Defence/budget/priorities – European/France-UK defence – South-East Asia – Operations abroad – Sahel/Syria
Q. – Amid the crisis, will France be keeping up her defence effort?
THE MINISTER – You can’t approach the budgetary outlook for defence solely in accounting terms. That’s why President Hollande has decided on a two-phase approach. Firstly, to draw up a White Paper that will define our defence strategy, the new threats, the armed forces’ missions and the priorities France must establish, alone or with others.
It’s a crucial moment. White Papers reflect particular moments in our defence: in 1972 it was deterrence, in 1994 the post-Cold War period, in 2008 globalization after 9/11. The next one must take on board a context that has changed considerably since then. We must take account of the Arab Spring, the global financial crisis, budgetary austerity, the deadlock in the European Union, the new American policy towards Asia and the post-Afghanistan period. A new scenario. Between the end of June and the end of the year, this exercise will be conducted, calmly and transparently. Parliament and the defence staff will be involved, as will experts and European partners.
Q. – Have you already got priorities?
THE MINISTER – Without prejudging the content of the White Paper, some concerns must be emphasized. In addition to deterrence, on which the President has taken a decision – in favour of maintaining the two components: airborne and submarine – we must secure the intelligence capabilities needed to guarantee our autonomy in assessment and decision-making. That means drones and satellites. We must then have the means for the air and ground forces that may intervene in crises to operate and be protected. That means learning lessons from what’s happened with, for example, in-flight refuelling capabilities and helicopters. Thirdly, maritime security capabilities are essential.
There will then be the military estimates bill, which must be adopted for the summer of 2013, so that the 2014-2019 budgetary preparation is coherent.
Q. – For the First Secretary of the PS [Socialist Party], Martine Aubry, there are “savings to be made on defence”…
THE MINISTER – Some would like us to increase and others to reduce [spending]. I stick to the line set out by President Hollande. This is a period for restoring public accounts; everyone must contribute to this, defence in the same proportion as the other state missions. Neither more nor less. We’ll have to make choices, for which we’ll accept responsibility.
The targets of the preceding Estimates Act aren’t being met: it [spending] was due to increase by 1% per year from 2012 onwards; this won’t be the case. The Audit Court [or Auditor-General’s Department] will tell me how things actually stand at the end of June. I’ll then make public the consequences for defence. But it won’t be done in accounting terms. I want a considered approach. For the 2013 budget, my reference point will be the programming under way, of which this will be the first fiscal year.
Q. – You want a Defence Europe; how will you go about it?
THE MINISTER – It’s time to revitalize Defence Europe. It’s a matter of necessity. Europe must become a producer of security, in the sense of taking control of its own security. On this subject, where no progress has been made for a few years, a shared conviction is emerging. At the NATO summit in Chicago, things were said that had never been said before about the importance of a stronger, more high-performance European defence. This necessity is becoming even more inescapable with the new American stance, which is, from this point of view, a spur.
Q. – Must we already implement what’s been planned with the United Kingdom?
THE MINISTER – We’re going to take initiatives. Firstly with Britain, to ensure the Lancaster House treaty is implemented. We accept it, but it must be opened up to other partners. We were together in the Libya crisis; that creates areas where we can fruitfully work together and a shared spirit. Let’s go through the list point by point. Britain’s decision to abandon the catapult system on her aircraft carriers is regrettable, but it doesn’t call into question the goal of our two countries having a permanent naval strike group at sea by 2020.
Secondly, we’ll work in the framework of the Franco-German partnership, and the Weimar Triangle with our Polish friends, involving all those who want to contribute.
We must first of all recreate the spirit – it no longer exists – and then establish the concrete areas of implementation. That may lead to specialization, the strengthening of shared capabilities, the procurement of future equipment etc. We don’t want to give up in any way. If we don’t take the initiative, who will? It would be wise to revive the idea of a European security strategy, so that there’s a shared philosophy on interests and goals.
Q. – You’re back from South-East Asia, where France has outlets for her defence companies. How can you link up alliances and export policy, which has become vital for industry?
THE MINISTER – In Singapore, I said we must hold our own in South Asia, because the strategic challenges there are key to us. Our own interests are also those of the players in that region. Terrorism, maritime security: those are realities we share. Apart from that, we already have significant economic and industrial relations with those countries. We must continue them, in the form of partnerships, which are tailored to each country. I don’t go around with a catalogue. The commercial side is up to the industrial players.
Q. – Is there no longer a “war room” at the Elysée Palace?
THE MINISTER – That’s my impression. Our role is to provide support, to ensure there’s an industrial partnership. We have very great industrial expertise that is respected by everyone, in terms of both weaponry and the ability to innovate. We’re not dealers but partners. And that’s not just rhetoric.
Q. – Must the armed forces’ contract – which provides for sending 30,000 troops to a major operation abroad – be reviewed?
THE MINISTER – That contract was implemented on the basis of the goals of 2008. It’s been more or less kept to. We could see that our defence system was fully stretched and that we couldn’t continue several operations at the same time, in Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. We were at the absolute limit. But the missions were carried out, thanks to a major effort by the armed forces, to whom we owe respect. The new White Paper will have to redefine the contract according to the assessment of the threats and of the role France must play.
Q. – Will there be fewer external operations?
THE MINISTER – François Hollande has said several times that France must be present when initiatives are taken in the framework of the UN Security Council. She must then maintain her role.
Q. – Because there’s a lack of resources, must we choose – Asia rather than Africa, one region of the world rather than another?
THE MINISTER – It doesn’t arise in those terms. The French presence in Africa will be a matter for the White Paper. We’re very concerned about the situation in the Sahel. There are major risks of it becoming a new terrorist safe haven, in addition to the dismantling of Mali. We must return to the principles of the inviolability of borders, the integrity of countries. But we don’t intend to return to the traditions of interference. It’s essential for the African organizations to act. Once a United Nations mandate is decided on at the request of the African organizations, we’ll assess how France – who mustn’t shirk her responsibilities – gets involved militarily. It’s desirable for initiatives to be taken swiftly. The ideal thing would be for it all to be supported by Europe. (…)
Q. – Doesn’t the presence of her hostages risk dragging France into military action?
THE MINISTER – As soon as there’s a mandate, we’ll be able to act and activate our support units on the ground.
Q. – Have we underestimated the threat from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?
THE MINISTER – We didn’t sufficiently weigh up the consequences of Gaddafi’s death and the disappearance of some of his support base, the weapons traffic that would ensue and the readiness of certain players to get involved. That assessment wasn’t at the centre of our concerns, and today there’s a harsh reality.
Q. – Will we intervene in Syria?
THE MINISTER – If there’s a military intervention, France will play her role. I’m not second-guessing the kind of intervention possible. Syria has a complex make-up and solid anti-aircraft defences. A mandate from the Security Council is needed./.