Q: Minister, hello. Let’s start with the Palestinian issue; what is France’s position exactly?
We want to relaunch the negotiations in order to reach an agreement; this is the only way to guarantee long-term peace and security to the State of Israel as well as to the State of Palestine. That’s the reasoning behind President Sarkozy’s proposal. He therefore tried to adopt a new initiative in order to get things moving, firstly by proposing a different method in order to involve all permanent members of the Security Council, the Arab countries, the major European countries, since no country can move things forward by itself; then we want to set out the terms of reference of the negotiation; a timetable. And then - and this is perhaps the main innovation - we want to support the negotiation process through a UN General Assembly resolution which would give Palestine the status of an observer State.
Q: So, ultimately, there’s nothing new in this proposal, we’ve been repeating exactly the same thing to the Palestinians for years now.
The new thing is the last point of the proposal. If we managed - of course we have to discuss this with everyone - to get a UN General Assembly resolution which recognizes Palestine as an observer State, that’s a completely new thing; it’s a very important step toward the full recognition of a State in its own right which would be achieved through the negotiation that we’re calling for. It’s not a matter of starting years of negotiations. If we agree to restart the negotiations, let’s agree to finish them within one year, at the latest.
Q: You’re aware of what’s being said in Arab circles: Israel came to the UN in the 1940s and achieved UN recognition of their State. If it applies to the Israelis, then why not to the Palestinians?
That’s precisely what President Sarkozy said this morning: it’s been going on for 60 years; it’s been going on for long enough. I think that the time has really come to change things and to take action to change things because we’re witnessing enormous upheaval in the Arab countries, which is changing things completely. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria - and we could add to this list - everything’s changing around Israel and around the Palestinian Territories. That’s why we must keep the promises that we made - you’re right to mention that -, i.e. achieve recognition of a Palestinian State.
Q: Why was this compromise imposed on the Palestinians? Why not support them at the Security Council in order to achieve recognition of their State?
The response to this question is that there will be a veto at the Security Council because the United States has made that clear. We shouldn’t make value judgments, it’s a fact. If there’s a veto, there won’t be a decision. That’s what we tried to explain to our Palestinian friends. The path they’ve chosen - and we can understand it, I’m not shocked that the Palestinians are going to the United Nations - is blocked. France says: "let’s try to work in a different way if we really want to achieve a result." And we can’t achieve the final result straight away, i.e. the recognition of a State in its own right. We’re starting with this first very significant step, which is the status of observer State. And even that has to be adopted unanimously. The Palestinians’ feedback was positive. For now they’re asking questions about the American position. President Sarkozy met Prime Minister Netanyahu who has taken note of all of these proposals. What’s important is that the dialogue is still open. We can continue to talk about this over the next few days since in any case the referral of the matter to the Security Council by the Palestinians won’t result in a vote at the Council tomorrow morning. It’s a process that will take two or three weeks, or a month. Let’s put this time to good use to see if we can restart the negotiation process since the Palestinians and the Israelis are saying: only direct negotiations between the parties will make it possible to achieve peace and therefore security for the two States.
Q: Many Arabs will say: we’re in the midst of the Arab Spring, why doesn’t France oppose the threat of an American veto at the Security Council?
But what does opposing the threat of an American veto mean?
Q: It means saying that you don’t agree and signaling France’s position more clearly.
But how does that change things if we say that we don’t agree? It’s not a matter of assuming declaratory positions, antagonizing the parties, and increasing tensions and pressure. We need to calm things down and get back around the table. The right to veto is a right held by the permanent members of the Security Council. We’ve therefore adopted a different approach - I repeat - because we’re friends of Israel, and we say to Israel: the only way to guarantee your security is to talk with the Palestinians. And we say the same thing to the Palestinians, we’re your friends so don’t retreat into a strategy that’s a dead end. Try to take the proposals we’re making into consideration.
Q: Is France in the process of refocusing its foreign policy toward the Arabs in general? You also said in Tunis, in particular with respect to the Palestinians, that France’s traditional support has changed. Are you in the process of refocusing your policy?
France has refocused its Arab policy, unquestionably.
