Laurent Fabius: “We should not have to choose between a dictator and terrorists”

Laurent Fabius, at Elysee Palace, 25 of June 2015. © Charles Platiau / Reuters
Interview with François de Labarre

Last week, French minister for Foreign Affairs told us his fear about the crisis in the Middle East and the reason of his “robust” position vis-à-vis Iran in the nuclear talks still going on in Vienna.

Last week, terrorism struck, on the same day, in five countries and on three different continents. Do you believe Daesh to be organized enough to undertake this kind of operation, or is it a mere coincidence?
Daesh sets the general framework of horror, without even always having to give specific instructions. Operations can be centralized or individual, but the result is unfortunately the same: terrorism without borders! Under the pretext of religion, these criminals are ready to kill anyone who refuses to submit to their disastrous demands. Their first victims are Muslims. But they are a danger to us all, across all continents. There is no other answer than to organize to fight against and eradicate this evil, with international coordination and knowing that it will take time.

Since we are dealing with a franchise operating without borders, should we prioritize attacking Daesh on the territory it holds?
Their geographical base, what they call the Caliphate, is not limited to Iraq and Syria. It also wants to annex Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Israel and the rest of the region. We must therefore be mobilized everywhere.

The strategy of air strikes has proved insufficient to annihilate Daesh or even reduce the territory it controls. Is there a plan B?
The air strikes are necessary because the International Coalition must help local populations to win. That is why we are taking part in air strikes. But we cannot win this war from the outside. Local populations must be mobilized on the ground. In Iraq, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds must come together against Daesh, meaning that the government of Iraq should adopt a truly inclusive policy, respecting and bringing together all communities. This is essential.

Iraq’s Kurds claim it is still not the case…?
That is why we are insisting. Military action is necessary, but it is not enough. Political action depends on the government itself and must be inclusive. Similarly in Syria, where military operations are conducted, the solution is political, again with the need for a unity government that brings together both opposition and regime elements, but without Bashar al-Assad.

“Sometimes it is difficult to know which is which”

Don’t you think it is necessary to avoid the collapse of the Alawite regime?
Yes, we must prevent the collapse of the foundations of the state, as happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. We must preserve the foundations of the state. Obviously, Bashar al-Assad, who is largely responsible for 230,000 Syrian deaths and millions of displaced persons, cannot claim to represent the future of Syria. We are working on a political solution with regional countries, the United States, Europe and Russia. It is a long – too long – and difficult process. But it is the preferred solution.

Do you believe you will achieve this solution in a reasonable time?
We are doing our best.

Is there a plan B?
There are other options, but they entail enormous human suffering and a risk of the country breaking up.

Could Jaish al-Fatah, which claims to be the new FSA (Free Syrian Army), be included in a future government for Syria?
We can work with various opposition groups, but in no case with terrorists. Not with Daesh or with Jabhat al-Nusra (note: affiliated to Al Qaeda and present in Jaish al-Fatah). Sometimes it is difficult to know which is which. In this case, the instructions given to our services are to act only when certain.

In Syria, as in Libya, where it expelled Daesh from Derna, for example, Al Qaeda seems to be one of the main credible military forces confronting Daesh.
This is why it is essential to strengthen the democratic opposition and to seek a political solution. Otherwise, we risk having to choose between a criminal dictatorship and terrorist groups, which often support each other. Do not forget that Bashar al-Assad is largely responsible for the development of terrorist groups in his country.

Could the discussions conducted by Bernardino Léon under the auspices of the UN halt the spiral of violence that is undermining Libya?
They should. We support the efforts of Bernardino Léon, now on his fourth proposal. The objective is a unity government between the forces of Tobruk and of Tripoli. We are mobilizing our diplomatic influence to support this solution and urge neighbouring countries to work in the same direction. The discussions are difficult because everyone is trying to preserve their own interests. However, an agreement is indispensable, otherwise groups like Daesh will benefit, as they already are. That would be disastrous for Libya, for neighbouring countries and for Europe, as the Libyan chaos is partly responsible for the massive, tragic migrations in the Mediterranean.

Shouldn’t France assume its share of responsibility in the present Libyan chaos? Did it not lack political vision at the time of the 2011 intervention?
We were for French intervention in 2011, even though we were part of the opposition. Do not forget that Gaddafi was preparing to commit massacres. The big mistake was the lack of follow-up. Military intervention alone cannot transform a country like Libya, one of heavily armed tribes and lacking state structures, into a stable, balanced and peaceful country. The lack of follow-up at the time – what you called the lack of “political vision” – does in fact bear some responsibility. As for now, it is also essential to find a political solution in Libya. There are differences between various localities, but the solution is often political and requires governments of national unity. Otherwise, terrorists could take advantage of the chaos and manipulate ethnic or religious affinities to strengthen and amplify their gruesome actions.

