France/UK/relations – France/US/relations – Iran/nuclear programme – Syria/crackdown – Mali – Euro Area/Greece/Spain – Burma
THE MINISTER – Hello. Thank you for coming to talk to me, in a period especially packed with events of all kinds. (…)
Our relations with Britain are very good; relations between President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron are excellent on the personal level. As always, we have points of agreement and we have differences. If we agreed on everything, we’d be living in an ideal world, and the fact we have differences doesn’t mean our relations aren’t good. They’re good and based on solid foundations.
We conducted the Libya operation together; it created a very strong bond between us, of course. We signed – before I arrived here – the Lancaster House Treaty, which really is the bedrock of extremely fruitful defence cooperation. And the latest Franco-British summit, held in Paris, showed that we were moving forwards on implementing that treaty. We have the same approach on many subjects: on the stance to be taken towards Iran, on the crisis in Syria, on the Middle East – in short, a great convergence of views.
And then there are differences, in particular on Europe. That’s nothing new: this has been the case since the European project was launched. Britain didn’t join the treaty signed by 25 [EU member states]; of course we respect those decisions and we speak very freely about all these issues.
Finally, the dialogue between us is entirely constructive and positive.
The same goes for the United States: President Obama and President Sarkozy have a good relationship; I was able to gauge this at all last year’s meetings, at the G8 and G20. (…) Contacts are extremely frequent, and there, too – as always – we have points of agreement and there may be points where we have differences. I won’t dwell too long on the similarities, which are very obvious: the Iranian crisis, the Syrian crisis and a number of subjects of that kind.
On the other hand, we may have some differences of approach: I’m thinking in particular of how to relaunch the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis in order to overcome the current deadlock in the Middle East peace process. We don’t see exactly eye to eye.
There, too, it’s a situation that isn’t new and is absolutely normal. (…)
Q. – Where do things currently stand as regards dialogue with Iran?
THE MINISTER – (…) To get back to the basics, what are we talking about? Iran’s acquisition of an atomic weapon would be a disaster that would compromise not only the region’s stability but world peace.
(…) So we’re doing everything to persuade Iran to give up this military nuclear programme, which would of course spark reprisals elsewhere, and other countries wouldn’t fail to go down the same risky path.
We’ve often been told that we have a policy of double standards: that Israel apparently has an atomic weapon and we haven’t reacted negatively. I’d like to say you can’t compare everything, and I haven’t noticed Israel proposing to wipe Iran off the world map. (…) So you can’t put the two situations on exactly the same level. So no atomic weapon for Iran.
The second point is that we’re convinced Iran is equipping herself with an atomic weapon, and the way the regime is going into contortions to refuse real, transparent dialogue, the way the latest IAEA inspectors were banned from certain sites, shows Iran isn’t cooperating and therefore has something to hide. You don’t enrich uranium to 20% to do medical research. Something is wrong; we’re convinced the programme is moving ahead.
How can we stop it? Along with our 3+3 partners, we’ve embarked on a twin-track strategy, telling Iran we’re ready to enter into dialogue at any moment, without any preconditions. There’s no question of [Iran] demanding the suspension of sanctions or I don’t know what else first. We get round the table and we talk about the nuclear programme. There was a small step forwards on Iran’s part in the latest letter sent to Mrs Ashton, because it stated very clearly that Iran is ready to talk about the nuclear issue…
We’re going to get round the table, and that’s what we’re currently preparing for 13 and 14 April, at a venue yet to be decided. France believes – and will stand firmly by this position – that this discussion mustn’t begin with a unilateral gesture of openness from the Six: you don’t begin negotiations from a position of weakness; it’s for Iran to make gestures. Then, afterwards, we’ll see, depending on her level of goodwill and real cooperation.
To achieve that result – and this is the second aspect – we think strong sanctions are necessary to make the Iranian regime back down. From this viewpoint, France has been – among the Twenty-seven as well as in her relations with the United States and other countries – entirely at the forefront when it comes to adopting extremely strong sanctions: unprecedented, as President Sarkozy said. We won the case in the European Union, because the embargo on oil and on the Central Bank of Iran’s transactions was decided and is currently being implemented.
And perhaps a causal link can be seen between the toughening of sanctions and the beginnings of Iran opening up to negotiation, with the latest letter addressed to Mrs Ashton.
So we’re going to continue along this path, with great determination. (…)
There’s one point we haven’t talked about at all – I haven’t talked about it myself – namely, that there is of course another option: Israel’s military option. You’re going to ask me whether I believe in it or not; I have no basis on which to answer that question. I know the issue is being examined by the Israeli government, in which there are still different assessments of the problem among the different Israeli leaders. But the option exists and I think everything must be done to prevent it, because if it were triggered I don’t really know what the Iranian response might be, or the spiral that could lead us towards an absolutely disastrous scenario.
