Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Interview to Le Monde newspaper
Jean-Yves Le Drian in Le Monde “Russia should not interfere in our affairs”
The Foreign Minister explains his desire to “restore effective multilateralism” to combat “actors who are demolishing it”.
Ninety-five Heads of Government, including President Macron, will participate in the UN General Assembly from 23 to 29 September in New York. The Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who will also be there, talks about the major issues at hand.
- A year ago, when speaking in front of the UN General Assembly, President Macron positioned himself as the herald of “strong multilateralism” as opposed to Donald Trump. Has he been able to change the game?
Jean-Yves Le Drian: He definitely has. Diplomacy is experiencing a crisis, and this has become more evident in the past year. A basic principle, which is honouring one’s word and one’s signature, is overtly being challenged. A second principle, which is to agree on the facts to find a compromise, is no longer being adhered to because facts are being manipulated, refuted and rebuffed. If there is no shared, common truth, how can there be dialogue? Moreover, actors demolishing multilateralism are ratcheting up their methodical attacks.
We must therefore take action to restore effective multilateralism. In order to salvage the core of the system established after the Second World War, it is important to reform the major tools at our disposal, namely the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. New forums such as the Paris Peace Forum, which will be held on 11 November, or the One Planet Summit on climate, initiated by President Macron, are innovate ways to revitalize multilateralism.
The creation of the G5 Sahel with the support of France and its international partners is an example of what we can do to reinvigorate multilateralism. France needs to be a driver of initiatives working with what I call “well-intentioned powers”, which, like France, are dedicated to democratic issues, to law and to the need for international cooperation. I am thinking of countries such as India, Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico and South Korea, which all have the same values and the same questions as we do. And, of course, first and foremost, Europe.
- Yet, there are not only “well-intentioned powers” in Europe, which are firmly committed to law and President Macron seems to be isolated...
“If the United States but also Russia or China tries to play some Europeans against others, this is precisely because the European Union is even stronger than it thought.”
It is now fashionable to criticize Europe and its weakness, while for the past 18 months it has made great strides, which are not recognized nor identified as such. And every step of the way, France has played its role and motivated its partners. President Macron sets the tone and very often others follow his lead. There was agreement in Gothenburg on social Europe which the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has proposed to include in the fundamental pillars of the European Union; an amendment of the directive on posted workers, which we thought could not be done; European agreement on digital strategy; and copyright protection. There was also agreement on the creation of the European Defence Fund with a significant proposal of the European Commission of €13 billion. Europeans have remained united in rejecting the trade dictates of the United States as was the case with Iran as well. The European Parliament recently recalled the basic principles of the rule of law when voting on Hungary.
And this is the paradox: Europe does not assume its role as a collective force, which it actually already is in the eyes of those who are not interested in seeing this rise in power. If the United States but also Russia or China tries to play some Europeans against others, this is precisely because the European Union is even stronger than it thought. In addition, those who think that a national solution can protect them from unbridled globalization achieve the opposite when they turn inward. The difficult questions ahead of us can only be managed within the European framework. The challenge for the next elections is to ensure both a powerful Europe and a Europe that protects.
- What role can a very marginalized France play in helping to find a solution to the Syrian conflict?
We are in constant contact with all those who can contribute to a solution. We have constantly been saying that the solution can only be political while Bashar al-Assad and his regime consider that the solution can only be military. Because it is a member of the Security Council and because it has been engaged in Syria in its fight against Daesh, France is working on this necessary end to the crisis. In Saint Petersburg, the President met with his Russian counterpart so that the Astana Group [Russia, Turkey and Iran] and the Small Group created in Paris to work on the Syrian crisis [United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia] could come closer together on a political agenda, a new Constitution, confidence-building measures such as humanitarian aid, the organization of future elections under strict credibility and transparency conditions.
Since it is difficult to get Iran and the United States around the same table, France on the one side and Russia on the other are acting as go-betweens. That is France’s role as could also be seen in the Idlib crisis. The warnings we have issued and pressure we have exerted about this risk of a humanitarian and security disaster have been effective. This is all the more true considering that the Astana Group voiced great concern about the issue in Tehran and that Turkey has asked us to take action in the Security Council to consolidate the agreement that it negotiated with Vladimir Putin on Idlib.