Because events have taken place that have changed things dramatically. Events that we couldn’t have seen coming. That’s where we realized perhaps that French diplomacy lacked a certain level of intuition. We didn’t see it coming that the Arab people would rise up against the authoritarian regimes that didn’t take their aspirations for freedom and democracy into consideration. This is excellent news for us, an opportunity. That’s why we now support the transition programs in Tunisia and Egypt. There’s a lot of talk here about what’s happening in the Middle East. But I would like to reaffirm that yesterday I chaired, on behalf of France which holds the presidency of the G8, a very important meeting of the Deauville Partnership which established an extremely ambitious plan since we could reach between $70 and 80 billion in support of the Arab countries in transition, i.e. Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Libya. You can therefore see that our Arab policy has taken a new direction and we think that we must also go in this direction by encouraging the recognition of the aspirations of the Palestinian people.
Q: Minister, if you agree, we’ll come back to the Deauville issue you mentioned just now; I’d like to ask you another question regarding the American veto at the Security Council. There are surely some Arabs who’ll say that France is clearly trying to align its foreign policy slightly more with the United States’ policy on the Middle East.
I’m very surprised by your assessment. Read today’s headline in the New York Times: France breaks with the United States on Middle East.
Q: I’m not talking about the American media but about the Arab media.
That proves that the same reality can sometimes give rise to different interpretations. I believe that from the very beginning, France has tried to serve as a bridge, not by taking sides but by serving as a bridge between the parties, by telling them: sit down around a table, stop imposing preconditions before negotiating. That’s the attitude we’re taking. While some find that we’re not doing enough in one direction, the others find it’s not enough in the other. Which I believe demonstrates that we are on the right path.
Q: On the Arab Spring: In Tunis, you said that the great movement that was sparked in Tunis and spread throughout the Arab world arouses admiration and respect among the French because you need courage to protest against an authoritarian police state.
Indeed, the young Tunisians and young Egyptians needed courage.
Q: But a few months before your visit, the former foreign affairs minister was still trying to shore up Ben Ali’s security policy three days before his fall. Is French policy one of refocusing or playing catch-up?
I have already answered that question and said publicly: we no doubt attributed too much to what was referred to as the stability of Arab countries. In other words, we gave too much credit to regimes that told us they were the best bulwarks against extremism and religious fanaticism. And we therefore underestimated people’s frustration and their aspiration for freedom and democracy. That’s a fact, it’s history, it’s the past. Let’s not keep going back there. Now, under the President’s leadership—and I’m implementing it at the Foreign Ministry—our direction has been clear for several months. It has remained the same, and it’s what led us to tell Syria that the regime’s behavior is unacceptable, because you can’t respond to political demonstrations with a crackdown, with bombs, with torture and imprisonment.
Q: If they asked you, would you do it?
I think a military intervention isn’t applicable in every case. It’s a very particular situation, Syrian society is more complicated, there’s a risk of civil war. But that’s not double-speak; we’ve said clearly from the outset that it isn’t acceptable. The EU has adopted sanctions - travel bans, the freezing of financial assets. We hope the Security Council will speak out, and you already know that I’ve said that the Security Council’s silence is outrageous, in a way. Once again, we proposed a new draft resolution urging the Syrian regime to halt the crackdown and the violence, and maybe even to seize its final opportunity to engage in a reform process. But I don’t really believe it. The regime has now gone too far. That said, the current situation is complicated. For now, the opposition is still unorganized. We don’t really see what the alternative is, and so I’m afraid the situation will continue week after week—sadly, with additional deaths.
Q: What you’re saying is that in Libya there was the NATO military intervention that included France, but in Syria, time is needed.
No, I didn’t say that. I said it would take time, but I regret that. It’s not what I want. I said that we don’t intend to intervene militarily in Syria for the reasons I indicated. I didn’t say more time is needed. I said we need to stop the massacres as swiftly as possible.
Q: And you think it’s sufficient to tell the Bashar al-Assad regime, "that’s enough"?
The proof that it isn’t sufficient is that it’s still going on. We need to ratchet things up a notch by going further in the Security Council, so that the Security Council issues a stronger condemnation. And we hope the Arab countries will help us with that condemnation. We can’t do everything all by ourselves. Let me remind you that Resolution 1973 on Libya was presented by France, Great Britain and Lebanon, an Arab country. The conditions aren’t the same with respect to Syria. Let everyone assume their responsibilities.
