Syria/Lebanon – Israel/Palestinians – Libya – Iran/Gulf/Saudi Arabia – Lebanon/UNIFIL – Iraq – Palestinian Prime Minister – Egypt/Tunisia
Q. – For my first question, I’ll start with the broad headings of Syria and Lebanon. In an interview with the “New York Times” yesterday, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, says that if there’s no stability in Syria, no one can guarantee what will happen. If something happens to the Syrian regime, he asks the West not to put pressure on the regime, which has decided to fight. What do you think of these remarks? Do you think the Syrian regime is threatened? Does it still have any legitimacy?
THE MINISTER – France has a totally clear, consistent position on what’s going on in the Arab countries. We believe that the people’s aspiration to greater freedom and greater democracy must be taken into account, and that to use tanks in response to such aspirations is not acceptable, even for the sake of stability. For all too long, probably, we focused on that need for stability, which led us to close our eyes to the authoritarian if not tyrannical behaviour of certain regimes, and we saw what that led to in Tunisia and Egypt. We can say the same thing about Syria. Of course we’d like a stable Syria, but we think true stability comes not through repression but through reform.
Q. – But in your opinion, has the Syrian regime lost its legitimacy?
THE MINISTER – We’ve said repeatedly, about the events in the Middle East, that a regime whose tanks fire on its own people loses its legitimacy. That’s why we think that if the regime doesn’t change its attitude, it must have sanctions imposed on it. We and our partners acted to this effect in Brussels: we’ve just drawn up a list of Syrian officials on whom sanctions will be imposed. We’re also working with the British in particular, at the United Nations, on a resolution condemning the crackdown in Syria, just as we’ve condemned it in other countries.
Q. – You, France, actively sought to impose sanctions on President Assad. In your opinion, what happened? Why didn’t you succeed? Why couldn’t the Security Council agree on a resolution on Syria when there was agreement about Libya?
THE MINISTER – I think you need to distinguish things. The list of Syrian officials subject to sanctions from Brussels is limited, for now, to certain names that don’t include President Bashar, because several of our partners believe we should, shall I say, be more patient with him. That’s not France’s view, because we think he’s already responsible for a crackdown that has left several hundred dead. So we’re discussing it. The text adopted in Brussels leaves open the possibility of expanding the list. In New York, it’s completely different. In New York, we were confronted first of all with the threat of a Russian veto, and probably a Chinese one as well. In the name of a principle we’re quite familiar with, the two countries are allergic to any form of what they call “interference” – that is, being concerned about the internal affairs of this or that UN member State. This is a principle we were able to get around with regard to Libya, because in Libya the threat of a massacre in Benghazi was so great that no one wanted to risk opposing what we were proposing. And beyond the threat of a Russian and Chinese veto, we don’t know if we have the nine votes we need in the Council to impose sanctions on Syria. That is the situation we’re in, and despite all our efforts, it hasn’t changed for now.
Q. – Do you get the impression that the Syrian regime might rush into changing its position on Lebanon and threaten stability there? Are you afraid of that?
THE MINISTER – Look, I refuse to speculate. I don’t act out of fear or trepidation about the future. I stick to observations. And right now, I merely observe that if the Syrian regime doesn’t change its political line, if it perseveres in its analysis, which is that the movements it is facing are seditious and more or less egged on by the outside, rather than movements of popular aspiration, it’s wrong and heading for disaster. That’s what we’re telling it. We had hoped that a real reform process would get under way; we weren’t heeded. We continue to take this line, and I don’t want to go any further into what the regime might or might not do.
Q. – Do you regret the overture to Syria that President Sarkozy attempted from 2008 until a few months ago? He was after all very open. He received President Bashar al-Assad, he turned the page, and it didn’t succeed.
THE MINISTER – Look, the current situation doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been done. It had to be done. I believe President Sarkozy was right. What changed wasn’t President Sarkozy’s attitude, it was the attitude of the Syrian regime, which, I repeat, had its tanks fire on its own people. That’s what changed, and that’s why this obviously isn’t the time for dialogue.
Q. – Yes, but President Sarkozy said in his interview with “L’Express”: “The situations in Syria and Libya are different.”
THE MINISTER – Yes, of course.
