreading in those territories.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC / RUSSIAN MERCENARIES
And there’s another player in the region now: Russia. Is Russia, quite frankly, challenging us in the Sahel?
I don’t think so.
The mercenaries aren’t in the Sahel.
Yes, but they’re also acting, they’re also starting to act, as you know, in many countries: Sudan, Angola, Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa - that’s further south -, Congo... You know that they’re present everywhere?
I’m more moderate in my assessment than you. On the other hand, I’m very firm in my assessment of the Central African Republic where, in the end, through the Russian mercenaries there’s a form of power grab, and in particular a military power grab in that country which we’re fighting against and which has led us to take steps to withdraw a number of our military personnel from the Central African Republic. It’s a worry, which is also shared...
In Mali? The junta leader? Is he close to Moscow?
Honestly... Just because he was trained, some of them were trained in Moscow, doesn’t mean they’re now aligned with Moscow. No, I don’t think it’s a danger. We’ve got to be careful, especially about potential action by certain groups claiming to represent Russia on social media. But for the time being, I don’t think there’s been a major penetration there.
What’s certain, in the whole of the Sahel, is that the member countries of the G5 Sahel in particular, what’s also called ECOWAS, the grouping of West African countries, are extremely vigilant about their desire for sovereignty and the precautions they take with regard to third parties.
I’m struck by the presence of these militias on the ground.
That’s in the Central African Republic.
Yes, in the Central African Republic, but more broadly in the world. American militias, Russian militias. I even saw in Afghanistan, did you see there are militias fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan?
Which raises serious questions, i.e. waging war through intermediaries, losing responsibility for military engagement. This was particularly true, as you know, in Libya, where in the end we’ve got militias potentially fighting each other, which come from elsewhere - mainly Syria - and with fighters brought in either by Turkey or Russia, who are fighting each other...
Private militias which feed on the resources...
It’s unacceptable and we must be able to fight this sort of approach. What we’re starting to do in Libya, I think, is going better in Libya.
Militias which are feeding on the riches of the countries they’re in...
Which are taking a share of the spoils, if we can put it crudely.
It’s another way of waging war?
The Central African Republic is the most powerful example: the militias are there, they back President Touadéra and help themselves to the country’s riches.
Does Russia’s military build-up worry you?
What worries me most is the fact that for some months now, some years now - nevertheless, not long - there has been no arms-control architecture respected by all sides. During the 1980s, many agreements between Russia and the United States were concluded, essentially, on the control of strategic nuclear weapons, the so-called START agreements, [where] we tried to reduce the number of warheads on both sides. There was an agreement on intermediate nuclear forces, i.e. nuclear forces that could strike in Europe, in our country. Remember the Euromissile affair; that was the result, there had been an agreement, to prevent that. Then there had been an agreement on conventional forces; we each indicated what we were going to do to avoid things slipping, avoid accidents, balance situations and regulate situations.
Today, there’s no longer anything. It’s a danger nobody perceives, but there’s no longer anything. Moreover, tomorrow morning Russia might say: I’m going to build Euromissiles, as before, which could inevitably strike all over European territory. And this is no longer acceptable.
There’s no longer any international dialogue today on nuclear weapons? But there is.
No, there’s no longer...
The United States said it was going to engage in a new dialogue!
That’s what is new, that’s what is positive. On this issue, there have been two positive events this week. It’s been an extremely busy week at international level. First of all, there was the Biden-Putin meeting, which admittedly didn’t produce any transparent results, except for the return of the ambassadors, but that’s the least that could be done. Yet they both decided to begin a strategic dialogue in order to have more stability and more security between the two countries, more transparency and less unpredictability. And the principle of that dialogue has been endorsed, it will now have to be developed so that maybe tomorrow rules might be reached which are recognized by everyone. That’s the first point.
But the second point, just as important, is the fact that at the NATO summit in Brussels, it was agreed that on these arms control issues, especially those affecting Europe, NATO would be involved in preparing the agenda of objectives, so that Europe is present. (...)
A new player - Beijing, China - is increasing its nuclear arsenal.
That’s clear. China is increasing its nuclear arsenal, it’s rearming, it’s developing all its arsenal, and that’s a real concern. But this doesn’t come under the competence of the Atlantic Alliance. There are other players, and China is also developing commercially and technologically and is a very strong power which is asserting itself more every day. So I think we need to have a diversified posture towards China. China isn’t the G7’s enemy.
It’s Biden’s enemy.
China is three things at once; that’s why we’ve got to try and have a relatively balanced assessment of these three elements. Firstly, it’s a partner. We won’t be able to reach a climate agreement without China. We won’t be able to embark on a genuine reform of the World Health Organization without China. We won’t be able to act to protect biodiversity without China. It’s a partner. (...)