In order to prevent that, I come back to what I said: strong sanctions and strong negotiations with Iran. Beyond that I won’t give you, here, a blow-by-blow account of the negotiations before they’re under way. We’ll see.
Q. – What’s the difference between Syria and Libya in terms of the options for conducting French policy? (…)
THE MINISTER – (…) There’s a common point in France’s stance on Libya and Syria. Our concern is to allow the peoples of that region, and therefore the Libyan people and the Syrian people, to exercise free expression, attain democracy, choose their leaders themselves in free elections and benefit from a state governed by the rule of law, recognizing the rights of the individual, human rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities, Christian minorities. That’s the goal, which is the same in Libya and Syria.
Having said that, the situations are extremely different. First of all, the geopolitical context. In Libya, we got a green light from the Security Council and therefore intervened under an international mandate with UNSCR 1973, which you’re well aware of, and that’s not the case in Syria, where the Russians and Chinese have opposed any resolution of this kind authorizing a military intervention.
I’ll add a second difference, namely that even if the conditions had existed for a Security Council resolution, I’m not sure a military intervention of the kind we conducted in Libya would have been possible, because the Syrian people are not the Libyan people. The Libyan people aren’t characterized by those differences of communities you find in Syria. (…)
That’s why there hasn’t been an intervention in Syria of the same kind as in Libya, on NATO’s initiative.
I’ll add one final thing, namely that when the operation began in Libya, the Arab countries supported the intervention, and it was even a resolution put forward by Lebanon, UNSCR 1973, which was presented by the Security Council.
What stage are we at today? I’m convinced – I was saying so just now – that the regime won’t be able to keep itself in power indefinitely. When you’ve massacred 10,000 of your citizens, hundreds of children, tortured men and women of all ages, and hunted down opponents or alleged opponents even in hospitals to finish them off, there’s a price to pay one day or another. We’re in a world where this can’t continue indefinitely. The problem is the time being taken, and this is what we’re confronted with today. We supported the Arab League plan, we secured a General Assembly resolution passed by 137 countries, I think, and we created the Friends of Syria Group, which brought together in Istanbul more than 80 delegations and has exerted very strong pressure on the regime. We support Kofi Annan’s mission. So there’s a whole process under way today.
Can we be optimistic? I’m not, because I think Bashar al-Assad is deceiving us. He’s pretending to accept Kofi Annan’s demands, in particular the six-point plan, and at the same time he’s continuing to use force, amid the benevolent indifference of the countries supporting him. We can get over this by, first of all, setting a time limit for Kofi Annan’s mission.
We’ve all said there’s no question of letting weeks and weeks drag by in Syria. The deadline for the Syrian regime is 10 April, I believe, and within 48 hours a cessation of hostilities by all those defending themselves, plus humanitarian aid and a political process, because for us that’s absolutely indissociable.
If this timetable is adhered to, we’ll have to deploy a United Nations observer mission very quickly; here, too, the Secretary-General is currently working to ensure we’re not being deceived. I think if we manage to get 250 United Nations observers on the ground, free access to the international media and access to humanitarian aid, things will change profoundly.
That’s why Bashar is digging in his heels, because he fully realizes this will completely change the power balance. If we don’t achieve this by 10 April, I’ve said we’ll have to return to the Security Council and consider all the options. We can’t keep on allowing those fighting for freedom to be massacred by the Syrian regime.
The argument that the regime is the victim of terrorist attacks that are destabilizing it doesn’t stand up five minutes. The regime took the initiative of the crackdown and is responsible for it. And faced with that, there are people trying to defend themselves; you can’t put them on the same level at all.
Q. – Is France ready to supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army?
THE MINISTER – As it stands, no – I’ve told you. There’s an international arms embargo, and France respects international embargoes.
Q. – (…) You went to Dakar, Senegal, to discuss the Mali issue, among other things. How far is France prepared to go regarding Mali? (…)
THE MINISTER – (…) The situation is extremely serious and risks spreading to the neighbouring countries. I got an idea of this during the ECOWAS meeting, chaired by President Ouattara, when several heads of state expressed their very great concern about Niger and Mauritania, and this goes further – as far, of course, as Nigeria.
What happened in Mali? The Tuareg issue has been there in the Sahel region and particularly northern Mali for decades. These are people with a very low level of development who have rebelled several times against the governments of the states they’re travelling around. This, moreover, led to an agreement signed in Algiers in 2006 which provided for the development of northern Mali precisely to try and reduce instances of conflict between the Tuareg and Bamako.
Unfortunately, these agreements weren’t implemented; we warned the Bamako authorities and President Amadou Toumani Touré on very many occasions about the worsening situation. M. de Raincourt has been there several times. I myself have been there several times; a month ago I was in Bamako, where I met the President, who spoke to me in utterly reassuring terms: “everything’s OK, the situation is under control, I’ve made considerable efforts for the north”, and we’ve seen the outcome.
