Interview given by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Q. – In Syria, the number of massacres is rising, children are being killed and the international observers are powerless. Aren’t we witnessing a Bosnia-style scenario where the international community stands back and watches a disaster unfolding?
THE MINISTER – Bashar al-Assad is the murderer of his people. He must leave power – the sooner the better. Until now, the actions taken to that end have come up against two obstacles. The first derives from the lack of consensus at the UN Security Council, because of the Russians and Chinese. The second is military: the Syrian army is powerful. No state is ready today to contemplate a ground operation. The risks of regional contagion would be dreadful, particularly in Lebanon.
In this context, France is adopting a three-pronged approach. Firstly, toughening sanctions, if possible at Security Council level. Secondly, we must work with Russia, who plays a decisive role. Vladimir Putin will be at the Elysée Palace on Friday. Finally, we must encourage the Syrian opposition to come together.
Q. – What you’re describing is basically an extension of what’s already been done for several months. Doesn’t the Houla massacre mark a turning-point after which other actions are required – for example, weapons deliveries to the opposition or considering action outside the Security Council?
THE MINISTER – One consequence of this appalling massacre may be that hitherto reluctant countries might shift their positions. The issue of weapons deliveries poses a tough dilemma. Either weapons are delivered – this increases the militarization of the conflict and the country slides definitively into civil war – or they’re not, in which case the opposition risks being defeated. The reality is that the borders are porous and weapons are entering Syria.
Q. – Would France take part in a policy of weapons deliveries if it were advocated by the United States?
THE MINISTER – We’re certainly not at that stage.
Q. – How many massacres does it take to trigger a procedure to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and cite the mechanism of the responsibility to protect, which was the case with Libya and also doesn’t necessarily mean armed action?
THE MINISTER – Those responsible for the crimes committed in Syria will end up answering for their actions in the courts. We’re in favour of referring the matter to the ICC.
Q. – Can France maintain military-industrial cooperation with Russia at a time when she’s supporting and, it appears, supplying weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s regime?
THE MINISTER – It’s been confirmed that Russia has supplied weapons to Syria, and I can assure you they don’t come from France. Our doctrine is clear: when France sells weapons, she makes sure they can’t be used against civilians.
Q. – When and in what framework are you going to bring together the Friends of the Syrian People group in Paris?
THE MINISTER – Soon. It takes a few weeks to prepare, and the exact framework has yet to be decided. The aim is to step up the pressure on Damascus and give every opportunity to Kofi Annan’s difficult mission.
Q. – The more countries you bring together, the more the pressure may grow on Damascus, and the more isolated Russia may be…
THE MINISTER – The idea isn’t to isolate this or that party but to be effective. One question arises for everyone: if Bashar al-Assad falls, who will replace him? What must be sought is a rapid, credible political transition involving the departure of Bashar al-Assad while avoiding the “Iraqization” of the country.
Q. – Regarding Iran, how long can the talks on the nuclear issue continue without any tangible results?
THE MINISTER – The recent Baghdad meeting didn’t allow any progress on the underlying issue. But it did at least confirm the existence of a common approach among all the countries – including Russia – who are talking to Iran.
Our policy is based on two pillars: sanctions, which must be maintained, because we won’t tolerate Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, and at the same time channels of discussion that must be kept open, in order to persuade Tehran to budge.
Q. – So no lifting of the sanctions?
THE MINISTER – No. For that, Iran would have to make significant headway. For the time being, this hasn’t happened.
Q. – If diplomacy fails on the Iran issue, do the French authorities rule out a military intervention?
THE MINISTER – That’s not on the horizon. The very aim of what we’re doing with our partners is to rule out that possibility.
Q. – In what respect does your policy on Iran differ from the policy of the Sarkozy years?
THE MINISTER – President Hollande reiterated our position during his meetings in the United States: firmness, great firmness even. But there’s no need to compete on firmness.
On this subject as on the others, in the intense international activity that’s just taken place, France – in the person of President Hollande – has honoured her commitments and her position in an outstanding way.
Q. – In the Sahel, the situation is getting worse by the day. Mali is split in two: the north has fallen prey to AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and its different sub-groups. In withdrawing from Afghanistan, is France preparing to redeploy her military, financial or intelligence resources to that region?
THE MINISTER – We must avoid, to use the words of the African Union Chairperson, an “African Afghanistan”. The situation in Mali is very worrying. We also have hostages in the region. We support the mediation of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) , but in Bamako the putschists are still there. What’s needed is comprehensive action by the international community combining stabilization (particularly by forging stronger contacts with the neighbouring countries), development and increased security. It’s not for France to intervene directly herself. We’d much rather it were the African authorities, particularly ECOWAS.
But I don’t want to reduce our approach to Africa to the crises it’s undergoing. Africa is a continent of the future. We want to support its development. In this regard, let me point out that the emphasis put on justice, youth and growth by François Hollande during the campaign also covers the challenges facing the African continent, and that 80% of French-speaking people in 2050 – in other words, 700 million people – will be African.
Q. – In what respect will your foreign policy be distinguished from that of the five-year term that’s just finished?
THE MINISTER – The main issue isn’t whether or not we must distinguish ourselves from our predecessors, but conducting the policy that’s right for France. President Hollande, along with the Prime Minister, has embarked on a general strategy to put the country back on its feet. Foreign policy is fully in line with this goal, particularly of economic recovery. The Quai d’Orsay will be at the forefront in supporting French companies and promoting our country’s cultural and scientific influence. In August, I’ll dedicate the next ambassadors’ conference to these subjects.