Q. – What’s the difference?
THE MINISTER – I told you before. In Libya, we had armoured columns charging towards a city of a million people after Gaddafi announced a bloodbath and vengeance against all those who had rebelled against him. That was the first thing. What’s also different, I repeat, is the international context. In Libya, we had the support of Lebanon, for example, which helped us a lot in getting UNSCR 1973 passed. We didn’t have a Russian or Chinese veto. We had a nine-vote majority. None of these conditions are present in the case of Syria. That, too, makes a difference.
Q. – Are you on the same wavelength as the Americans when it comes to Syria? Do you get the impression the Americans are lagging behind you?
THE MINISTER – You know, I’m not going to talk about my impressions. It’s true that at the Security Council, the Americans believe there’s no chance of passing a resolution, so they’re not being active from that point of view.
Q. – How do you see events in Lebanon? Are you afraid of the consequences of the Syria situation for Lebanon?
THE MINISTER – Given the longstanding, close ties between Syria and Lebanon, it’s quite obvious that what’s happening in Syria can’t fail to have an effect on Lebanon. Our position towards Lebanon is longstanding, unwavering and known. We’re very attached to that country and share many historical, cultural, linguistic and political ties. We want it to be stable. We want it to have a broadly representative government as soon as possible and, of course, be able to ensure its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Q. – Are you going to travel to Lebanon?
THE MINISTER – It’s possible. I haven’t yet planned a trip, but it’s possible.
Q. – The thing is, President Sarkozy worked hard, before we had President Suleiman, to help get a president elected. Are you going to help form a government?
THE MINISTER – We’re helping with the formation of a government by staying in touch with our Lebanese friends. And I can’t tell you when I’ll be travelling there.
Q. – If the international tribunal’s indictment is issued and the newly formed government, in which Hezbollah plays an important role, refuses to enforce the arrest warrants, what will France do?
THE MINISTER – Listen, once again I don’t want to speculate about the future. What I can tell you is that it’s very important for France that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is able to do its job totally independently. And we therefore expect the future Lebanese government to respect the Tribunal’s independence and give it the means to operate. That’s our position. After that, we’ll see what happens in due course, depending on what the Tribunal says. We simply want to see its decision implemented.
Q. – You’ve seen Mr Siniora. Did he give you the impression that events in Lebanon are troubling or not?
THE MINISTER – I found him quite calm and very attentive, of course, to what’s going on in the region. In particular, we discussed the peace process, which is one of the key factors in stabilizing the entire region.
Q. – You’re going to Palestine and Israel soon. There’s a lot of talk about this conference on Palestine that you want to organize. Only we don’t really know who will be at the conference. Is it the E3 [Britain, France and Germany]? Will the Americans accept? President Sarkozy clearly wants a conference that’s political – in other words, a relaunch of the peace process at the conference.
THE MINISTER – We’re starting on the basis of a conviction, namely that – as we told both Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu – the status quo isn’t tenable for anyone, particularly Israel. The regional context has changed, Egypt has changed, Syria is in the process of changing, so we must absolutely take this context into account. We hope to do everything possible to ensure a negotiation process can begin again: not a process aimed at interim measures but a process that leads to fundamental decisions by virtue of well-known parameters, namely the 1967 borders with the possibility of mutually agreed exchanges, with Jerusalem as the capital of the two States and of course with guarantees of security and regional integration for the State of Israel. That’s what we’re hoping. That’s what we’re saying.
It seems to us that the inter-Palestinian reconciliation process that’s under way provides an opportunity to move in this direction. I had a chance to say so; it still hasn’t been very well understood in Israel, perhaps, even though President Sarkozy also discussed the issue with Mr Netanyahu. Rather than considering the agreement to be null and void, let’s try to see what potential it contains. Is Hamas in particular ready to evolve in the direction we’re calling for, namely to recognize the State of Israel, renounce terrorism and recognize the agreements already reached? Today that’s a question we must ask and explore, where we may have a chance of making progress. It’s what we’re trying to do, so as not to find ourselves at the United Nations General Assembly in September facing the question of whether or not to recognize the Palestinian State, without anything having happened in the meantime. We want things to happen in the meantime so that we can create as many opportunities as possible to relaunch dialogue.
That’s what we’re going to try and do. If that doesn’t work, we’ll act accordingly in September.
Q. – Yes, but if you act accordingly in September, the problem is that your partners who are against a declaration of the Palestinian State, like Germany for example…
THE MINISTER – In that case everyone will face up to their responsibilities. I hope we’ll reach a common European position; France will face up to her responsibilities, and it’s not September yet. It’s May right now, so this is what we’re trying to do in May.
