Official speeches and statements - April 21, 2020
All regimes, democratic and authoritarian, are being shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. The trend towards nationalist withdrawal and controversy over the health crisis is difficult to break. As an unprecedented video-conference summit of the UN Security Council countries (the so-called P5) is coming up, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, answered questions from Le Monde on the telephone.
COVID-19 / CHINA / FRANCE
Q. - The Chinese Ambassador, Lu Shaye, was summoned to the Quai d’Orsay for writing about the West’s response to COVID-19 in what were deemed unacceptable terms. Is this an isolated case or does it illustrate a more aggressive change in Chinese diplomacy?
THE MINISTER - Since the beginning of the pandemic crisis, I’ve spoken to my Chinese colleague four times. We have relations of dialogue and cooperation which cause us to say what we think. We have principles.
I cannot tolerate the staff of our care homes for the elderly being slandered by anyone, including the Chinese Ambassador [who has accused French staff in old people’s homes of abandoning their posts]. I made this known.
In the hours that followed, a statement by the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry dispelled any misunderstanding, emphasizing the need to work together in a new multilateralism. We expect, like China, to be shown respect.
CHINA / WORLD ROLE
Is Beijing trying to take Washington’s place in the concert of powers?
I read and hear that the world after [the crisis] will be nothing like the one before. I share this hope, but it’s a prediction. My fear is that the world afterwards will be very much like the one before, only worse.
It seems to me that we’re seeing a widening of the divides that have been undermining the international order for years. The pandemic is a continuation, by other means, of the struggle among powers - first, with respect to the already longstanding challenge to multilateralism. Major players are backing out of their political commitments, as illustrated by America’s decision to suspend its contribution to the World Health Organization [WHO], when this is the only global organization capable of fighting the pandemic. Others are stepping into the breach.
This struggle also systematizes the power relationships that had been developing much earlier, with the exacerbation of the China-US rivalry. And finally, it is an extension of international competition, if not confrontation, to every sector. The same thing is continuing, during this crisis, in the area of information. I’m thinking of so-called "infodemics," and of the political sphere, where we are trying to compare crisis-management models.
WHO / COVID-19 APPROACH
You mentioned WHO; the direction it has taken is very controversial. Do you share this criticism?
This crisis has revealed a twofold problem in the multilateral health system. We must restore the resources that WHO needs to better fulfill its standard-setting mission, and that of warning and detection.
It would be advisable to establish a high council on human and animal health, modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to communicate the science based on the work of acknowledged experts.
The other problem for WHO is coordinating between major initiatives and major global health actors: the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; Unitaid etc. France is a major contributor and is working to ensure that the response to the pandemic is massive and coordinated, especially for the most vulnerable countries and in Africa.
EU / CHINA
Before the health crisis there was a difference of approach between the Americans and the Europeans towards China, between confrontation and the search for compromise. Will the Europeans take a harder line?
Europe must become geopolitical. It must act wholly in line with its history, but also shoulder its responsibilities at the international level.
The European Commission had said in early 2019 that China was both a partner and a systemic rival. That does not keep us from having working relations, from collaborating. I am thinking, for example, of the implementation of the Paris climate agreement. But that can only happen if China respects the European Union as such, which is not always the case. Sometimes Beijing exploits divisions within the EU.
EU / US
Are you resigned to losing the United States as an ally?
The United States is a major power which seems unsure about playing its leading role globally. This is causing it to withdraw into itself and is making collective action to tackle the great challenges of mankind difficult. Consequently, China now feels able to say, Â“I hold the power and leadership". We would like the United States to fulfill its responsibilities and maintain a relationship of trust with its allies.
Yet the challenge above all is for Europe to exercise its sovereignty and find its destiny as a leader. It needs to imagine itself in this role. It shouldn’t just question itself and how it will overcome the crisis and defend its sovereignty as regards security, generally, so it doesn’t need to depend on the outside.
Emmanuel Macron has expressed support for cancelling the debt of African countries. Beijing, which holds 40% of it, isn’t in favor of that. Haven’t you turned other people’s money into a generous-sounding slogan?
The President’s initiative to ease the debt of African countries has been accepted and validated, because there’s been a moratorium until the end of the year, including by China, on the repayment of bilateral public and private debt.
