Libya/military situation/post-conflict scenario – Afghanistan/troop withdrawal/talks with Taliban – Pakistan/Bin Laden – Syria/UN/Assad/Hezbollah - Middle East/peace efforts/Gilad Shalit - Euro Area/Greek debt crisis
Paris, June 26, 2011
LIBYA/MILITARY SITUATION/POST-CONFLICT SCENARIO
Q. – If we may, we’ll start with Libya.
France, alongside the United Kingdom and in the NATO framework, is engaged with other nations in military action against the Libyan regime. If we had to take stock right now, what could you say about this military action? The impression is that it’s not, perhaps, bringing all the results anticipated and that the resistance from Colonel Gaddafi is greater than you imagined. (…)
What points are we scoring?
THE MINISTER – The stranglehold around Misrata has been broken. The pressure is increasing on Tripoli. In the western region, in the Nafusa Mountains, the forces of the National Transitional Council – i.e. the opposition forces – are scoring points. We’re advancing, and we’re going to continue exerting this pressure, in strict compliance with the United Nations resolution.
At the same time, we can see things are falling apart in Tripoli: the number of defections is increasing and ever more messages are coming out of Gaddafi’s entourage. In fact, today it’s no longer a question of whether he’ll leave but how he’ll leave. (…)
Q. – What do you mean when you say “how he’ll leave”?
THE MINISTER – He must announce that he’s standing down. Then there can be a ceasefire under the conditions set by the United Nations – i.e. with a withdrawal of his troops to barracks and international monitoring. At that point the national dialogue can begin, involving a National Transitional Council opened up to include other partners.
That’s the blueprint we’re all working on: the international community, the coalition, the African Union, the European Union and others too. (…)
Q. – One gets the impression that a sort of tug-of-war is under way between the departure of Gaddafi, which the G8 and the Russians want, and the Europeans’ military engagement, under the auspices of NATO. We can see certain countries are about to disengage. Isn’t there a danger of France and the UK bombarding Tripoli and the surrounding area alone and Colonel Gaddafi, in the end, waiting for it all to be over?
THE MINISTER – We have the means to continue this operation. There’s no dissent within the coalition right now about the need to maintain and even step up the military pressure. As you know, for a few weeks we’ve been using French and British helicopters, which enable us to target the strikes much better. So the military pressure isn’t easing. (…)
Q. – You recalled that the G8 in Deauville insisted Colonel Gaddafi must go, and I think the idea was also floated that President Sarkozy and you would go to Benghazi. Is that visit still on the cards?
THE MINISTER – President Sarkozy will definitely go to Benghazi when the conditions exist. As you know, we have a high-level representative in Benghazi, who can be described as an ambassador, even though the National Transitional Council isn’t yet, strictly speaking, a government. We’re very well aware of France’s image in Benghazi and the whole section of Libya that’s been, to use the word, liberated. (…)
Q. – You say – and it’s true – that the French commitment is strong. It’s remarkable, but when you look at the figures, the French military budget in 1989 was 3.3% of GDP. In 2010 it was 1.7%.
Can we go down any further, or will there be a moment when we’ll have to say we must be reasonable, we can’t reduce the defence budget indefinitely if we want to maintain the possibility of foreign intervention and projection?
THE MINISTER – You know, a few years ago we engaged in an exercise, the White Paper, to define France’s strategic objectives. What must our defence’s mission be? (…)
We have the means to achieve our ambitions, even though the Defence Ministry’s budget must, of course, display the same efficiency as all our budgets.
Q. – Doesn’t the fact that this military operation in Libya is lasting longer than you yourself were able to say at the outset raise several questions? (…)
THE MINISTER – On this point, M. Longuet has answered clearly: today we have the means to do what we undertook to do. Let me also remind you that we’re in the process of redeploying our forces. At the height of what happened in Côte d’Ivoire, we had more than 15,000 men in the Licorne force; that’ll fall to a few hundred at the end of this year. (…)
Q. – Do you fear getting bogged down in Libya? Are you preparing for a long-drawn-out intervention?
THE MINISTER – We want the political solution to emerge as soon as possible.
