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Bin Laden death/al-Qaeda/hostages – Libya/democracies/dictatorships – US/role in world – Israel/Palestinians – EU/Schengen review – Marine Le Pen/French National Front – Guéant/legal immigration proposals – French heads of international institutions

Published on May 11, 2011
Interview given by Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the Republic, to “L’Express” magazine (excerpts)

Paris, May 4 , 2011


Q. – Osama Bin Laden is dead, but don’t the Marrakesh bomb attack and the video of the hostages of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb show that France has once again become a target for terrorism?

THE PRESIDENT – France has always been a target for terrorists. Since the 1980s, there’s been no period when she’s been spared: hostage-takings, bomb attacks… The response, first of all, is firmness: we don’t give in, we fight the terrorists. There’s no possible compromise between terrorism and democracies; there’s no happy medium. We must fight this medieval form of barbarism head-on, without compromising our principles. The elimination of Osama Bin Laden is a historic success, but unfortunately it’s not the end of al-Qaeda and its ideology of hate. The fight against the criminals who claim to represent it must bring together all the States – particularly the Muslim ones – that are confronted with this scourge. We must then support, with all our strength, the emergence of democracy in the Arab countries. It’ll be the best response to these fanatics, who also feed on a lack of freedom of expression. The Arab street, which is speaking out for democracy and non-violence, is the best news for democracies and the worst for the obscurantists. The negative energy and frustration accumulated for years by these young, constricted societies will disappear as democracy takes root, engendering growth and economic progress. (…)

Q. – Should we pay money to get hostages back?

THE PRESIDENT – The French State pays no ransoms and doesn’t give in to blackmail. It’s a matter of principle. But there’s another principle I’m attached to: all life is sacred. If a journalist from “L’Express” were taken hostage, wouldn’t you be ready to pay? And if your shareholders said “no, it’s too expensive”, how would you react? It’s when you get into this practical reasoning that you can gauge the difficulty of the decisions to be taken. If a company commits resources to saving one of its members, that’s a decision I understand and respect.


Q. – With the UN’s adoption of UNSCR 1973 on Libya, France scored a success…

THE PRESIDENT – No, there’s not yet any “success”. The “success” will be when the Libyans have the freedom to choose their future. We’re now at a turning-point in the foreign policy conducted by France since the end of the colonial period. I readily accept the criticism that I didn’t see, from the outset, the full significance of what became the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, even though I wonder who in the world did see it. François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and then I myself were criticized for talking to Ben Ali in Tunisia. But let’s not forget that France had taken in most of the regime’s opponents and that we had to have relations with the government in office. What happened in Tunisia forced us to think about this. The same goes for Egypt. (…)
Stability is a goal to achieve through democracy and respect for human rights; it’s no longer a state of affairs to be maintained at the cost of so many injustices. In the name of stability, certain predecessors of mine preferred two Germanys and the support of the Soviet Union…

Q. – What’s your opinion about the situation on the ground in Libya?

THE PRESIDENT – It’s improving on the military front: the Transitional National Council is better organized, and Gaddafi’s henchmen can no longer make progress with their savage violence. Without our intervention, the fate of Benghazi would have been 10 times worse than Srebrenica’s. There were 8,000 deaths then, under the eyes of the international community; Benghazi has almost a million inhabitants, and Gaddafi would have kept his promise to have no mercy, as he’s shown in Misrata by indiscriminately bombarding civilian homes. Today his troops are withdrawing, the tribes are distancing themselves from him and only the climate of terror that reigns in Tripoli, with mercenary snipers on the rooftops, is preventing a revolt in the city. France called for the strikes on military targets to be stepped up in order to bring about real political and diplomatic negotiation. It’s the only way of forcing the Gaddafi regime to send its soldiers back to their barracks. As for the TNC, it must continue to open up to all shades of opinion in society. Once we’ve achieved those steps, we’ll leave the Libyans to build the new Libya. It must be a matter of a few months.