That’s a first action, which the Africans wanted and which must now be implemented. This much-needed shot in the arm - worth about 20 billion dollars (18.4 billion euros) - for 40 countries must enable them to invest more in combating COVID-19.
This initial result isn’t enough. Depending on the countries’ situation and in a multilateral framework, we’d like there to be debt cancellations accompanied by an investment plan in the fields of health, education etc. The same determination will have to be shown, and that also concerns China.
Do you think the shockwave of the pandemic could sweep away some African regimes?
We must be vigilant without developing disaster scenarios. The scale of the health crisis in Africa is impossible to predict. The pandemic has reached 52 out of 54 countries, but the number of cases detected is relatively low, probably because the African health system isn’t sufficiently structured to identify all the people affected.
There are grounds for optimism, like the young age of the population and the experience in handling pandemics. There are grounds for pessimism too, like the weakness of health systems, the risk of an accelerated spread in major urban centers, the number of displaced people etc. So it’s important to anticipate the development of the pandemic, because a violent economic shock will come, whatever happens.
FRENCH PEOPLE RETURNING TO FRANCE FROM ABROAD
Following the return of the French people stranded abroad, how are you going to deal with the issue of expatriates, some of whom - particularly in Africa - would also like to come back?
We’ve mobilized a large number of actors to help bring home French citizens who were temporarily abroad. With the help of Air France, we’ve brought back nearly 170,000 French citizens amid greatly reduced air traffic, border closings etc. Now, within the EU framework, we’ll organize flights to accommodate anybody who is left.
Regarding the 3.5 million French people who live permanently abroad, we’re going to consider specific measures for the most vulnerable people. As for the others, we’d like them to stay where they live and observe the containment or precautionary rules imposed by the countries where they live. That requires a minimum level of safety. We’re going to offer a health support mechanism to every French community in the most exposed countries, remote monitoring, remote medicine, medical evacuation capabilities if necessary, and educational and social support.
TURKEY / NATO
You called for a "major explanation" with Turkey about its contradictory alliances. Is there a Turkish taboo in NATO?
There’s a question mark over the [Atlantic] Alliance’s objectives and long-term strategies at a sensitive time when the major arms control agreements dating from the Cold War are in the process of collapsing.
In that framework we’re wondering about Turkey’s behavior. Its presence within NATO, while choosing Russian anti-aircraft capabilities; when, in Libya, it gets Syrian proxies transferred to take part in the conflict and mobilizes significant capabilities (ships, drones etc.), as in the Bay of Misrata; when immigration becomes a matter for blackmail; when, in the eastern Mediterranean, vessels take part sometimes in NATO’s action to establish its presence, sometimes in securing the areas it appropriates...
That’s a lot!
When Turkey demands solidarity, it must at the same time provide clarification. That hasn’t been done, the pandemic doesn’t allow it, but we won’t be able to avoid that clarification.
SAHEL / COUNTER-TERRORISM OPERATIONS
How can we ensure the anti-jihadist operations in the Sahel continue in this period of global health crisis?
The pandemic that is also affecting those countries is complicating the implementation of the Pau agreement [concluded in January]. But the momentum that emerged from Pau is still working. There have been operational gains in the tri-border area. The Malian army has returned to Kidal. The Takuba force is mobilizing.
Admittedly there are negative factors. I’m thinking particularly of the case of Soumaïla Cissé [opposition figure abducted in Mali by jihadists], or the provisional redirection of Chadian forces towards Lake Chad following Boko Haram attacks.
POLAND / HUNGARY / POTENTIAL EU SANCTIONS
Poland and Hungary are exploiting the crisis to ride roughshod over democratic norms. Are they destroying the European project from within?
In the debate about the best political system for resolving the crisis, there’s one tendency that advocates the authoritarian model.
I’m convinced that the democratic model is currently proving its own authority. Democracy, information, transparency and freedom must deliver in order to win. If you don’t have transparency or trust, you don’t win. That’s the message I could send to our European partners.
Can we contemplate European sanctions against those countries?
That question will be asked at the appropriate time, and I imagine it could be asked at one of the next European Councils. But the priority is to fight the pandemic.
With the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union, and following the transition period scheduled to last until 31 December 2020, British driving licences will be subject to the rules applicable to driving licences from States which belong to neither the European Union (EU) nor the European Economic Area (EEA).