Regarding Africa, you most certainly – and fortunately – won’t be hearing a new “Dakar speech” [by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007]. In the Americas, we want to strengthen our relations, particularly with Brazil and Mexico. In Asia, while stressing the clear importance of our relations with China and India, I want to pay particular attention to Japan, the world’s third-largest economic power, a great democracy with whom we want to develop an exemplary relationship. In general terms, we’ll intensify our links with the “new emerging countries” such as Indonesia and South Africa, without forgetting our partners on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.
Finally, although our interview isn’t about Europe, which is nevertheless a decisive and key subject, I want to say a word about it: the Franco-German engine is crucial, but it’s not exclusive. We must work with all our partners. The Franco-German partnership works all the better because it’s based on a relationship of equality.
Q. – Will François Hollande’s foreign policy be less Atlanticist?
THE MINISTER – The record of the last five-year term is mixed, because foreign policy fluctuated so much during it. France’s return to NATO’s integrated command was perceived as an “Atlanticist” move. At the time, it was said the trade-off would be the revival of European defence. We’ve seen nothing. As President Hollande has emphasized, we’re solid allies of the United States but we’re not aligned. Rather than hard power or soft power, I prefer to talk about power of influence for France. France is both a unique and a universal power. Among the tools of this power, we have our economic potential, our diplomatic and military status and our cultural and linguistic influence; we must strengthen them.
Q. – In your opinion, should France convey a message distinguishing her from the notion of the “Western family”?
THE MINISTER – We certainly won’t be taking a “conflict of civilizations” approach. This government believes in principles like respect for human rights, democracy, sustainable development, internationalism and the quest for peace.
Q. – What does “internationalism” mean?
THE MINISTER – It means that we believe – despite its shortcomings – in the United Nations Organization and that we insist on the necessity of international regulation in the economic, financial, environmental and security fields. (…)
Q. – You take a Gaullist-Mitterrandian approach.
THE MINISTER – When François Hollande, Jean-Marc Ayrault and I take a decision, we don’t ask whether it’s “Gaullist-Mitterrandian” or whether it’s –
Q. – Neo-Atlanticist?
THE MINISTER – Let’s avoid these categorizations! We ask ourselves whether that decision is fair and effective. I repeat: France must be an influential power, unique and universal, which believes in regulation and seeks to extend it.
Influence also presupposes coherence – two areas I emphasized to the remarkable staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as soon as I came into office, with the three ministers delegate alongside me.
Q. – What policy will you be conducting towards China? Will there be any change?
THE MINISTER – A power such as France must maintain close relations with China. This doesn’t mean we agree on everything. In particular, we’ll have to hold in-depth discussions on our economic relationship, be it bilaterally or between Europe and China. Our deficit with China, the problems posed by intellectual property issues, those concerning trade reciprocity, currency, and environmental and social dumping – all this obviously has to be discussed. China will soon have new leaders, but contacts are in place and we’ll obviously have close relations with that country; it can’t be any other way.
Q. – Is France going to respect the Franco-Chinese communiqué of April 2009, in which Paris committed to strict “non-interference” in human rights – a communiqué which came in the wake of the crisis between France and China over Tibet?
THE MINISTER – You know, I have vivid memories of helping deal a severe blow to apartheid, as François Mitterrand’s prime minister. I can in no way be suspected of turning a blind eye as regards human rights. But I know that we’ve got to take concrete steps forward and that this isn’t achieved by hurling abuse. It’s no use being provocative, or uncritical, and even less use being both alternately.
Q. – How are you going to mend bridges with Turkey now that you’ve said you’re in favour of the law criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide?
THE MINISTER – We had a very good meeting with President Gül in Chicago. On the Armenia issue, the decision of the Constitutional Council will have to be taken into account.
Q. – François Hollande has pledged to move fast on adopting this law.
THE MINISTER – Yes, but there are still legal constraints. Be that as it may, it’s important to pick up the threads with Turkey, who plays a major role on the economic and diplomatic fronts – for example, on the Syria and Iran issues. We intend moving forward on this.
Q. – On the Palestinian issue, is France going to take initiatives?
THE MINISTER – We’re very committed to everything which can help resolve this conflict. We talked to President Obama and Hillary Clinton about this. In a few days’ time I’m having a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas. I’ll obviously be in contact with the Israeli government. France can play a useful role because she enjoys a relationship of trust with both parties.
Q. – Can France envisage going further in terms of recognizing a Palestinian state?
THE MINISTER – It’s critically important to facilitate progress on resolving this conflict.
Q. – Are you ruling out recognition of a Palestinian state by France, in a national capacity, and a vote in favour of it at the Security Council?
THE MINISTER – We’re mindful of these questions and will discuss them with those concerned.
Q. – France’s policy has been perceived as pro-Israeli over the past few years. Would you like to correct this impression?
THE MINISTER – The Israeli government has a large majority. Perhaps this will allow it to make progress which, in different circumstances, would be more difficult. In any case, you’re familiar with our position: Israel’s security must be guaranteed, the Palestinians’ right to a viable state respected, and any fait accompli policy – as regards settlement activity in particular – forbidden. Here again, we want to combine coherence and consistency./.