ABU DHABI (Emirates Palace) 18 April 2013: Underscoring the longstanding, deep and strong relations that the UAE and the France enjoy, Her Excellency Michèle Alliot-Marie, Former Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs of the Republic of France, called for greater cooperation between the two countries in identifying and solving problems of the future through prospective and strategic thinking. In an exclusive interview to the Website of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), Her Excellency provided detailed and insightful analyses on wide-ranging geopolitical issues covering the areas of international cooperation, the Iranian nuclear issue, defense spending and even the Eurozone economy. She even hinted at the possibility of a select group of Eurozone country possibly coming together in 2014 to follow a new set of economic rules. Following is the edited text of the interview.
Q1. Earlier this year, UAE-French relations received a fresh impetus with the visit of President His Excellency Francois Hollande to Abu Dhabi earlier this year. In your view what is the significance of improving UAE-French relations not just from a political, economic and cultural point of view but also from a security and strategic perspective. How do they serve as a role model of relations for other states in the region?
Ans: France and the United Arab Emirates enjoy very close, strong and comprehensive relations. They cover economic and cultural ties, along with defense and strategic cooperation. The two enjoy close strategic partnership, which has been built over many years. The first defense agreement was signed in 1995 and I remember the close relationship between Jacques Chirac, when he was the Prime Minister and then the President with the Founder of the UAE, the Late Sheikh Zayed (may his soul rest in peace). I met Sheikh Zayed twice and conveyed to him a few friendly messages from Jacques Chirac. Recently, we established a naval base in Abu Dhabi, which has hundreds of troops. I think it is a new and important step for both countries. From this base, we can launch campaigns against pirates and terrorists operating in the high seas. It is both a security and a defense accord. The two countries also cooperate in providing medical and humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees in Jordan. We also have joint cooperation between our military officers and soldiers. We conduct joint training and military exercises, one of it was in 2012. We have fought together in Kosovo and more recently in Mali. We also have cooperation in intelligence and in cyber-security. You know in my lecture I spoke about the problem of cyber attacks. The meeting that we had in the morning was also a kind of new relationship because it allowed us to chart the problems we may face in the future and the solutions we can find together.
In the lecture I spoke of the new threats not only related to terrorism, but also in the field of nuclear proliferation and chemical weapons. There also concerns about conflicts around water, particularly drinking water. There are similarly issues about food and energy security etc. All these issues are very important and we have to anticipate and preempt what could happen because when these problems erupt it might be too late to handle them. So I think we can achieve this through a mutual and balanced approach and it would constitute a real model of cooperation.
Q2. With US stating that in the next decade it would have a more Asia Pacific-oriented foreign policy, should we expect France to play an even more active role in the Middle East and the Gulf region because of its long ties to the region and the direct impact of developments in the region on Europe and France itself?
Ans: I hope so and I did make efforts in this regard for many years. We have a similarity of views and outlook with countries of the Gulf, particularly when it comes to international relations, respect for cultures, and so on. So I began the process of establishing good relations with GCC states. I do not know what the United States will do in terms of their policies. Maybe they are more interested in issues related to the Pacific, like nowadays with North Korea and maybe China too. But I think there is concern in France and in Europe for the South Mediterranean, the Gulf region and even Africa. You see, our relations with the region do not exist merely at the economic level, but at a human level and I think that is very important because that allows real confidence between not only our leaders but also between our people and we have to work for strengthening that. It is not only very important for the stability of the region, but also for the stability of the Mediterranean area and maybe Europe too because what happens here is of immediate consequence for Europe.
Q3. It is quite a paradox that just as new security threats are emerging on the global scene, the current global economic crisis is forcing countries to make drastic defense cuts. How do you see the future for global security in this context and what is France’s strategy in managing these constraints?
Ans: It is indeed a paradox as the risks are increasing and the budgetary support is falling. However, the problem varies from country to country. As for France, President Francois Hollande stated last week that France will not make cuts in its defense spending and I think it is a good thing. You know, France is now first in Europe in terms of its budgetary spending on defense. Until recently we rivaled the UK, but now I think we have moved ahead and I think that France is now probably the first or maybe the second best army in the world. The first one is probably the United States, because of its resources, but in terms of knowledge and capabilities of our soldiers ours is probably better. The defense spending problem relates to other countries of Europe because they have significant budgetary constraints.
But you are correct when you say that we need cooperation because the threats confronting us will be more daunting in the future and one country on its own cannot face them. So I think we could be more efficient if we are all together. Therefore, we have to prepare for a new kind of cooperation. A cooperation built on more confidence in each other, which is more fully integrated, more comprehensive, guided by prospective and strategic thinking, and supported by the proper training of our soldiers and so on.