Q. – In other words?

THE PRESIDENT – Once the military goals are achieved, the political discussions will have to begin. In the coming weeks France will take the initiative of [holding] a big conference of friends of Libya to build that country’s future, with all her political components, including, if necessary, ex-members of the Gaddafi regime, provided they’ve broken off with it and don’t have blood on their hands. Serving a regime because you’re afraid isn’t the same thing as being an accomplice to its crimes. If we want to isolate Gaddafi and speed up the transfer of support to the TNC, we must show openness.

Q. – Are you seeking to eliminate Gaddafi, as the bombardment of his palace seemed to show?

THE PRESIDENT – No. Democracies can’t act in that way. It was a command centre that was hit, not a man. The same question arose for Laurent Gbagbo, a dictator who wanted to plunge his country of 21 million inhabitants into civil war. Eliminating him would have been a crime; we didn’t want to do it, and we did everything to ensure his safety. I back President Ouattara, who wants to reconcile Ivorians and is taking former members of Gbagbo’s party into his team. The world is progressing. Thanks to the UN, its governance is more effective. Today bloody dictators know they won’t go unpunished. That’ll be the case in Yemen, where President Saleh will have to go.


Q. – What about Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

THE PRESIDENT – The regime’s behaviour is unacceptable. There’s no future in violence against the people, in firing real bullets at demonstrators. What’s happening in Syria is deeply shocking.

Q. – Do you regret reaching out to Syria at the beginning of your mandate, breaking with Jacques Chirac’s policy?

THE PRESIDENT – No, because you need only look at a map to see that Syria is a major player in the Middle East. France’s outstretched hand allowed an end to the attacks in Lebanon, the democratic election of a president, Michel Suleiman, the holding of a free general election, the formation of Saad Hariri’s government and the opening of the embassies of Syria in Beirut, and Lebanon in Damascus. We talked to Bashar al-Assad in complete transparency and obtained those results. But the minute he unleashes a bloody crackdown on his people, that outstretched hand pulls back. Therein lies the strength and consistency of our policy.

Q. – What more can be done?

THE PRESIDENT – We won’t agree to a regime sending in the army against peaceful demonstrators. Despite that, it’s not necessary to act the same way each time in the face of different political situations. We must be clear-sighted; military intervention will remain the exception; it can’t be the rule. On Syria, we’re going to press for the adoption of the toughest sanctions. That’ll be effective. In Yemen – where Saudi Arabia is being influential and doing good work – the end of the regime is on the cards. In Libya there was no other way, in the face of a regime that was announcing a massacre of its people. That’s what I told President Barack Obama, by way of explaining to him the reasons for an intervention that had become a matter of urgency.

Q. – Did you have to force his hand to make him agree?

THE PRESIDENT – You don’t force a friend and ally, even though France’s willingness to intervene differed from his, because the United States has other concerns apart from North Africa. She’s on the other side of the Atlantic, while we’re Mediterraneans.

Q. – Aren’t you disappointed with America’s dilly-dallying over Libya?

THE PRESIDENT – President Obama isn’t in an easy situation. He’s criticized both for his presence in Afghanistan and his “absence” from Libya. I regretted the departure of American planes from the skies over Libya; I’m delighted about the arrival of their drones. We need them [the Americans], even though they don’t always have the same priorities as us.


Q. – But we can’t act without the United States…

THE PRESIDENT – Well it’s what we did in Côte d’Ivoire. I believe in another thrust of French policy: it’s our responsibility to make the UN credible. The 21st-century world needs a UN system which works, which isn’t toothless. The tool necessary in a multipolar world is the UN. France gains influence by favouring the United Nations, by acting more collectively. The same goes for France’s return to NATO, which some have criticized me for because it was supposed to make us lose our sovereignty. It’s very satisfying to see it did no such thing: it’s France and Britain who are today leading NATO in Libya.

