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Euro Area/Greek debt crisis – Arab Spring – Libya – Syria – Saudi Arabia/Bahrain – Afghanistan – IMF/Lagarde/Strauss-Kahn – Sarkozy/presidential election

Published on June 27, 2011
Interview given by Alain Juppé, Ministre d’Etat, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, to the BBC¹

Paris, June 23, 2011

Q. – Today’s special edition of “HARDtalk” comes from the grandeur of the French foreign ministry in Paris. My guest, in an exclusive interview, is France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé. Now, in recent months the French have been playing a central role in the international military intervention against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. The French want to project Europe’s power on the global stage. But just how realistic is that, when the European Union is mired in debt, politically divided, and facing an existential crisis?

Alain Juppé, welcome to “HARDtalk”.

THE MINISTER – Thank you.


Q. – How difficult is it being French foreign minister, trying to project French and European power in the world, when the European Union itself faces a massive economic and political crisis?

THE MINISTER – You’re right: the situation in Europe is difficult at the moment, especially the economic and the financial situation. The impact of the crisis has been very strong on some European economies, and some mistakes have been made by some of our partners in the EU, and they have to pay back now for that. But there is a very strong determination among the member states to save what we have done for 50 years all together. And that’s why the relevant decision will be taken to strengthen the Eurozone and to strengthen the European Union generally speaking.

Q. – But do you think it’s as serious as that, that what has been achieved – as you put it – over 50 years is really at stake now?

THE MINISTER – No I don’t think so, because we have no choice. If the Eurozone disappeared, the EU, by itself, would be in danger, and we cannot afford such a situation because there is no future for our countries in a globalized world if the EU doesn’t go forward.

Q. – But do you accept – and let’s be specific – do you accept that Greece will ultimately default on its debts?

THE MINISTER – No. No, there will not be any default by Greece and we’ll take the good decision to avoid that. The last Council of Ministers was very clear on this point.

Q. – Well, the ministers are, but they are politicians. If you look at the bond markets, if you look at the ratings agencies, frankly the message is that sooner or later, however many emergency measures and patches EU leaders put upon the problem, Greece will ultimately have to default.

THE MINISTER – I don’t think so. And the message of the EU is very clear: we will not allow such an outcome in the Greek crisis. And I think we have the means to avoid that.

Q. – Jack Straw – whom I’m sure you know and who was British foreign secretary for years under Tony Blair – he said just the other day, he said the euro in its current form is going to collapse and it’s better that this happens quickly rather than see a slow death.

THE MINISTER – It has been announced for a long time by many people and the euro is still there. And I…

Q. – A deeply unhealthy euro right now!

THE MINISTER – No, I don’t think so…

Q. – You don’t think the Eurozone is in a deeply unhealthy state?

THE MINISTER – No, no, the Eurozone has some difficulties to face and we are facing them, and I don’t think there is a threat of collapse of the Eurozone. I know that many speculators are wishing that. But we will not allow that, because for us it’s absolutely crucial for the future of our countries.

Q. – Let me ask you about the politics of this. Isn’t the truth that it’s Germany that really is driving and dictating events now when it comes to…

THE MINISTER – No, not at all. Not at all. I think it’s exactly the contrary: you could say that the French president has a capacity for initiative that is able to meet German concerns.

Q. – Do you think we will end this crisis with, at the very least, a two-tier Eurozone in which there will a be much greater level of integration amongst a core group of countries – maybe you could call it the euro-mark group – and then there’ll be a periphery which is not able to meet the same convergence and the same financial, fiscal disciplines?

THE MINISTER – Not in the Eurozone. Of course. It’s impossible to have two Eurozones with a single currency. But you are right on… if you see the things in another perspective. I think that the future of the Eurozone is a kind of – and I dare use the word – federalism. You can’t have a single currency without a budget, financial, a fiscal integrated policy. So I think the good answer to the crisis is not the collapse of Europe but, on the contrary, more integration among us. And I think that we will surprise you. I know that there is a lot of scepticism about Europe; it’s not new; it’s been the case since the creation of the EU.

We have no choice. Imagine just a minute what will happen in Greece if the drachma replaces the Euro. The Greek debt will remain, return in euros and so will be multiplied by two or three times if the new drachma collapses on the market. So, it’s impossible to envisage such an outcome, and that’s why we’ll find a way to help Greece to overcome the present crisis.

Q. – When you hear the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, go before MPs and say that Britain will not give one more penny to any bailout of Greece, or any other troubled Eurozone economy, do you think he gets it?