Q. – Is it on course?
THE MINISTER – Yes, I’ve told you: the National Transitional Council is gaining strength; its international legitimacy is being recognized by an ever greater number of countries; it’s organizing itself more. We’re going to provide it with the necessary funding. From that viewpoint, things are moving forward. (…)
Q. – Once again, you highlight the National Transitional Council. There are said to have been negotiations, contacts, between the NTC’s representatives and Colonel Gaddafi and those close to him.
Can you confirm to us these negotiations, which would perhaps create the beginnings of a political-diplomatic solution in the country?
THE MINISTER – When I told you progress was being made on the political solution, this is an additional demonstration of it. We can be very hopeful about this national reconciliation process. Those contacts are taking place; I don’t know the details of them, of course. I know they concern, for example, what fate is in store for Gaddafi himself, which is one of the central issues today, before we reach the point where we can move from the military to the political phase. We’ll then have to begin a reconstruction phase in Libya, which will be the responsibility of the Libyans themselves. But we’ll probably – indeed certainly – have to support them.
Q. – Support them, for example, by delegating a UN buffer force?
THE MINISTER – By monitoring the ceasefire; that will doubtless be the role of the UN or the African Union.
Q. – There seems to be particular concern about “the day after”, among the British, for example, but also in France.
It appears your ministry has set up a unit to prevent Libya experiencing the fate Iraq underwent – i.e. a form of civil war?
THE MINISTER – It’s not a concern, it’s a preparation. We’re preparing ourselves for “the day after”. (…)
Q. – Is there a risk of the situation in Libya spiralling out of control as it did in Iraq, after the allies’ departure?
THE MINISTER – If I told you there’s absolutely no risk, that would be unrealistic of me. I think the risk is slight and we’re dealing with responsible people. The National Transitional Council is organizing itself, it’s ready to open up to others, and you yourself have just given an indication of that, concerning the discussions they’re having with senior officials in Tripoli. I think that if we support them, Libya will be able to rebuild herself.
AFGHANISTAN/TROOP WITHDRAWAL/TALKS WITH TALIBAN
Q. – Let’s talk about Afghanistan, if we may.
The Americans announced they’re going to begin the withdrawal, and we immediately said we were going to do the same thing on our side. The socialist opposition is already accusing us of being “copycats”.
THE MINISTER – If it weren’t so serious a matter it would make me smile, because the very same people who were telling us only yesterday that we must leave tell us, the day we announce an initial withdrawal, that we’re doing it because we’re copycats. It’s not serious; it simply proves they probably haven’t got much else to say. Let me remind you that we decided on NATO’s strategy in Lisbon last December. We decided on a transition process – in other words, a gradual withdrawal of the NATO coalition forces in favour, as it were, of the Afghan forces by 2014.
The Americans stepped up their presence last year; they’re now reducing it, and we ourselves are entering into this reduction process. We have a region where we’ve been intervening for several years, namely Surobi. Today we think the region’s been made safe and we can pass on the responsibility to the Afghan army.
It’s this process that is currently under way. We’re not alone in deciding: a decision will have to be taken by the Afghan government itself. We want to do it this year, in 2011. (…)
Q. – What are the reasons for our leaving Afghanistan? (…)
THE MINISTER – I repeat, this withdrawal process was programmed, so we’re taking exactly the approach we announced. I said so myself when I was defence minister – we wanted to withdraw from Surobi in 2011 – so it’s not an entirely new element. The fact that we announced it at the same time as the Americans simply demonstrates that the coalition works consistently and not in a disorderly fashion. (…)
Q. – Might this announcement of a general withdrawal of Western troops facilitate the release of the hostages held in Afghanistan?
THE MINISTER – I want to be very cautious on this issue, which is a daily concern for us. I don’t know if it’s a facilitating or aggravating factor. What I do know is that we’re working every day to secure that release.