Q. – Is there an overall American disengagement across the planet?

THE PRESIDENT – I don’t think so, but the world has become multipolar. It can no longer and must no longer be dominated by a sole superpower. I love the United States, her culture, American dynamism. The French and Americans are more similar than they imagine, because they’re the only two peoples who have a universal idea of their message. China with her huge population, India with her diversity, Japan with the strength of her economy: none of those countries seeks to export its values or aspires to universality. France and the United States do.

Q. – The United States less than before…

THE PRESIDENT – There’s the burden of the Bush years, marked by unilateralism. And also the economic challenges are putting domestic problems at the forefront, in the face of that emerging giant, China. (…)


Q. – The world is changing in the Middle East too: what are the prospects for Palestine?

THE PRESIDENT – Firstly, it’s a mistake to make ending the settlements a precondition for talks between Israel and Palestine.

France is unequivocally opposed to the settlements, but it’s pointless to make ending them a precondition to any talks, because we know very well that, when the negotiations are concluded, certain territories could return to Israel and others to Palestine, in the framework of an agreed exchange. So the question of the borders between the two States is fundamental. Secondly, it’s the Israelis and Palestinians who will make peace, not the West. Thirdly, peace won’t be made unless the United States gets more involved. Fourthly, the Americans won’t succeed alone. The meeting in Washington in September was a mistake, because neither Dmitry Medvedev nor Angela Merkel nor David Cameron nor France were there. Fifthly, I’m going to talk to Benjamin Netanyahu this week; in my opinion he must say more clearly that the Palestinians have the right to their State, and act accordingly. France expects him to take the risk of peace.

Throughout my political life I’ve been a friend of Israel, but there’ll be no security for Israel without a viable, democratic, modern Palestinian State.

Q. – What are you going to do?

THE PRESIDENT – Europe must get involved politically, not just financially. We’re going to take an initiative before the summer, along with the Europeans, to relaunch the peace process with the Americans, because Europe can’t be the main donor to Palestine and remain a political dwarf on this issue. I want to express my support for President Mahmoud Abbas and my satisfaction at seeing him move to rally his people, because nothing will be possible without Palestinian reconciliation. France wants the peace process relaunched before the difficult meeting at the UN in September.

Q. – What’s your position on that meeting, where the Palestinians are going to ask the United Nations to recognize them as a State?

THE PRESIDENT – If the peace process resumes during the summer, France will say the protagonists must be left to talk without a shake-up of the timetable. By contrast, if the peace process is still deadlocked in September, France will shoulder her responsibility on the central issue of recognition of the Palestinian State. For 20 years we’ve known the parameters of peace and made hardly any progress. The idea that we’ve got time is a dangerous one. We must bring things to a conclusion. There are two good pieces of news: the Palestinian reconciliation around Mahmoud Abbas and the democratic movement in the Arab countries. Israel can’t make do with bringing economic development to the occupied territories. The duty of Israel’s friends is to tell her the truth. And the truth is that there’ll be no security for Israel without a democratic Palestinian State on her borders.


Q. – The events south of the Mediterranean are worrying Europe: how can we strengthen the EU?

THE PRESIDENT – The more time goes by, the more committed I feel to the European ideal; I’m more so than I was at the beginning of my political career and more so even than at the beginning of my mandate. I’ve learnt that you can’t do things alone, whatever France’s strength. The defence and long-term survival of our model of society demand a strengthening of Europe. The main danger for Europe is inertia. The priority is to incorporate the Balkans: let’s not leave a partly Muslim State alone in the heart of Europe. Beyond that, you know my position: enlargement to Turkey would be a historical and geographical absurdity. Geography makes history; demography speeds up history. Finally, we must continue the economic integration of the Euro Area. The debate between federalism and confederalism no longer has any meaning, because you must have both: federalism in the Euro Area, with the economic government we’ve established, and confederalism for those not in the Euro Area, because the more numerous we are in Europe the more flexibility we’ll need.

Q. – And what about Schengen?

THE PRESIDENT – I believe in Schengen, but the system has to evolve; today it has run out of steam. With the prospect of democracy in North Africa, we have to be ready to train students and welcome businessmen; but as for accepting everyone, as the French socialists are saying – no, the whole balance of our social system would be challenged. These [North African] countries need their elites in order to develop. Who manages Schengen in Brussels? No one.