Q4. The growing privatization of militaries, especially in the US, is setting a dangerous trend, where private contractors who are not bound by military rules and mostly escape prosecution are undermining war efforts. What are Your Excellency’s views on this matter?
Ans: We do not have that kind of a system. Sometimes, we have contractors supplying civil equipment. But in France and Europe we believe that war and peace are problems of state. When I was Minister of Defense, for example I witnessed in Afghanistan a situation where contractors acted very dangerously even for the coalition members. I remember once I was on my way to President Karzai’s office, and behind my car there were members of the press. The security contractors standing outside the office did not understand who the journalists were and they pointed their guns toward them. Perhaps, these security contractors were themselves afraid. I think that in America war is accepted but not the deaths caused by war. So they deploy planes and drones that sometime cause ‘collateral damage’. It is for this reason I had drawn attention in my lecture to the dangers posed by some of the new technologies. Similarly, the mindset behind having the civilian contractor is that the price of this personnel’s life can be compensated by money.
Again, I would like to mention here about the relationship the French forces enjoyed with the local population in Afghanistan. The American command acknowledged it and called it the “French touch.” We had a problem with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) there. However, the relations that our special forces established with the local population, caused people to be friendly. On many occasions, they told our soldiers that we have seen somebody plant a bomb near the road so take care. Therefore, we had fewer deaths. I think this is something special and this applies to British forces too.
Q5: Iran’s apparent intransigence over its nuclear program and its ambitious plans for greater influence continues to create tension and uncertainty in the region. What is the position of France with regards to security and stability in the Gulf and are there signs of any headway in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program?
Ans: I think it is very difficult to have discussions with Iran. One day they say something positive and the next day they retract from it. Therefore, we do not know what they really want. We get the impression that each discussion has become a pretext for Iran to buy time. I spoke in my lecture about why it is impossible to accept Iran developing a nuclear weapon. First, Iran has affirmed its commitment to an international convention, so it has to obey the rules of the convention. For example, it has to open all its nuclear sites for inspection. Second, I think that if Iran has a nuclear bomb there will be two major problems. On the one hand, Iran already has the missiles with which it could launch a nuclear war in the region and some statements made by Ahmedinejad validate these concerns. Second, this could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. Other countries in the region will not accept that Iran alone could have a nuclear weapon. Some of them, who have the resources, might think of developing such weapons in response. This will lead to a proliferation of nuclear weapons technology which will be a very dangerous trend. Therefore, we all have to work toward creating public awareness in Iran that a great nation like Iran does not need to have a nuclear bomb to exist in the international arena or to have a real and important role. For example, you can see Germany, Brazil, Japan, South Africa etc. having strong international influence without having nuclear weapons.
Q6: In recent years, questions have been raised over the whole Eurozone experiment and the problems faced by economies of Greece, Italy, Spain, etc, have become a recurrent phenomena. How do you view this trend and what should be done to keep the Eurozone experiment alive?
Ans: I firmly believe that the Eurozone has a longstanding future, because Europe itself has a longstanding future. In the globalized world of today no country can exist without the other, so the European bloc is necessary. Secondly, Europe is the first economic bloc. It is natural that such a zone should have its own currency and I think that maybe the euro is more secure than the dollar because there is gold in different European banks and guarantees by different states. So, what is the problem today. The financial problem started in the US and then it spread to the rest of the world. However, there are is also problem related to some states in Europe. For many years, we had high level of concern for social welfare, which took more and more share of our budgets. Many of our companies and industries started leaving their places of origin in France, Germany, Spain and Italy and established their bases in countries of eastern Europe and then in China, India and so on. So our production fell and our expenditures increased. Today we need to reorganize that, today we have to find a balance between what we produce and what we spend. So, I personally do not believe that the Socialist parties are following the right path for increasing production. I think we will have to cut down our spending, especially government spending.
Q7: There have been critics who say that Europe should have had a fiscal union first to have a sound monetary union. In other words you cannot have countries making separate budgets and at the same time have a common monetary system. What are your views on this?
A: We tried that (fiscal union). It is not very easy. We consider that we are not a federal nation but several countries with close cooperation and common organizations but we considered that individual states can draw their own budgets. However, it is natural that we would need common rules to formulate our budgets. For example, we need to have limits on budgetary deficits. So, Nicholas Sarkozy — when he was the President — spoke with German Chancellor Angela Markel for setting the rules between France and Germany, particularly for industries. I think in the next year, probably we would have a group of some European countries that will follow similar rules for the project.
Q8: Will it be the so-called ‘core Eurozone countries’ or all of them?
Ans: Maybe not all the countries of the Eurozone. Today, I cannot say how many countries. But there will be a few to begin with and later others can join. Probably now it would be too hard for some of them.