THE MINISTER – I think that even for countries which do not belong to the Eurozone, there is a question of solidarity: to which economic zone, to which countries goes the most path [sic] of British exports? I am sure it is to the EU. So it’s not in the interest of Great Britain to see the Eurozone, and the EU in general, collapsing. And so that’s why I think we will find, especially for the financial perspective of the EU, a common basis and agreements among us.

Q. – You think Britain is being short-sighted?

THE MINISTER – I have not said that. I don’t want to criticize any friend. Of course it’s not my job to be prime minister. I leave that to your observers and journalists.


Q. – Let’s now turn our attention to the wider horizon that you as French foreign minister have to look at all of the time. The Arab Spring: it seems to me it has forced policy-makers here in Paris to have a fundamental rethink of the way you make foreign policy. Is that true?

THE MINISTER – Absolutely. Everybody was surprised by the Arab Spring. Nobody anticipated what happened in Tunisia, then in Egypt and other countries. Why? Because for a long period of time our priority was the stability of those countries. And this target of stability led us to accept some very tyrannical regimes, and violation of democracy and human rights. And we accepted that, because we thought that it was a kind of barrier against extremism, against fundamentalism.

Q. – It was the knowing abandonment of principle?

THE MINISTER – Yes, that’s right. By what we usually call Realpolitik. We thought at the time that the advantages of such a foreign policy were higher than the thoughts according to our principles.

Q. – And France, if I may say so, did take it to an extreme level, this Realpolitik. I mean, even if one thinks about your immediate predecessor offering help to Ben Ali putting down demonstrations…

THE MINISTER – Not… not more than others. I’m not sure that Great Britain or the United States anticipated more clearly what happened in Arab countries. And France. Egypt. Mubarak was in Washington a few weeks before what happened in Cairo. Nobody anticipated it, I repeat.
And now we have to change the course of our policy; you are perfectly correct. We have to give the priority to our principles, to democracy, to freedom, to reforms, to the change of governance in those countries. And that’s what we’re doing with Tunisia, with Egypt, with Syria, with different achievements of course.


Q. – Well, we’ll talk about some of those countries, but let’s focus on Libya for a moment. It’s fair to say the French, and President Sarkozy in particular, were in the vanguard of the decision-making on Libya: to push for the UN resolution, to begin the military intervention, recognition of the Transitional Council. All very enthusiastically pursued here in Paris. But it’s not going the way you anticipated, is it?

THE MINISTER – Do you know the way we anticipated? We started…
Q. – Well, on 12 May you said, you said yourself, to the Al-Hayat newspaper: “This military intervention”, you said, “is a matter of weeks, not months”.

THE MINISTER – It was three months ago. It started three months ago. I think that our… and I think it will not last many months more.

Q. – How long will it last?

THE MINISTER – I don’t want to give a figure. Of course.

Q. – You did then, and obviously you…

THE MINISTER – It’s a question of months, maybe not of weeks. I agree with that; not of years, of course. And I just want to remind you why we intervened in Libya three months ago. Gaddafi announced an intervention against the population of Benghazi and he said that he would kill all his opponents, people demonstrating for liberty and democracy. And his troops were going to Benghazi; we knew that.
And if the international community had been completely inefficient it would have been a massacre in Benghazi. So I think that UNSCR 1973 was correct and that our intervention is a good one, and today, exactly in compliance with the resolution of the Security Council, we are protecting the civilian population against the use of massive weapons of… heavy weapons by Gaddafi.

Q. – The problem is some of your partners in this enterprise no longer agree with you. I mean, I’m thinking, for a start, of the Arab League; that was trumpeted as very important, that the Arabs were supporting both the UN resolution and the military intervention. Amr Moussa yesterday said that he wants to see an immediate ceasefire with Gaddafi still in place, and then he said negotiations about Libya’s political future, presumably with the Gaddafi regime?

THE MINISTER – One week ago we had a meeting in Abu Dhabi with the Contact Group; the Arab League is a member of the Contact Group, and we all agree that we must maintain our military pressure. So everybody is looking for the political outcome to the situation, of course; we don’t want to maintain this military intervention too long. We think that at the moment it’s necessary to press the regime to convince Gaddafi that he must step down, but there will be an end to the military intervention, and then we are having discussions with many people to find the political outcome.