They will therefore no longer benefit from the special recognition and exchange arrangements provided for in the European directive of 20 December 2006 regarding driving licences. The British authorities have announced that they are considering unilaterally maintaining the current regulation following the transition period. French permits would thus continue to be recognized, regardless of their duration, exchanged and renewed in Britain. This situation may vary in those territories with their own driving licence authorities (Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands etc.).
In France, British driving licence holders who have established France as their usual residence by 31 December 2020 will continue to benefit from the regulation set out for permits issued by the authorities of the EU or EEA member States, which will enable them, if necessary, to renew them in the event of loss, theft, deterioration or imminent expiry. However, those who establish it after that date will only benefit from the common-law recognition period of one year and will be obliged to take the French driving test within that period.
I first wish to join others in thanking the Dominican Republic and Minister Vargas for organizing this meeting. I also wish to thank Mr. Qu, Mr. Beasley, and Mr. Egeland for their insightful briefings, as well as, through them, their teams helping people on the ground.
The link between international peace and security and famine is well documented - we have seen it in recent years in Yemen, South Sudan, Syria or the Sahel region. There is no doubt that this Council shall deal with this issue, and the more so if we are on the brink of a hunger pandemic as Mr. Beasley is pointing out. This is the reason why France had taken the initiative of organizing an Arria meeting on this topic in 2017. We welcome the progress made since then, with the adoption of resolution 2417 in 2018 and the negotiation of a PRST which will hopefully be agreed very soon.
After a steady decline for decades, we have seen worrying trends of rising hunger emerge again since 2015. In 2018, 11% of the world’s population suffered from hunger, highlighting the immense challenge of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 of "Zero Hunger". Conflicts remain one of the primary drivers of food insecurity, setting in motion a vicious circle: conflict increases food insecurity, which in turn fuels violence. Conflicts also lead to the displacement of people towards places where food resources are not sufficient to feed local populations, refugees and internally displaced people altogether. We are all aware that civilians, especially women and children, are the main victims of this vicious circle of food insecurity and armed conflict.
It is an appalling reality but starvation of civilians is still often used as a weapon of war. It is also used as a means of recruitment by parties to armed conflict who deliberately limit access to food and attack humanitarian workers.
As we keep repeating, meeting after meeting, respect of international humanitarian law is a must in all situations of conflict: all parties must respect the rules of war, in particular they must respect international humanitarian law provisions protecting civilians, including humanitarian workers. As Mr. Egeland emphasized, parties to conflict must ensure a safe and unhindered access of impartial humanitarian relief to all the people in need.
Using starvation as a method of warfare against civilians constitutes a war crime under international criminal law. Such crime cannot go unpunished.
In addition, I fully concur with the representative of Germany in emphasizing the link between climate change, conflicts and food insecurity. We must take into account that many countries affected by conflicts also experience the harmful effects of climate change. The Global Food Crises Report 2020, which was released today, clearly shows that extreme weather events are becoming an increasingly important contributor to food insecurity.
This is notably the case in the Sahel region and aggravates conflict-driven food insecurity. In this context, France regrets that climate change could not be explicitly mentioned in the Presidential statement that we are negotiating.
We are convinced that climate change is also the driver of displacement, which is another source of the food crisis. France is currently chairing the platform on disaster displacement (PDD), a group of States working together towards a better protection for people displaced in the context of disaster and climate change.
I wish to underline the importance of prevention and early-warning systems to act more effectively to prevent conflict-induced famine. The UN Secretary-General and governments must provide timely information regarding food insecurity levels in order better to anticipate, prevent and mitigate the effects of a food crisis.
We are convinced that improving food security and nutrition contributes to peacekeeping and to the achievement of sustainable development goals. That is why France is increasing its financing of food aid, from about 40 million euros in 2019 to more than 50 million euros in 2020. Our food assistance this year covers regions affected by conflicts, while also taking into account the impact of the current COVID-19 crisis.
And this is where I would like to conclude. Today, with the propagation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to reach lasting solutions to the conflicts that lie at the heart of these humanitarian tragedies. We reiterate our full support to the call of the Secretary General for an immediate and global ceasefire to facilitate the response to the pandemic. We have a collective responsibility and moral obligation in this regard. The Security Council must remain mobilized. France will continue to play its full part in that regard.
I thank you.