- To what extent will France support the Kurds?
The Kurd solution in Syria requires reform of the Constitution so that genuine regionalisation can occur and the Kurds’ reality can be recognized. It is up to the Syrians to decide on this solution within the framework of the political transition process that should be implemented. We consider that during this process, refugees and displaced people should be able to vote and return home safely. We will keep a close eye on this issue.
- Is this possible if Assad remains in power?
A political transition is necessary. That is evident after the more than seven years of war in Syria. There is no alternative and it is also in Russia’s interest. Russia is aware that militarily winning a war without being able to build peace and ensure the reconstruction of a ravaged country would be seen as defeat.
- Israelis have in recent days been bombing Syrian chemical weapon programme targets. Weren’t our strikes in April sufficient? Were there weapons we didn’t know about?
After the autumn of 2013, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) conducted the necessary inspections on the basis of Syrian declarations, about which we have always had a great deal of doubts. In March, during my visit to Tehran, I already told the Iranians that their permanent presence in Syria was going to transform the conflict into a regional conflict. That is what we see happening today. There have been more than two hundred Israeli strikes on Syria because the Israelis cannot allow Iranian armed groups positioned in Syria or the deployment of weapons that can reach their territory become available to groups such as Hezbollah.
We are in a dangerous situation. Recent Russian declarations mentioning possible chemical attacks conducted by groups in Idlib are of concern to us and seem to be manipulation to prepare public opinion. France’s firmness, which reiterated its determination to strike again if these weapons are used again by the regime, helped change the positions in Idlib.
The Russians used chemical weapons in Europe in the Skripal affair, and recently played Europeans for fools when it presented its two agents as tourists.
We do not want the isolation of Russia and we wish to cooperate. Yet Russia needs to be loyal and cooperate on many subjects, especially when it comes to the chemical issue. It also needs to refrain from any form of manipulation. We should have a demanding relationship with Russia and are deepening our dialogue, while be uncompromising on the core issues. With regard to the Skripal affair, we responded and we took measures.
- Have efforts to reach out to Russia produced results?
It is up to Russia to decide its own future. It is committed to a grand principle, non-interference. Cooperating with us also means that it should not interfere in our affairs, politically, media-wise or worse, with chemical attacks as was the case in the Skripal affair. Non-interference cannot be negotiated.
- With Iran, is France still in a position to be a mediator?
Our diplomatic capital lies in our reliability. We honour our commitments. We signed the Vienna Agreement and we will honour our signature as long as the Iranians honour theirs. This agreement needs to hold, and for now, it is holding. The last the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report has shown this. That being said, it is important to ensure that the results from which Iran can benefit are also adequate. This is why we are taking action in several different directions.
First, we need to get the United States to make a sound clarification regarding the economic sectors that are not affected by extraterritorial measures – in the pharmaceutical and agrifood sectors, there should be normal trade with Iran. Then, we need to define the financial mechanisms that are not affected by the Americans’ extraterritorial sanctions. We are working to do this with Germany and the United Kingdom but also with China, Russia and other countries which need to be on board. We are going to meet in New York to discuss this issue.
However, Iran needs to join discussions on the rest of the issues including the post-2025 nuclear situation, its interventions in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, and its burgeoning missile activity. This is what President Macron proposed to Donald Trump in April and what he has been explaining for over a year, no other suggestion has been put forward.
- What should we expect from Donald Trump?
Like the Americans, we are extremely committed to non-proliferation. It is a major point of agreement for security everywhere in the world, be it North Korea or Iran. It seems that the US stance is different on North Korea and on Iran, and that we do not share its stance on non-proliferation either. If Donald Trump asks the Security Council to take a stance on non-proliferation, we will agree. What is happening with North Korea is encouraging; it has helped to curb tension in the area and to re-establish a strong relationship between the two Koreas. It is wonderful that there is finally a peace agreement. But it should hinge on the essential verified and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. I will talk about this with Mike Pompeo, whom I will see in Washington, and with James Mattis, who will visit Florence Parly soon.