“In this particular case, helping Tunisia comes down to protecting ourselves”

After the attack in Sousse, you spoke with Tunisian politicians. Are they right to fear the rise of Daesh in Libya?
Yes, the Libyan chaos does have direct consequences for neighbouring Tunisia. But there are other reasons for concern. There are many Tunisians among foreign fighters in regional theatres. Unfortunately, they can then use their criminal know-how in their own country. The Tunisians are a friendly and courageous people who achieved an organized democratic revolution: they should be fully supported. Tunisia does not have many natural resources and its wealth comes, in part, from tourism. That is why the terrorists struck there. International cooperation is essential. I discussed this again yesterday and the day before, with my British and German counterparts, who also agree on the need for cooperation. It needs to be developed very fast.

What kind of cooperation?
Sharing of information and actions to fight terrorism and to protect civilians. When the risk is international, the response must also be international. In this particular case, helping Tunisia comes down to protecting ourselves.

Would you agree that diplomatic calendars are out of step with the modern world? Negotiations with Iran, for example, have been going on for years. Would you say that being more reactive could help solve problems that are developing fast, in step with the modern world?
Of course we would like to go faster and get more results. When lives are at stake, lengthy discussions are often dreadful, even revolting, but by definition international affairs involve several countries. We cannot decide for others. So you have to both be proactive and avoid formulas like “there is only” and “we have to.”

The United Nations system has strengths and weaknesses. For example, Russia’s veto prevented any progress towards a solution to the Syrian drama, despite tens of thousands of deaths. France proposes to reform the existing mechanisms in this respect. Yes, that is too long while humans suffer.

The current global situation also contributes to these deadlocks. After the Second World War, we were in a “bipolar” system where the US and the USSR were leading the game. Those two powers had to agree to resolve certain crises. Then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was the United States alone that dominated a world which had become “unipolar”. Today, we have entered a new situation, a “zero-polar” situation where no one power, or even two powers, can resolve a crisis. International crises are multiplying but no single power, or even two, can solve them. France, as an independent power and permanent member of the Security Council, plays its role in advancing our number one objective: peace and security. Our role is recognized and appreciated. This does not mean pacifism, because sometimes you have to use force to contribute to peace. Whether in Mali, in the Central African Republic, in the Ukrainian crisis or in the Middle East, all our efforts support peace and security. But we cannot achieve this objective all by ourselves.

Spying allied countries ? “Unacceptacle”

While the United States is struggling to bring peace to some parts of the world, it does, however, maintain its leading position when it comes, for example, to spying on French presidents and their advisors…?
President Hollande and I have been clear with our interlocutors: while interceptions are justified in the fight against terrorism, they are unacceptable against leaders of allied countries.

Will you make a gesture to show your displeasure?
We have, and in very clear terms.

The signing of an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna would save the record of the Barack Obama’s second term. It would mean the rehabilitation of Iran. Do you think this is desirable?
I support an agreement, but not just any agreement. The aim is to prevent nuclear proliferation in both Iran and the rest of the region. If Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would not only constitute a danger, but would also encourage others to do the same. While it can be argued that nuclear weapons have deterred war when only five countries (basically the permanent members of the Security Council) possessed it, it would be a disaster if a race to acquire nuclear weapons in a region as volatile as the Middle East were to develop, not to mention the possibility of a terrorist group acquiring them.

The purpose of this very complex negotiation is to define the commitments that will enable Iran to use civil nuclear energy while making sure it does not acquire nuclear weapons, which would allow the sanctions imposed against it to be lifted. The main difficulty is focused on the conditions to be laid down to Iran. Iran must specifically agree to let the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspect its facilities, because an agreement which is not verifiable is not applicable. Similarly, if Iran does not meet its obligations, it should be possible to restore sanctions immediately. Many points have moved forward in our discussions but we have not yet completed the negotiations.

Has France always had a “robust” position vis-à-vis Iran?
Some even claim that “Fabius is too tough.” This is not personal. We are not “tough”, we are consistent. Iran is a great country and Persia is a great civilization. But in terms of the negotiations, we must be clear: civil nuclear energy yes, nuclear weapons no! If we are to avoid nuclear proliferation, the agreement must be robust. Otherwise, there will be proliferation and it will be very dangerous for everyone.

The 30 June deadline has already expired. How far can it be pushed back?
A few days, but not indefinitely!