Q. – I’d like to come back to the preliminary contacts with the “moderate” Taliban who condemn terrorism. President Hamid Karzai talks about negotiating with those same Taliban.
In your opinion, is negotiating with “moderate” Taliban an admission of the Western armed forces’ failure in Afghanistan?
THE MINISTER – Absolutely not: I’d even say it’s proof of success. We intervened militarily so that the Afghan government could regain control and be in a position to negotiate and restore national harmony to Afghanistan. Let me add that – to come back to what you were saying: why this moment? – we must also take into account a factor which may not be decisive, I’ll gladly admit it, but which creates a new context: the elimination of Bin Laden.
Q. – According to “The New York Times” on Friday, telephone taps prove that the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, helped Bin Laden hide and survive .
Isn’t it an extremely difficult problem for the allies, but also for the Americans, having a Pakistan that helps Bin Laden and has also pledged to ensure terrorism doesn’t thrive?
THE MINISTER – I try to lead French diplomacy, under President Sarkozy’s authority, without necessarily relying on press reports which themselves derive from telephone taps.
I try to get sources of information that are a little more certain. I acknowledge that the question of Pakistan arises; you’re completely right to raise it. I myself had the opportunity, just after Bin Laden’s death, to ask the Pakistani Prime Minister how he explained the fact that Bin Laden was able to live in a Pakistani city for so long without attracting anyone’s attention.
Today we know very well what this Pakistani problem entails. The goal is to bring Pakistan with us and avoid fuelling dissent or impugning people’s motives. It’s what the Americans hope to do; it’s what we also hope to do. (…)
Q. – What do we do about Syria, because President Bashar al-Assad is continuing to crack down extremely violently on those who challenge his authority?
Are we powerless? (…)
THE MINISTER – We’re trying to get a minimum of 11 votes at the Security Council to achieve a swing and secure a declaration condemning the intervention and urging Bashar al-Assad to resume a process of reforms. That’s where we are, and I regret the fact that the crackdown is continuing, in a way that calls the security of the region into question. There are more than 10,000 refugees in Turkey; the consequences for Lebanon and Israel may be extremely dangerous and worrying.
Q. – Is the likely prospect that no UN resolution is possible for the time being?
THE MINISTER – I won’t be as pessimistic as you; we’re continuing to work. People always say France isn’t intervening, but there’s an international context.
On Libya there was consensus among the Arab countries, and UNSCR 1973 was carried by Lebanon. Today this consensus doesn’t exist among the Arab countries.
Q. – Last Monday you said: “Some consider that there’s still time for him to make good and engage a genuine reform process, but for my part I doubt that; I believe the point of no return has been reached.”
Does that mean that, in the end, President Assad must go?
THE MINISTER – I’d very much like to say I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. I don’t believe in the Syrian President’s ability to reverse the trend. Things have gone too far; the crackdown has been too brutal and savage. I think there’s a real aspiration among the Syrian people to change things. If Bashar al-Assad demonstrates to us in the coming weeks that he’s capable of carrying out profound reforms, then I would have been wrong, but I repeat: I doubt it.
Q. – A small group is currently taking visible advantage of the situation and gambling on the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime – namely, Hezbollah. The UN has confirmed that Hezbollah is in the process of moving its weaponry from Syria to Lebanon.
Are you considering this situation, and does it worry you in terms of the future of peace in the region?
THE MINISTER – I’ve told you the situation in Syria today is a threat to peace and stability in the region, in terms of both the refugee issue and the issue you mention. That’s why we’re trying to tell our Russian friends this resolution is necessary, because it’s not simply the domestic situation in Syria that’s at stake, it’s also stability and peace in the region.
MIDDLE EAST/PEACE EFFORTS/GILAD SHALIT
Q. – In the region there are also the Israelis and the Palestinians, who still aren’t managing to move forward on the issue of peace.
You proposed a conference in Paris at the end of July, and nobody’s talking about it any more.
Is this a plan by French diplomacy to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together in Paris to try and make progress?