Q. – There’s the conference in June…
THE MINISTER – There’s the conference in June, and we hope, as you said, that this donors’ conference can broaden its agenda to a real political one about the relaunch of a negotiation process, in the spirit I’ve just mentioned. And that’s what we’re trying to do. Now, are we going to succeed? We’ll see at the end of June.
Q. – One thing is noticeable about the peace process. France has for years been trying to play a very important role in the process. The Americans have never wanted you to play that role. What makes you think today that they’ll let you hold this conference?
THE MINISTER – Because they won’t manage to do so alone. It’s clear: it’s been demonstrated that peace won’t be achieved simply by the United States of America, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, because that process failed last year. So I think other players like France and the European Union can absolutely be of use in overcoming the deadlock.
Q. – But are the Israelis continuing to refuse?
THE MINISTER – It’s not the feeling I got from the meeting between Mr Netanyahu and President Sarkozy.
Q. – You felt he was ready to take part in this…
THE MINISTER – He thinks France and the European Union may have a role to play, yes.
Q. – Apart from the economic role?
THE MINISTER – Yes.
Q. – They do want a role…
THE MINISTER – Including on the political level, yes.
Q. – So you’re optimistic?
THE MINISTER – Optimistic is saying a lot. We’re being proactive, if not optimistic.
Q. – Why is everyone putting pressure on the Arab regimes today, when no pressure is ever put on Israel?
THE MINISTER – That’s entirely wrong. That’s entirely wrong.
Q. – Give me an example of sanctions against Israel. There have never been any sanctions.
THE MINISTER – No, we didn’t impose sanctions on the Arab countries because they didn’t return to the negotiating table. We’re imposing sanctions on Arab countries because they fire on their people; it’s completely different. We mustn’t mix everything up.
Q. – But the Israelis fire on the Palestinians.
THE MINISTER – We’re calling for implementation of the Security Council resolutions. France has been very clear on that. And we’re exerting pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table, with the parameters I’ve mentioned to you; that’s pressure.
Q. – And you think that’s enough? For 30 years it’s been the same…
THE MINISTER – I told you that I’m not optimistic, I’m proactive. I can’t tell you if that’s enough.
Q. – The NATO strikes on Libya don’t seem to be succeeding in protecting the population.
THE MINISTER – That’s not true. It’s not accurate. They’ve broadly protected the population; in particular, they prevented a bloodbath in Benghazi. We must always come back to that. If we hadn’t done it, we would have been faced with a situation perhaps analogous to that of Srebrenica or other massacres of that kind.
Q. – Do you have any information about other defections around Gaddafi? Do you have any information about what’s become of Gaddafi, what his position is? Where are we heading in all this?
THE MINISTER – We have a very clear strategy. We want to step up the military pressure, because in view of Gaddafi’s personality, that’s all he’ll understand: force. That’s what we’re trying to do, and from that perspective things have been stepped up in recent days, with strikes on military targets in Tripoli and also with the support provided to the Transitional National Council.
The latest news from Misrata shows that the TNC’s troops are in the process of making gains, so that’s the first aspect of our strategy: stepping up this military pressure. And then, on that basis, persuading the other parties involved that they must get round the table with the Transitional National Council – which is increasingly recognized as the essential interlocutor – but also the traditional authorities. For example, there was a conference of tribal chiefs, which took a position. Twenty-five cities have just pledged allegiance to the Transitional National Council. And then seeing who in Tripoli is ready to get involved in this process of national dialogue, believing that Gaddafi must now step aside.
That’s what we’re trying to do, and the two are linked: this military pressure and political dialogue. And President Sarkozy’s wish is for all this to move forward in the coming weeks; it’s not a matter of embarking on months and months of intervention in Libya, it’s a matter of weeks.
Q. – Do you think Gaddafi is finished?
THE MINISTER – Yes, I’m totally convinced of it. You can’t stay in power when you’ve killed thousands of your own people. Let me point out to you that the International Criminal Court is in the process of examining his case. It’s France’s assessment; it’s also that of the Arab League and many Arab countries supporting us in this intervention; it’s the unanimous assessment of the European Union – this need to see Gaddafi step down; it’s the assessment of the United States; in short, it’s a very widely shared assessment.