Who assesses [the situation at] Schengen’s borders? No one. Who assesses best practice in Schengen? No one. Sangatte in 2002 was like Ventimiglia today: Kurds, Iraqis, Somalis who wanted to go to the UK. It took us five years to resolve the problem. Europe must help Italy do the same with the Tunisians. France, the most generous country when it comes to asylum, will make proposals at the June European Council. After the first elections in North Africa’s new democracies, there will have to be agreed immigration rules and shared economic development.

If a European country can’t guard its borders, the issue of Schengen’s provisional suspension must be raised, without any taboos. (…)


Q. – Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen and the FN [French National Front] are on the rise, as we’ve seen in the cantonal elections…

THE PRESIDENT – Let’s analyse the facts precisely: of the 1,900 cantons holding elections, only two were won by the FN. And even then, that group got no more votes than in the 2010 regional elections. In the first round, some of our fellow citizens may feel that you can vote for the FN to show your dissatisfaction, on the grounds that it doesn’t count. But it must be realized that never in the history of the world since 1945 have we had a crisis like the one we’ve been through, affecting every sector and every region. Let’s not be arrogant in the face of this, let’s not address fears by lecturing people – it’s unacceptable. When I see people appealing to Tariq Ramadan, a fundamentalist, to respond to Le Pen…! I wonder if some people see the discrepancy between what they’re saying and what French people actually experience.


Q. – Claude Guéant’s proposals on limiting legal immigration are arousing criticism, like that from Alain Minc: “This has undertones of protectionism, corporatism and Malthusianism, all bearing a hint of xenophobia”. Do you understand these criticisms?

THE PRESIDENT – Claude Guéant was right not to make it into an ideological issue: France’s working population is increasing by 110,000 people a year. In other words, before reducing unemployment by a single unit, we have to have already created 110,000 jobs! With the difficulties we have in providing jobs for all our nationals, and unemployment at 23% for non-EU nationals, we’ve got to ask ourselves about legal immigration: that’s common sense. (…) I’ve never been in favour of zero immigration, because civilizations collapse through consanguinity, not by being melting pots. But we have to adapt economic immigration to these realities and ensure that our vocational training addresses the needs of our economy.


Q. – Does France inevitably face a dose of austerity in the next few years?

THE PRESIDENT – I don’t like the word “austerity”. Why should we have to choose only between austerity and profligacy? How about simply having to follow the path of reason? France has created a million public-sector posts since the start of the 1990s: it’s senseless.

We’ve got rid of 150,000 of them since 2007, and we’ll have to pursue this policy because France’s public spending is too high. The issue, particularly in education, is no longer about the number of public employees, but how well paid and trained they are, and how their jobs have been redefined: this will make a fine debate for the next presidential election… I wasn’t elected for France to give handouts or a helping hand. I’m asking French people to look at what’s happening in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and even the United States. France has €1,590 billion in debts and pays €45 billion in interest a year. If we hadn’t carried out the pension reform and hadn’t required one in every two retiring civil servants not to be replaced, France would no longer have a “AAA” credit rating, which allows us to borrow at 3.6%; when Greece borrows, she does so at 16% with a 10-year deadline. Those who say they would go back on the pension reform are lying to French people. Those who say that public employees have to be recruited and our expenditure increased are lying to French people. This year we reduced our deficit by €14 billion more than planned: we must continue. It isn’t austerity, it’s common sense. And it’s time for France to show common sense after 35 years of a budget showing a deficit. (…)


Q. – Is it important for France to keep one of her own people at the head of the IMF over the next few years?

THE PRESIDENT – France proposed Dominique Strauss-Kahn because he’s a man of calibre, not just because he’s French. I always welcome seeing a French person heading an international institution. In the same way, I proposed Mario Draghi for the European Central Bank because he’s excellent, not just because he’s Italian – even though we feel so close to Italy. (…)./.

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