THE MINISTER – It won’t have escaped you that the European Council’s conclusions on Friday said the 27 heads of state and government wanted a conference, which could be held in Paris, to start negotiations between the two sides. (…)
Secondly, there’s a meeting already set for September, at the United Nations General Assembly, for the vote on a resolution to recognize the Palestinian state. If things happen like that, suddenly, I don’t think anyone will benefit: neither the Israelis, who’ll be a little more isolated, nor the Palestinians, because I’m not sure the daily lives of Palestinians will change in the Palestinian territories the day after the vote on the resolution; neither the Americans nor the Europeans, who’ll be divided. Hence France’s idea, which is to encourage a resumption of the negotiations. On that everyone agrees.
Q. – Which is more discordant, the Israeli side or the Palestinian side?
THE MINISTER – The Palestinians have agreed to the French proposal, which consists in saying: “Get around the table, provided you agree to this or that parameter for negotiation.” We defined those parameters on the basis of, among other things, the speech by President Obama, who, as you know – for the first time on the lips of an American president – made a reference to the 1967 border as a starting-point for discussion. We started on that basis.
Mr Netanyahu told me: “We shall see.” (…)
Q. – Mr Netanyahu rather closed the door in Washington…
THE MINISTER – That was before. It’s still too early to say there were also openings in Mr Netanyahu’s speech. (…)
Q. – So if there’s no movement, we’ll go to the UN General Assembly with a resolution, passed or not, to recognize the Palestinian state. On this, you’re still saying: “France will shoulder her responsibilities.” What does that mean?
THE MINISTER – I’m going to disappoint you and give you the same reply. France will shoulder her responsibilities: that means when the time comes, and the time hasn’t come. First of all we’d have to accept in advance the idea that the Paris conference has failed, which hasn’t currently been confirmed – far from it.
If it succeeds, there will no longer be any point in the resolution, because the negotiations will have resumed. If it fails, we’ll see what we do.
Q. – If it were to fail, is it absolutely necessary for Europe to take a common position, or does each diplomatic service consider itself free to decide what it wants?
THE MINISTER – One of the reasons France took this initiative was partly – perhaps not mainly, but partly – to avoid division in Europe, because if that scenario, a vote at the General Assembly, is confirmed, I very much fear Europe will be divided.
Q. – Gilad Shalit, the Franco-Israeli soldier abducted five years ago, is still being held. Are things making any progress? France has clearly been very committed; can you tell us today if there’s any hope, or are things still deadlocked?
THE MINISTER – France, as you’ve recalled, has been very actively committed. President Sarkozy himself called for Gilad Shalit’s release, because his detention is a blatant violation of all the rules of international law and all human rights. (…)
Q. – Do you have confidence in the Palestinian reconciliation, since we see that Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, said just now: “I want to go to Gaza, I’m going to find an agreement to end Palestinian division”? Would this be a positive thing or not?
THE MINISTER – As you know, for a long time our Israeli friends said: “we can’t talk to the Palestinians because they’re divided”, the Fatah-Hamas [split]. Today they’ve made peace, and let me say that we can’t brush this reconciliation aside because it, too, is one of the consequences of the Arab Spring and of what’s happening in Syria. Events in Syria are destabilizing Hamas, and so we say there’s maybe a small chance of getting Hamas to change its stance.
Q. – To what?
THE MINISTER – Well, it has to agree to the preconditions you’re familiar with, i.e. recognize the State of Israel of course, but also renounce terrorism and respect the agreements which have already been adopted. So isn’t there a chance of moving it in this direction? We think this is the chance which has to be seized.
EURO AREA/GREEK DEBT CRISIS
Q. – (…) The heads of state and government, particularly those of the Euro Area, are obviously finding it hard to agree on how to help Greece and avoid a difficult fate for the euro. How do you explain this difficulty in finding a way out of the Greek crisis?
THE MINISTER – I’m desperately optimistic. They reached an agreement; it was difficult because the problem is difficult. France and Germany played an absolutely decisive role, but during the European Council the current phase of the Greek aid plan and a new plan were approved by every head of state and government. Let’s be positive.