Q. – But how long can you carry on hitting without…
THE MINISTER – I’ve told you it’s a matter of weeks, not months.
Q. – The prime minister on the Gulf Cooperation Council yesterday condemned Iran’s interference in the whole region. What do you think about this interference?
THE MINISTER – France’s position on Iran is very clear and very firm. We think that the threat of seeing Iran obtain nuclear weapons is absolutely unacceptable, and that we must therefore take a stance of very strong intransigence on this point; it’s what we’ve done, moreover, with our partners in the group of six countries responsible for talks with Iran, during the latest meeting, held in Istanbul in January. I’ve just seen that Iran has just addressed the group again and said she’s ready to resume the talks. We’ll have to ensure it’s not another attempt to play for time to avoid discussing the real subject: the Iranian nuclear programme and respect for the Security Council resolutions and the IAEA. In the meantime, we’re very committed to the sanctions not only being effectively complied with but also stepped up, because they’re beginning to bring results.
Q. – On Iran’s role in the Gulf region…
THE MINISTER – She’s almost certainly supporting certain destabilizing movements.
Q. – For example?
THE MINISTER – I don’t wish to say any more.
Q. – Do you think they’re involved in destabilizing Bahrain, Lebanon, etc.?
THE MINISTER – That is what’s understood.
Q. – What are your relations with Saudi Arabia like at the moment? Are you going there?
THE MINISTER – Our relations are good. My schedule hasn’t yet been decided. I’m going to Haiti, next week I’m going to Yamoussoukro and I’m planning a visit to the Middle East, which still hasn’t been finalized. I will of course be going to these countries. I’ve been Foreign Minister for two and a half months. Our prospects for cooperation with Saudi Arabia are very positive.
Q. – About UNIFIL: some of the military are asking what the point is of UNIFIL staying in Lebanon. Do you think UNIFIL has to stay? The Italians say their mandate must be… it appears you talked to Mr Frattini about this.
THE MINISTER – Yes, my view today is that we’ve got to think carefully about what UNIFIL is doing. This peacekeeping operation was established in 1978 and its original mandate expanded in 2006.
We need clearly to redefine things, the way UNIFIL coordinates its efforts with the Lebanese armed forces and its exact role. We think its presence remains a stabilizing factor for the region and for Lebanon.
Q. – What does “redefine” mean?
THE MINISTER – Clarify the roles in the coming weeks, working in liaison with our partners.
Q. – Iraq today is finding things very difficult. The situation seems to be deadlocked as in Lebanon, the government isn’t succeeding in governing, corruption is at its worst, etc. How do you see things in Iraq? What’s your analysis of that country?
THE MINISTER – In Iraq, there’s a government which has embarked on a difficult process: it’s true that difficulties remain on every front, including security. I think we’ve got to help this government make progress.
Q. – How?
THE MINISTER – By supporting it politically.
Q. – Have you got a particular support strategy?
THE MINISTER – A legal, legitimate government was elected and it’s up to that government to tackle the remaining problems in Iraqi society.
PALESTINIAN PRIME MINISTER
Q. – Do you think that keeping Salam Fayyad on as Palestinian Prime Minister would be a guarantee for the international community? From what I understand, Mahmoud Abbas wants to keep him on.
THE MINISTER – There’s a fairly broad consensus in the international community in saying that Salam Fayyad has done a good job as head of the current Palestinian government, particularly when it comes to using international aid effectively. It seems to me that the future Palestinian government due to emerge from the agreements recently concluded between Hamas and Fatah must go on working in that direction. It will be up to the Palestinian Authority to decide, but we’re totally in favour of what Mr Fayyad has done.
Q. – The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia seem to be facing violence. Do you think these revolutions for democracy are irreversible, or do you fear a return to military dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia?
THE MINISTER – Post-revolution democratic transition processes are always complicated…
Q. – There are still the Copts in Egypt…
THE MINISTER – Yes, I know there are difficulties, but these processes are well under way in Tunisia; yesterday I saw my Tunisian counterpart, who confirmed to me that the constituent assembly election should be taking place at the end of July as scheduled; an election process has also been mapped out in Egypt, so all this is complicated. What we can do is prevent the economic difficulties from compromising the democratic transition. This is the goal President Sarkozy set at the G8 by inviting those countries, so that the major powers can draw up action plans to help them make this transition a success./.