“It would be very bad for Greece”

What do you think of the initiative of Alexis Tsipras to organize a referendum?
Today (note: Monday, 29 June) we are at a deadlock. Prime Minister Tsipras wants to submit to referendum a proposal from the European Commission and is campaigning for a “no” vote. He himself interrupted the negotiations. No one trusts anyone anymore. Greeks are massively withdrawing their money. An exit from the eurozone is a real risk. It would be very bad for Greece and it would be bad for Europe. France is always available to seek an agreement if there is a common will.

What do you think of the proposal of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn to freeze the maturities of the Greek debt?
These issues are complex. They cannot, unfortunately, be summed up in a few lines.

Last week you tried to revive the peace process in the Middle East. How were you received?
I had discussions, successively, with representatives of the League of Arab States, with Egypt’s president, with the King of Jordan, with the Palestinian president and with the Israeli prime minister. I told them all essentially the same thing: “the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still not resolved is, as you know, very dangerous; at any moment, a new explosion can take place, especially in Gaza, which would further inflame the region. Palestinians’ rights have not been recognized, while Israel’s security is threatened. And, what would happen if Daesh – yes, Daesh again! – seized the Palestinian cause? France knows the immense difficulty of the problems but we are not giving up. It never hurts to act for peace.” And I made some proposals to try to move forward.

Do you think the Israelis and Palestinians are ready to make peace?
Negotiations must be resumed. France can help by proposing, in particular, an international monitoring group comprising the Arab countries directly concerned and which have submitted a peace plan. The reception was positive on Palestinian and Arab sides. Israel’s Prime Minister declared that he would reject any international “diktat”, but this is by no means a “diktat”: it is an attempt to put an end to a conflict that has lasted for over forty years. The current situation, especially with the continuation of settlement-building, is not a guarantee of peace. Obviously, we do not claim to be able to resolve the problems ourselves in place of the parties concerned, but it is useful for a country like France to acknowledge that this serious problem exists and offer avenues for progress.

After discussing the taboo subject of further settlement-building, are discussions with Netanyahu still possible?
Of course. When the Israeli Prime Minister wants the security of his country to be guaranteed, he is right. Regarding the settlements, they have been considered illegal on several occasions, internationally. If they continue to develop, the two-state solution could become impossible. Again, possible solutions must be found and put forward to both parties and to the international community.

“COP21 : Here we are”

By taking the presidency of the COP21 climate conference in 2015, you will be leading complex negotiations in yet another area. Do you hope to reach an agreement by next December?
Yes, although I know it will be an extraordinarily difficult task, as we must bring 196 “parties” to agree on a very complex topic. This deserves all our efforts because – without stretching the meaning of words – what is at stake is our common future and that of our planet. It is imperative to convince all countries to act against global warming, or else the planet will become uninhabitable.

Have you made a prediction?
I often quote the phrase of the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, where he sums up: “There is no plan B, because there is no planet B”.

The subject of global warming seems to be distinct from other subjects we have discussed, but climate, too, is about security. If warming continues, more and more people will suffer from famines, entire regions will be covered by water and conflicts will erupt for control of resources. When I took office in 2012, I was asked about the priorities of our foreign policy, which I summarized in four words: Security, the Planet, Europe, and France’s influence. Well, here we are. We are at the crossroads of all these priorities. Diplomacy is now global. Adding, as Martin Luther King put it, that nowadays “We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

After COP 21, will you become President of the Constitutional Council, as has been suggested?
It has been rumoured that I had the ambition, successively or simultaneously, to be President, Prime Minister, Minister of the Economy and who knows what. I handle foreign affairs 24 hours a day, with a team of exceptional quality. It is exciting and I try to do my best. That is enough for me.

You are not getting involved in the presidential campaign, unlike others…?
I avoid controversy. I prefer action. My work is so demanding that, if I devoted part of my energy to controversy, I would not be able to cope. I try, along with Francois Hollande, to implement a foreign policy that is useful and as consensual as possible. Generally, the opposition has been quite responsible in this regard. There have been a few exceptions, but not many. They remind me of a nice phrase by Stendhal: “a little passion increases the intelligence, but a great deal stifles it.”

Yet (the Minister of Interior) Bernard Cazeneuve has recalled that many police jobs were lost between 2007 and 2012.
It is materially incontestable. As for me, my immediate predecessor at the Foreign Ministry was Alain Juppé. I have much esteem for him, so any controversy would not be warranted.

ITV Laurent Fabius, 28 June at the Coburg Palace, Vienna.

The original French text was published by Paris Match. Translation by Middle East Transparent (Shaffaf).

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