Q. – We didn’t really understand how the banks and insurance companies, the public sector is going to have to help – how much and how?
THE MINISTER – The heads of state and government asked their finance ministers to reach an agreement as swiftly as possible. We’ve got to help Greece; if she didn’t manage to pay off her debts it would be disastrous, because what would happen if she quit the Euro Area?
She’d go back to her old currency, the drachma, but all her debts would remain in euros, and so their burden on Greece would be multiplied by a factor which is difficult to ascertain, but would be crushing.
Moreover, if Greece found herself in that situation, the contagion effect on other European countries would kill the euro. If the euro dies, Europe dies, and if Europe dies in our time of globalization, it’s a disaster for all of us; our countries’ futures would be grim. I think, on the contrary, that we have to do the utmost to overcome this crisis by going a bit further in building Europe.
I’m telling you straight: the Euro Area must become an essentially federal Europe with a real economic government. This is what President Sarkozy has wanted for a long time, and he has largely got it:
considerable progress has been made in this respect. There had to be a coordinated budgetary procedure – this has been done, it’s called the “European Semester” – there has to be a monetary policy involving not only the European Central Bank but also the economic government, and there has to be a tax harmonization policy. We can’t live with the same currency and have some countries with a 12% corporation tax rate and others with 33%.
Q. – How and by whom will this economic government be appointed? Will it be possible for it to force France to cut her public spending or change her tax system? It’s pretty unthinkable today all the same; it’s a concept rich in potential but totally unworkable today .
THE MINISTER – Not at all. There have already been extremely significant transfers of sovereignty and we’ve already subscribed to a stability and growth plan which requires us to do a number of things. We’re striving to do this today precisely because we want to comply with it and I believe we have to go even further in this direction; at any rate, it’s what France is trying to do.
Q. – Before these political hopes become perhaps a reality – that of a financial federal Europe – do you think today that states are powerful enough to get rid of the speculation which is playing a part in Greece’s collapse today and will perhaps tomorrow play a part in that of Spain, Italy or Portugal?
THE MINISTER – I believe so, and, moreover, states have so far managed to do that. What’s the euro-dollar parity today? The euro is in crisis but its parity has never been higher. So it’s a currency which, with some weak points, is also powerful today. (…)
Q. – All the same, what’s been the problem in the crisis is the obvious disagreement, visible to all, between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy – perhaps worse than that, a sort of German withdrawal from the European project. Germany – you noted earlier with some irony – hasn’t supported us in Libya, but Germany clearly has an approach to the Greek problem which is quite far removed from our own. It is a problem, surely…
THE MINISTER – It is, of course, a problem. But do you know a period in the building of Europe when Europe hasn’t progressed from crisis to crisis? In the past, General de Gaulle even went as far as the empty chair policy. Germany is progressing like that. It would be too simple if there were a spontaneous convergence of interests between 27 member states.
Q. – Don’t you think the Germans are withdrawing from the European problem somewhat?
THE MINISTER – I don’t think so. Admittedly, today they have a vision of Europe that’s no longer Konrad Adenauer’s or Helmut Kohl’s; things have evolved. But I think Germany is fully conscious of the vital importance to her of European integration and the Euro Area. It’s always said that the German growth model is based on exports. Where do German exports go? 60% go to the Euro Area. So Germany has a fundamental interest in the Euro Area and European Union being in good shape.
Q. – But the Germans clearly don’t want to pay for the Greeks.
THE MINISTER – Who wants to pay for someone else? Until you realize it’s in your own interest. Then you come round to it.
Q. – Must we get the banks to pay?
THE MINISTER – Yes, certainly, on a voluntary basis.
Q. – By twisting their arms a little?
THE MINISTER – What does “get the banks to pay” mean? It means finding mechanisms that enable you not to suffocate debtors – I don’t want to go into the technicalities. You extend the debts that reach maturity. (…)./.