Q. – But Minister, here is the thing: the Americans at least talk about a stalemate on the ground, at least. Is it your message today that still the military action will not, cannot end, as far as you’re concerned, until Gaddafi is gone?

THE MINISTER – The military action is making progress. The situation is better in Misrata; the situation is better in Djebel Nefoussa; Tripoli is more and more surrounded by the troupes of the NTC. So we will continue this military intervention till we reach our objective, our target, and our target is a real ceasefire. We are in favour of a ceasefire, but not a ceasefire freezing the situation of the troops on the ground.

Q. – But with respect, your objective – and you’ve mentioned it to me already – is that Gaddafi must go?

THE MINISTER – Yes, of course.

Q. – So your message today…

THE MINISTER – Everybody shares this view: the Americans say that, the EU unanimously says that, the Contact Group says that and many African leaders, like for example the President of Senegal, said exactly the same thing.

Q. – Are you disappointed that the Americans have not given you more military support in this? For example, they have the A-10 well-known tank busters, which they are not deploying.

THE MINISTER – We can understand that they have many troops in Afghanistan.

Q. – People are stretched, aren’t they? France is stretched, the UK is stretched…


Q. – The UK military chiefs say that frankly, if that goes on for another 90 days, it’s going to affect their global military operations.

THE MINISTER – Some military people declare and express those statements, but we don’t share this view. We have perfect means to keep our intervention, to maintain our intervention in Libya as long as necessary. I repeat that it’s a question of weeks, or one or two months and no more. The same people who are criticizing our intervention in Libya ask them, ask us, why don’t you intervene in Syria? So please, the answer is very clear. Firstly, the situation is completely different: we have no intention of intervening in Syria, and secondly…


Q. – Excuse me, but if you live in Jisr al-Shugour and you have seen your family killed and you have had to flee across the border into Turkey and you know that well over 1,000 Syrian civilians, unarmed civilians who had the temerity to go and protest on the street have been killed, is it so very different?

THE MINISTER – It’s different to what would have had happened in Benghazi. I don’t want to give figures of casualties of course, but there is…

Q. – Aren’t you the same foreign minister who said that once a government turns its cannons on its own people, that government no longer has legitimacy?

THE MINISTER – We have condemned this situation, but there is another difference, and I want to underline this difference. In Libya we have acted in the framework of the UN Security Council resolution, and we get a majority without a veto in the Security Council. The question is – and you should ask this question to relevant people – why there is no agreement in the Security Council today to condemn Syria. The answer is very clear: Russia and China are opposing such a resolution.

Q. – You said recently that Assad had reached the point of no return.
“The process of reform in Syria is dead,” you said; “Bashar al-Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule the country.” So what does that mean in practice, point of no return? What does that mean in terms of your view of what must happen now in your relations with Syria?

THE MINISTER – We have no double standards policy, but it’s up to Assad to prove, to show now he’s able to implement a real programme of reform. Personally I don’t think so, and that’s why I spoke about the point of no return.

Q. – So why doesn’t France take the lead, as you did in Libya, and, say – maybe provide a lead to Barack Obama and others – and say: “As far as we are concerned, Bashar al-Assad must go; he’s no longer the legitimate leader of Syria?”

THE MINISTER – For the same reason as in Libya, and it’s very clear we don’t accept leaders in countries who repress the demonstration of the population by violence and by using heavy weapons, tanks and bombs and planes against the civil population. We have exactly the same line on the two points and that’s why I said that about Bashar al-Assad. That’s why France got resolution – a list of sanctions in the European Union including the name of Bashar al-Assad.

Q. – Interesting that you said at the beginning of this conversation, about the Arab Spring, that there’s been a fundamental shift, and now it’s no more Realpolitik and pragmatism: the basis of our policy has to be principle, fundamental humanitarian principle. How…

THE MINISTER – Not humanitarian. Democratic principle. Humanitarian: of course we have to help a population in humanitarian difficulties. But the principle that’s democracy, the respect of the aspiration of people to freedom, equality between genders, between women and men – it’s not a matter of discussion for us.


Q. – Well, how does that square with you on 12 May saying, and I quote: “Our relations with Saudi Arabia are good on all levels”?

THE MINISTER – I am not aware that at the moment the Saudi government is using bombs, tanks and planes against its population.

Q. – Well, I’m sure you know better than I do that first of all, when you mentioned the equality of men and women, the Saudis have again been arresting women who have tried to demonstrate for freedom and their freedom to drive a car. You must know that, I’m sure. You also know that Saudi tanks are currently in Bahrain, involved in the repression of the protest movement there?