It’s also a competitor. An economic, technological competitor with whom we have to reckon and score points, provided that - this is the important subject of the discussions we have with them - they comply with the rules of the World Trade Organization of which they’re a member. And so there are continuous discussions on this point. (...)
And then it’s an opponent! Because China is developing a political model which isn’t ours. A model that rejects democracy and the rules of law. Look, for example, at what’s happening with the Uighurs. And in this respect we’re in opposition, in hostility.
So we have to play on all three things. The United States puts the emphasis more on the last point; we put it on all three: [we’re] stringent on the last point, firm when necessary. We Europeans have adopted sanctions against China. The first time since Tiananmen. And sanctions which didn’t go down well, particularly those due to China’s behavior towards the Uighurs. We’ve got to do this and at the same time work with China for global objectives, for global public goods, to share them. That’s the approach we’re taking.
(...) Diplomacy with Putin, sanctions imposed by the West; frankly this doesn’t seem to be very effective, to say the least.
I don’t really agree with you, because...
But without turning a hair, Putin is developing his story, he’s far less hesitant than four or five years ago. And he does pretty much what he wants. And he couldn’t care less about our sanctions.
He cares more about them than you say, because if he really didn’t care that much, he wouldn’t adopt any himself in retaliation. And in all the discussions we have with Russian officials, the question of sanctions comes up every time. Sanctions against individuals, but also sanctions against economic entities. That’s no small thing.
But can we go further? Should we go further?
What does "“go further" mean? Our position is to keep up the pressure on Russia permanently on these issues where things are drifting. There’s a real drift towards authoritarianism in Russia. There’s also a drift at the international level, with provocative and intimidating action which Russia is developing around Ukraine...
That’s what I’m telling you: the sanctions are ineffective.
I’m not sure. In any case, we must maintain them and continue exerting pressure because this also prevents a number of Russian players from developing their activities. So we’ve got to use this language of sanctions which is very strong, which began with the occupation of Crimea, and which continues today in the face of the repressive measures which have been taken against Mr. Navalny and the people supporting him. But we must keep dialogue too. We need both because Russia is in Europe, it will remain in Europe and isn’t going to move. So we’ve got to have a dialogue with this sometimes troublesome, sometimes difficult, sometimes unbearable neighbor. Russia is in Europe.
Belarus isn’t shifting.
If you don’t exert pressure, nothing will happen. If you exert pressure, things move at civil society level, genuinely; I’m convinced.
NATO / UKRAINE / TURKEY
Let’s talk about NATO. Ukraine wants to be part of NATO. Yes? No?
For the moment the conditions aren’t met, so it isn’t an issue.
Are you saying no?
On the subject of NATO, just a word; some time back, Marine Le Pen was right here, where you are. She said that if she were elected President of the Republic, France would leave NATO’s integrated command. She said our sovereignty is threatened. Is this sovereignty threatened?
I’ll leave Marine Le Pen to make her own choices. What was true, until a few months ago, was that there could be, particularly in what President Trump said, some doubts, especially about collective security. This means that if one of NATO’s members is attacked, the others feel attacked and consider that they themselves are being attacked; this is NATO’s famous Article 5 [of the North Atlantic Treaty] which sets out these essential principles. There was a doubt, it has been removed. I believe that the summit which took place in Brussels on Monday was a summit that allows us to revitalize NATO. President Biden made some extremely powerful statements about this. And during the summit, Europe was also taken into consideration as a military, strategic partner in the transatlantic relationship and in NATO. And that’s something really new. I’ve never heard a US President say such favorable and positive things about the European Union before. I heard President Trump say "Europe is worse than China" - he said it. This time, we’ve increased solidarity.
I’ve got a question about NATO. If Turkey is attacked, do we go to its rescue?
If its integrity is attacked, yes, but it must be reciprocal. So clarification has been provided on the issue, which seems to me very timely, and was in fact requested and initiated by President Macron two years ago now, when he wrote quite a famous article in The Economist in which he asked for the situation to be made clear. We’ve clarified it, including with regard to Turkey, since it was stated in the conclusions of the Brussels summit on Monday that all the partners must honour commitments on democratic fundamentals and respect for the law. And that, if by any chance there were any questions of potential military rivalry between partners, or of other member countries challenging certain interests of member countries, then we would have to talk about it among ourselves to clarify the situation. This is something really new; I think it’s a step forward.
Erdoğan thought Emmanuel Macron had regained his sanity.