Q: How do you see Libya’s future? There are concerns: Islamists, Salafists and others. What’s your view?
The natural tendency of all observers is to have concerns. But from time to time, you also have to have faith in people, in life, in the future. As far as we’re concerned, I have faith in Libya’s future. First, the military situation is evolving. The forces of what is now the official authority in Libya, i.e., the National Transitional Council, are gaining control of nearly the entire country. They are making progress in the last pockets of resistance. The Qaddafi regime is finished, that’s clear. The country will build its future through reconstruction, and there too, I believe there are positive signs. Last week, President Sarkozy and the British Prime Minister were in Tripoli, and the situation is much better than you might think. There were no massacres, explosions, unrest; things are returning to normal, life is resuming its course. The National Transitional Council is progressively becoming established, and we will support it. Of course, it’s up to the Libyans to choose their future, to build the Libya of tomorrow, and we will support them because they need our help and they have asked for it. I mentioned the Deauville Partnership; the UN will also invest in Libya to help the Libyans. France is also prepared to do so in two areas:
— on the political level: the road map announced by the National Transitional Council is being established; it includes a constitution, free elections, a government
— and economic reconstruction must be carried out. Libya is lucky to be a rich country. It has considerable assets.
Q: That’s why you intervened in Libya? To give the Libyans their money back? Libya is a rich country, Syria isn’t a rich country.
No, not at all. This money doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to the Libyan people. It was confiscated by the regime. The situation was much simpler before. Before, with Qaddafi, we also had the oil. We didn’t intervene because of the oil.
Q: Won’t Libyan oil be more affordable?
I don’t know, only time will tell. Oil prices aren’t linked to what happened. Those that have a short-term view of things will continue to believe this notion that we intervened because of the oil. We didn’t intervene because of that; we intervened quite simply to allow the Libyan people to liberate themselves. It’s in this same spirit that we supported the revolution in Tunisia and the revolution in Egypt. Fortunately, there wasn’t any military intervention, things happened differently. All the same, it’s quite shocking to see how certain media outlets function. I want to reaffirm that the article which indicated that France had received a letter from the NTC promising it 35% of Libya’s oil resources is a scandalous lie.
Let’s leave that for now. We’re there to help Libya. Of course if Libya regains its prosperity in the future, if it’s a stable democracy, able to provide its youth with jobs, everyone will benefit. It will be an element of security, of stability which directly concerns us. If we, the countries north of the Mediterranean, have a South that is impoverished, which is experiencing instability, chaos, uncontrollable migration flows, then it’s not good for us. Conversely, a Libya that’s developing, a Tunisia that’s developing, an Egypt that’s developing, which gives work to its people, is good for us. France didn’t intervene because of the oil. I want to stress that.
Q: After the blunders of France’s foreign policy in North Africa in general and in Tunisia in particular, the relations that will be developed with Libya will strengthen the position of France’s foreign policy in North Africa.
That’s already the case. I’d like to come back to what you were saying: the blunders of France’s foreign policy in North Africa. Who hasn’t made blunders? I could cite major countries that have also made blunders, countries that didn’t see things coming. And the great movement that took us by surprise - we didn’t see that coming. I don’t think that you can single out France more than other countries. And then we adapted. We recognized that the situation had changed and that we had to change our way of looking at things. Quite simply, Islam’s relationship with democracy. We’d been slightly brainwashed into thinking that Islam was incompatible with democracy. I don’t think that’s true. There are Muslim countries that are attached to their faith, to their religion, and are perfectly capable of democratic changes. Morocco, for example, provides the kind of model that we must support.
Q: How would you assess the Morocco’s future? The protest movement of 20 February is continuing.
There can be no democracy without a protest movement. I’m very confident about Morocco’s future. The king has taken strong initiatives. He proposed profound changes in the way its monarchy should function. Furthermore, the Moroccan economy which is closely linked to the European economy and benefits from advanced status with respect to the EU is now moving in the right direction. And I think that Morocco has made a good start and we will help it - as I said just now - thanks to the Deauville Partnership.