-* Haven’t we reached an impasse in Libya? France seems to be the last one to believe that elections could be held on 10 December. The Italians do not consider this relevant.
Does an alternative exist? No. A plan that is based on the refusal to hold elections would be difficult to defend. The Italians attended the Paris meeting where at road map was decided with the participation of the United Nations Special Representative and that was endorsed by the United Nations. There needs to a legitimate civilian power in Libya. On 29 May in Paris, an agreement of Libyan leaders set out the method for attaining this legitimacy. Khaled al-Mechri [Libya’s High Council of State], Fayez al-Sarraj [Presidential Council], Khalifa Haftar [Libyan National Army] and Aguila Saleh [President of the House of Representatives] have all agreed that it is important to unite institutions and give internal and external legitimacy to Libyan authorities and that the only way to do this is by holding an election.
There have been clashes between rival militia in Tripoli over oil incomes, but at this time even Parliament is meeting to draft electoral law. And three million of the six million Libyans have registered to vote, so this aspiration needs to be taken into account. The date of 10 December has been set by the Libyans and the process was validated by the UN Security Council and by Ghassan Salamé [UN Special Representative in Libya].
- Could the United Nations take charge of organizing the elections?
There is a High National Electoral Commission which is supported by the United Nations and several countries, including France. It is often when things are crystallized that tensions emerge, but nothing else has been proposed and this should be carried through to its completion. I have confidence in Ghassan Salamé.
- In Sahel, what strategy should France have?
In Mali, the President has been re-elected and the objectives set by the Prime Minister auger well for re-establishing the authority of the State over the entire territory, for launching the decentralization set out in the Algiers Accords and for implementing the disarmament process. Algerians, with whom we maintain close ties, will also have a role to play in ensuring that there are advances. With regard to the G5 Sahel and the joint force, the Heads of State decided to step up operations, now the finance must follow. We need to support them. It is essential to say that Africans need to ensure their security themselves, but it is important to help them implement their plan.
Also, the Sahel Alliance humanitarian operation has a financial component of €7.5 billion and works with countries in the region to ensure that international action is well coordinated. The challenge is to ensure that the various funds are disbursed swiftly and smoothly. We would like for this action to set an example in terms of efficacy and efficiency with tangible and immediate local results. When an area is emptied of its jihadists, strong action to help the people and further development should come immediately after. We are seeking a much stronger response in implementing projects.
- Are you planning to militarize the management of migration?
There will be no militarization of the management of migration. We are helping States to acquire conventional border surveillance tools at the crossing points, be it accompanying their police forces, gendarmeries or customs. We have begun to provide this assistance, which under no circumstances replaces local provision of these services, for example in Agadez in Niger. We are also enhancing our collaboration with the other countries concerned, particularly Tunisia and Morocco.
Beyond that, the idea is that in the places where migrant camps exist, we develop joint action of the European Union, the African Union and the countries concerned, to respect the right to asylum and accompany the migrants to their countries of origin when they are not eligible for asylum. That is what we did in Libya in liaison with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. Countries of origin, transit and destination each have a role to play. The principles are those of responsibility and solidarity.
For the European Union, the main issue is implementing the June European Council conclusions, especially the “controlled centres”. The basic principles were established for controlling migration at the end of June: strengthening FRONTEX [European Border and Coast Guard Agency] with ten thousand men and better protection of European borders; cooperation with the countries of transit and departure; solidarity and responsibility in the reception and treatment of migrants. They were approved by everyone. Of course their implementation is not easy. But the national response is sufficient to manage the problem. Is Mr Salvini going to ask Mr Orban to welcome some of the migrants in his country?
- In France, will “Barkhane” be asked to stop migration?
- Are you going to leave the Government in order to participate in an election in Brittany?
I was elected President of the Brittany region three times. I have a good successor. I will continue to work for Brittany. But today, I plan to serve France alongside the President of the French Republic.