We must look clearly at where the responsibilities lie. Added to this long-running story is a more recent one: an indisputable strengthening of AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] because of what happened in Libya. There are people who have arrived in the Sahel from Libya – above all, weapons have arrived there and this has strengthened AQIM.
Today in northern Mali we’re witnessing rivalry between a Tuareg movement, with no goal other than the independence or autonomy of northern Mali, the so-called Azawad. The ANLM or Azawad National Liberation Movement, incidentally, has just said that it is stopping its military offensive and observing a ceasefire because it has attained its goals, i.e. to control northern Mali.
A second faction, which AQIM has infiltrated, is a mouthpiece for AQIM, which has another goal: to install an Islamist regime throughout Mali and, beyond that, throughout the Sahel.
Given this situation, what has to be done?
First – and here I must say that the African Union and ECOWAS’s reaction was immediate and very clear – refuse to accept the coup d’état, and demand the restoration of constitutional order in Mali. That’s very important for Africans. (…) This is under way and, without being too optimistic, I think Mr Compaoré is in a position to get a result.
Secondly, there’s the military aspect. ECOWAS has adopted an extremely strong, firm position by indicating its intention to deploy its Standby Force. They have two battalions accounting for nearly 3,000 troops and their idea would be to deploy them on the ground to halt the advance of AQIM and restore constitutional order.
Everyone supported the ECOWAS initiative. As I said, the Americans were also represented at the summit in Dakar – this is why we got the Security Council to vote on a presidential statement to support the African Union and ECOWAS.
Is ECOWAS now in a position to do what it says? It’s complicated because it takes a long time for its Standby Force to be deployed.
So we said that France – and, I think, the United States – was prepared to assist this deployment. Not by sending a task force to the Sahel – we’re sometimes asked completely bizarre questions; France isn’t going to send troops; I don’t think we’d be welcomed with open arms, not by Algeria or anyone else; on the other hand, we’re prepared to assist in terms of logistics. We’ve been doing this for a very long time.
We must also see to it – and this will be my last point – that the response is firstly that of the region’s states. It’s all very well always turning to France and the West, but it’s up to the region’s states to fight AQIM. Some are doing this. Mauritania is doing so and has scored points. We’ve been helping her do so for a very long time.
We’re training up Mauritian security forces for fighting. At President Issoufou’s behest, Niger is doing so. Mali hasn’t, and we’ve seen the outcome.
We’d really like there to be regional cooperation between Algeria and the ECOWAS countries, including Nigeria and Mauritania, to develop a strategy to fight the terrorist danger in this part of the Sahel. (…)
Q. – As regards Europe and the Euro Area, do you think the crisis is really over (…)?
THE MINISTER – The crisis isn’t over, but Europe isn’t as sick as people like to say it is, and others would do well to take care of themselves too because Europe isn’t the only place where there are deficits.
The crisis isn’t over, quite obviously, because some countries are still in extremely vulnerable situations: everyone has Greece in mind, Spain is finding it extremely hard, Italy is carrying out courageous reforms. France isn’t in the same situation but, overall, things are progressing in the right direction. There you are; it isn’t completely resolved and if we do anything stupid, everything could deteriorate again very fast.
We’re on a knife-edge, and on a knife-edge you mustn’t take a step to the left or a step to the right, or you risk falling.
But I think the prospects are good: I think the “firewall” of the European Stability Mechanism is now at a good level, with €800 billion. I think all the procedures being put in place – the “six-pack”, the European Semester, the new treaty – all this will enable us to gain proper control over the coherence of fiscal policies among the 25 [member states that signed the Fiscal Compact]. There was no economic government in the Maastrict Treaty, and that was a glaring error. The Central Bank is playing its role without being given any orders; it’s doing what it has to do, and that’s very good. So there’s a whole series of factors that enable me to say we’re heading in the right direction.
Moreover, our international [economic] climate isn’t bad. (…) And I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the second half of this year, growth in Europe starts picking up again a little.
We’re not over the crisis, but things are heading in the right direction, so we must strengthen what we’ve done. (…)
Q. – As regards Burma, do you think the time has come to lift the sanctions or is it perhaps still a bit soon because the democratic process has only just begun?
THE MINISTER – Quite obviously I think a gesture has to be made. When I saw Aung San Suu Kyi two months ago, before the elections, we were told: wait and see if the elections go smoothly and afterwards a signal will have to be sent.
I believe we can say that the elections went smoothly and I intend proposing to Brussels, to our partners, that a gesture be made for an initial relaxing of sanctions.
Because people always say that sanctions serve no purpose. In Burma’s case, she has realized that by becoming isolated from the outside world, she was playing into China’s hands, and she sought other partners. And that’s what largely explains the regime’s change.