Q: You support the institutional reforms but at the same time the 20 February movement?
It’s not a matter of supporting movements in a democracy. We’re not going to interfere with the political parties. Quite simply, we want to support the regimes that are taking the aspirations of their people into account. Allow me to point out that no tanks or planes were used to crackdown on the demonstrations in Morocco. We’re not talking about Libya. We’re not talking about Syria. Don’t mix everything up.
Q: Do you see a fundamental difference between the monarchies in the Arab world and the republics or is that just a coincidence?
I’m simply noting that there are two monarchies - Jordan and Morocco - where things are changing and reforms are being implemented while in other more authoritarian regimes, violence has unfortunately not been avoided.
Q: Regarding Algeria: have the events in Libya complicated relations between Paris and Algiers?
No, I recently met my Algerian counterparts in New York and we had a very clear discussion. It’s true that I said that Algeria’s attitude regarding the Libyan issue didn’t always appear as clear as we would have liked. But the Algerians have clarified these positions and recognized the NTC just recently. Therefore, in this respect, there’s no fundamental disagreement between France and Algeria.
Q: But when you say that the Arab Spring raises hopes as well as challenges for France’s foreign policy, is Algeria part of this equation and does it raise hopes and challenges?
Both, I admit. Hope, certainly. Algeria is an absolutely essential partner for us for the reasons you’re aware of. If only due to their presence in France: we have a large and well integrated Algerian community. We’re also aware that this country faces challenges, a huge young population…
Q: I mean with respect to the challenges for France with respect to Algeria.
The challenge for France would be that Algeria must deal with the problems, as I explained, notably the challenge posed by this huge young population who must be given work. That concerns us directly: if Algeria manages to deal with this problem, it would of course be good for the stability of the countries bordering the Mediterranean.
Q: One last point, Minister - the issue of the Deauville initiative which you talked about just now. This is a very large amount of money. There are of course assets, whether from Ben Ali in Tunisia, or from Mubarak in Egypt that were frozen in Europe - wouldn’t it be more helpful for them to get their money back rather than ask for assistance?
We need to make a distinction between the two situations. There are assets that were apparently misappropriated and these belong to the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and then there are the assets that were frozen by the Security Council in accordance with a UN resolution and we’re in the process of unfreezing them. Libya, for example, will receive $15 billion. These assets belong to it and were confiscated by the previous regimes and have been made available to Libya again. The situation in Egypt is different. Egypt has a population of 80 million, an economy that has been weakened by the crisis, tourism has collapsed so it’s essential to help Egypt and if the Egyptian economy doesn’t pick up then obviously the transition will be more difficult. That’s why we’re saying to the Egyptians, propose an action plan - it’s down to you to propose it - for education, training, infrastructure, establishing the rule of law and we’ll help you. And that’s what we’ve done and I can tell you that yesterday we were able to implement a plan that will very swiftly become operational.
Q: As we near the elections in Tunisia, do you have hopes and concerns regarding the political process in that country?
There are always concerns. As I’ve said, this great movement sweeping across the Arab world has its risks, and indeed we see there may be extremist movements that take advantage of the situation - and notably of a potential deterioration in the economic situation - to seize power. And our role is therefore to promote the rule of law and help democracy flourish. That means pluralism, several parties, and elections. And that’s what’s happening in Tunisia. We mustn’t ignore our concerns. We mustn’t be blind. There are risks and dangers, but let’s try to keep our focus and our stress on the chance of seeing this country achieve a true rule of law and a developing economy.
Q: Do you think that the government in Tunisia has control of the security situation?
I think that while there are obviously difficulties, which we are familiar with, it has overall control and I think that the elections will result in a government whose legitimacy will obviously be stronger. That legitimate government will be able to guarantee security, which is part of every democratic system. Freedom and security are fundamental principles in every democracy.
Q: Finally, has France recovered lost ground in the Arab world?
That’s not exactly how I put it, I think that France was courageous, bold, and one of the countries that took the greatest risks. We took major risks and we won the day. When I see how Nicolas Sarkozy was welcomed in Tripoli and Benghazi, it’s clear to me that the Arab people understood that France was on their side.