No, I don’t think you can put it like that. I was able to attend part of the meetings between President Erdoğan and President Macron. It was something new, it hadn’t happened in a long time. First of all, we can consider there to be a kind of verbal ceasefire, which is something. But it isn’t enough. We’re entering a convalescence phase in our relationship with Turkey because a verbal ceasefire doesn’t apply to actions. We expect action from Turkey on sensitive issues, be it as regards the Eastern Mediterranean and especially Libya and Syria.
And there’s been a bit of an opening on this and we’re going to start working with the Turks on the Libya issue, particularly on militias, because after all, they’re well practiced in the spread of militias in Libya, and on Syria, where we sometimes have contradictory interests, but sometimes shared interests. We’ve started working on this. It isn’t enough. There’s the question of the Eastern Mediterranean and the relationship with Cyprus. All this is ahead of us. We’ll see whether President Erdoğan has changed more than just his words, whether he’s changed his actions - perhaps that will be the case. At any rate, it’s better this be in a situation where things have calmed down than one of confrontation.
COVID-19 / HEALTH PASS / US
A word, even so, about COVID. On 1 July, we’ll be able to travel in Europe with a health pass. On the reopening of French borders: since yesterday, American tourists can come to France. But whether they’re vaccinated or not, all they need is a PCR test less than 72 hours old. Is there genuine reciprocity?
Not quite. But what do you want? Should we close our borders to American tourists who are perhaps going to help give hotels and businesses in Paris in particular, but also elsewhere, a bit of a boost? No, we thought that, at the European level, as long as the United States is considered "green", i.e. having put in place a sufficiently effective vaccination system to prevent the pandemic from presenting risks, then yes, we would accept it. We want them to do the same. I’m going to see Mr Blinken, my American colleague, in a few days’ time, and I’m going to visit the United States myself a few days later. We’ll talk about this.
Will you get the green light?
I hope so. We’ll say: we have acted, now it’s your turn. As you know, we’ve categorized countries into zones - green, amber and red countries. The green countries are now recognized as having immunity, and we must be able to use that and ensure that reciprocity is in place. (...)
France welcomes the holding of legislative elections in Armenia on 20 June. According to information from the Central Electoral Commission of Armenia, the Civil Contract party led by outgoing Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has taken a significant lead.
France takes note of the preliminary conclusions of the election observation mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the satisfactory unfolding of this election.
France hopes these elections will enable Armenia to meet the many challenges it is facing. It reaffirms its determination to support Armenia as it seeks to do so, along with its unwavering commitment to Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to strengthening its democratic institutions.
As you know we will have a very important meeting on the situation in the Central African Republic this morning, let me say a few words about that.
The situation in the Central African Republic is absolutely dramatic. It goes beyond the most pessimistic scenarios that we could imagine a few months ago. There are extra-judicial executions, gang rapes, torture. People live in fear and violations of Human Rights are on the rise, I think you have all seen reports on these facts, as well as on the responsibility of mercenary groups. This must stop now and this violence must be punished.
Today is also an exceptional meeting with the presence in person of the President of Angola, as well as representatives of other States from the region. France fully support the regional mediation in the CAR and the role played by ECCAS and the International Conference on the Great Lake Region.
Quelques mots en français maintenant, puisque je vois que les medias francophones sont intéressés par cette réunion importante. La situation en RCA est catastrophique, les rapports qui font état d’exactions, de meurtres, de tortures, de viols sont extrêmement alarmants. La responsabilité des groupes mercenaires est indéniable, c’est un fait. Il est essentiel que le Conseil de sécurité puisse se réunir aujourd’hui pour appeler à la cessation de ces violences.
As you recalled, on 10 June the French President announced the imminent end of Operation Barkhane and a profound transformation in our engagement in the Sahel.
I’d like to be very clear, first of all in recalling that we are present in the Sahel at the request of the G5 Sahel States. Moreover, we won’t leave the region, and alongside our Sahelian but also our European and international partners, we’ll continue our commitment against terrorism, which remains our absolute priority.
What we want is to change the approach. We want to move towards more cooperation with the Sahelians and gradually transfer responsibility for operations to them. Together with our European partners, we also want to cooperate even more closely, in order to support them, through training and operational support.
Finally, we’d like to work with the Gulf of Guinea countries, which are also exposed to the risk that the terrorist threat will spread.
This change will lead us to reorganize our presence significantly in military terms, relying in particular on the Takuba force, which brings together detachments of European special forces in support of local forces.
The practicalities and timetable of this transformation in our engagement will be specified in due course.
I’ll answer your question directly: we’re going to consult our partners first of all, because they’re the ones on the ground with us.
I’d like to stress to you that all the people we’re speaking to have confirmed to us their desire to continue the fight against terrorism. We’ll undoubtedly have an opportunity to come back to this, but this cooperation with our partners is the key to strengthening our collective engagement in the Sahel against terrorism.