THE MINISTER – We have called the Bahrain authorities to implement, to carry out a programme of reforms, exactly as we have said to other governments in other countries.

Q. – Saudi tanks are in Bahrain and yet you say relations with Saudi are good on all levels. I just find that surprising, given that you say no more Realpolitik.

THE MINISTER – I repeat that we called the Bahrain authorities to implement a programme of reform and to hold dialogue with their people.

Q. – Did you tell the Saudis to take their tanks home?

THE MINISTER – We said to Saudi Arabia that they also have to reflect, to reform their own society, according to their own identity.


Q. – Let me ask you about Afghanistan. There’s been a degree of anger in Washington about the European contribution. I just want you to tell me what France is going to do with its admittedly limited troop contribution – 4,000 or so. Are they coming out soon?

THE MINISTER – I think that the French president will announce that after the announcement of President Obama; I think we’ll adopt the same attitude as the Americans and the…

Q. – With respect, you’ve only got 4,000, not 115,000…

THE MINISTER – In the same proportion and according to the same calendar and the same rhythm of course.


Q. – A couple of quick-fire questions before we end. The first one concerns Christine Lagarde.

THE MINISTER – Yes, she’s a very clever woman. Very competent.
Q. – Yes, well, she’s competent and confident it seems of getting the top job.

THE MINISTER – She has good reasons to be confident.

Q. – How important is it, do you believe, that France, Europe still holds the top job at the IMF?

THE MINISTER – Because today Europe is the zone in which the IMF intervenes the most. It’s…

Q. – Because of economic mismanagement.

THE MINISTER – Because… We started with that.

Q. – We started with that, and you said that there has been mismanagement. What, what…

THE MINISTER – It’s a reality. It’s a reality. It’s not to… to start again our conversation at this point. So the role of the IMF in Europe is very important today; it’s no longer Argentina or Mexico or South-East Asia, it’s Europe. And I think it’s relevant to have a managing director coming from Europe.

Q. – But, of course there are many nations, not least China, and a whole bunch of powerful, emerging, frankly already emerged economies, who think this is completely wrong. It doesn’t make sense any more. France has had four IMF chiefs since the inception of the IMF.

THE MINISTER – I think it’s not… it’s not wrong today. We must change that progressively.

Q. – I just wonder how damaging you think the demise of DSK [Dominique Strauss-Kahn] has been, partly for the reputation and image of France around the world?

THE MINISTER – I don’t think that the DSK case engaged [sic] the French reputation.

Q. – But if you read – and I know you do – if you read the French press and some of the agonizing there has been since DSK’s initial arrest, there’s been discussion of whether there is in this country a culture of, sort of, machismo or misogyny amongst the powerful French men, if I can put it that way?

THE MINISTER – I am ready to discuss different cultures in Great Britain, in America, in Europe, in France, but it’s a very difficult issue. And we have… we need more time to discuss that.

Q. – And we don’t have much. But do you think there are any lessons to learn from it?

THE MINISTER – Yes, of course. So every country has its own scandal, it has to reflect and to reform. Moral reform, it’s always on the agenda of course.


Q. – And a final, and this is a personal, a final personal question. You are one of France’s most experienced politicians, you’ve been a prime minister before, you’ve been a second time as foreign minister, you’ve been briefly defence minister, you’ve served all sorts of different positions, and you are still popular on the right of French politics. You know that Nicolas Sarkozy, right now, is not popular in this nation. His approval ratings are around 30% or so – very, very low. If there came a point when it was felt on the right that Sarkozy couldn’t win the next presidential election, would you be interested in running for president?

THE MINISTER – My answer will not be good for you, I am sure: that I think Sarkozy is a good candidate, is able to win, and I will support him. You know there are still 10 months before the election. It’s normal to be unpopular when you implement a very difficult policy: for example, reforming the retirement system. It was absolutely necessary. And so it’s not popular. That’s why Nicolas Sarkozy is not popular: because he implemented a very courageous policy.

Q. – Is that you finally, and completely, ruling yourself out of a run for the presidency?

THE MINISTER – If Sarkozy is not in a situation to be candidate, for reasons we can’t imagine today, maybe there will be an opportunity. One out of 10, 20 chances, maybe.

Q. – With that calculation we have to end. Alain Juppé, thank you very much for being on “HARDtalk”.

THE MINISTER – Thank you so much. Thank you./.

(1) M. Juppé spoke in English.

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