Q. - The 31st French solider has just been killed in Afghanistan. Two out of three of the French are opposed to our military presence in that country, according to a recent Ifop opinion poll for "Le Figaro". Are you worried about the risks of a gap opening up between the nation and its armed forces?
THE MINISTER - We have to get the French to realize what our leaving Afghanistan would mean. In this respect, the Socialist Party’s position is totally irresponsible. A withdrawal of the coalition’s 70,000 men and women would mean, first of all, the collapse of everything we have achieved in the way of getting schooling for girls, access to even rudimentary health care, 13,500 kilometres of roads built and also strengthening the Afghan national army - without forgetting the personal sacrifices of our soldiers, as was sadly the case again last week. Besides this, if we leave Afghanistan, chaos would certainly ensue, the Taliban come back to power and Afghanistan become a breeding ground for terrorism…
Q. - … Except that the French aren’t convinced…
THE MINISTER - … Because it’s hard to appreciate that our security also depends on what’s happening 8,000 kilometres from our borders. Afghanistan is located at the heart of an arc of crisis with, as neighbours, Iran and especially Pakistan, a nuclear power experiencing serious problems of stability. The risk of contagion is far from negligible. The victory can’t be only military. But failure can’t be contemplated.
NATIONAL DEBT/MILITARY BUDGET/DEFENSE INDUSTRY
THE MINISTER - How can we guarantee that the explosion of the debt won’t eat away at the planned €180 billion military budget between now and 2014?
THE MINISTER - For two years, people have continually explained to me that tomorrow would be worse. I note that every year proves this pessimism misplaced. There has never been such a high Defense budget. It’s the fair quid pro quo for a substantial reform effort. The stimulus plan is allowing us to modernize the forces’ equipment. This year, €18 billion will be spent, as against €15 billion in 2007. The best guarantee I can give you is that so far, everything we said we’d do we’ve done. And there are still other areas where savings can be made. We’re going to speed things up.
Q. - In which area?
THE MINISTER - Information and communication systems, for example, which absorb the paltry sum of €3.5 billion every year.
Q. - Is the exceptional extra €1.6 billion expected in 2009 going to vanish into thin air?
THE MINISTER - We still aim to get €1 billion from the sale of property. The sale of the frequencies won’t take place until next year. But, in compensation for the €600 million expected from this for 2009, I’ve got a trade-off from the Prime Minister authorizing me to use €400 million of carried-over appropriations. Below expected inflation will allow us to save the remaining €200 million.
Q. - How far have you got with implementing the defense part of the stimulus plan?
THE MINISTER - At the beginning of July, we awarded €1.3 billion’s worth of orders, i.e. 80% of what’s scheduled. Out of this sum, €355 million has gone to companies. The €500 million of arrears have been written off. The order for a third amphibious landing ship [LHD or BPC (bâtiment de projection et de commandement] given to STX-Chantiers de l’Atlantique is going to provide work for 1,000 people in and around Saint-Nazaire. The light-armoured vehicle manufacturer Panhard has created 70 jobs. And we have purely and simply rescued SMEs which, had they gone under, would have made us lose what are often unique skills and technologies. (…)
Q. - Can one say that the A400M military transport plane programme has been definitively saved?
THE MINISTER - There’s every indication that it has, unless the programme were to experience a new industrial mishap such that it discouraged client nations. Had I not made huge personal efforts, the A400M would be dead today. The political dialogue with the British was essential to keep them on board.
DEFENSE INDUSTRY RATIONALIZATION
Q. - A little over a year ago, you were keen to relaunch discussions with a view to getting closer links between European manufacturers. Have you made any progress?
THE MINISTER - DCNS and Nexter are holding discussions with their partners and I’d like to see these conclude positively as soon as possible. The context is favourable, unlike that in many other countries, since France is increasing her defense budget. (…)./.