Too hard to build future with unpredictable partners like US – ex-French PM

With Trump facing off with Europe over trade and diplomacy, the transatlantic unity of the West seems to be cracking. Can the row between the historic allies go further? We asked Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the former prime minister of France.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the former Prime Minister of France, welcome to the show. It’s really great to have you with us. France has promised to remain committed to the Iran nuclear deal and struggles along with Germany, UK, Russia and China to keep it alive. But with U.S. cutting air to European businesses in Iran, there’s little left to win for Tehran from this deal. So, let’s be realistic, the deal has no chance to survive without the Americans on board, does it?

Jean-Pierre Raffarin: We think that the nuclear deal must be saved because it is very important today to give Iran a seat at the table with other nations. The international community needs Iran, and we have to make sure that Iran not only participates in the community but also that it commits to denuclearization. This is the French stance. But since Mr Trump, in a unilateral way, and that for us means in a rather disagreeable way, has chosen this path, this means that we have to work on a deal that will be supported by the great powers that are committed to this common position, notably Russia, China and Germany. 

SS: On the other hand, in early June Iran has announced plans to renew uranium enrichment. This announcement doesn’t breach Iran’s commitments under the 2015 accord, but it would certainly be a step towards further escalation. Is Tehran bluffing here to push Europe towards more decisive action, maybe, to hammer out more benefits from Europe that would compensate for U.S. pull-out?

J-PR: We can understand that Iran is shocked by this unilateral questioning of the deal that was signed by all parties. This American stance has naturally created shockwaves in Iran, which is understandable. From here to choose the opposite direction - I mean, a return to nuclear arms - is a path that we wanted to avoid, because for us it is a threshold that we should not cross. We must take strong diplomatic action to be able to solicit support for Iran from the countries who signed the deal in order to come back to the positions that were taken during the deal. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, was satisfied with the discussion he had with Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on this subject, and we think that it is possible that France, Germany, Russia and China, this Euro-Asian arch, can be called upon to show wisdom and stick to positions that strengthen the security of both of the region and of the world.

SS: So you think that Iran won’t restart nuclear enrichment, is that it? 

J-PR: We think that if the diplomatic reaction is strong enough, which is what I wish will happen, we think that Iran can remain on reasonable terms. So we are not, as of today, in a situation where we have reproaches to make towards Iran. In the present circumstances, it is the US that threw the deal off balance, and as of today, it is imperative for the partners of the deal to speak up strongly enough to re-balance this deal and enable Iran not to disrupt the existing balance of power by following a solitary path, but instead we want to encourage Iran to walk a common path, which is a path towards peace.

SS: Besides verbal commitments to the JCPOA what can the European Three, and France in particular, offer Iran to keep them interested in staying in the deal?

J-PR: What is truly important is that we consider Iran as a partner in their own right in the international community. We have had several meetings, in particular the Iranian president’s visit to Paris, where some deals were agreed upon, and so I think that together we have to re-establish this synergy with the whole of the European community. But obviously all this is naturally linked to the unacceptable stance taken by the United States, especially regarding what we call extra-territoriality, which results in the fact that French companies that work in Iran are then penalized in the US. All this creates huge issues in our transatlantic relations. However, we would like to send the message to Iran that for us, Iran’s place at the table in terms of international relations is a place that Iran needed to come back to the negotiations, to be able to start dialogue with peace in mind, and to not cause tense situations that can open the door to a potential war.

SS: You’ve said before that President Putin and President Macron’s working together to salvage the Iran deal could ease tensions on Europe’s east frontier - can Macron do this while his Russia policies are quite hostile, there are sanctions, accusations of election meddling etc.?

J-PR: I think that the relations between France and Russia have been unsettled for the past number of years. There were some mistakes from Russia’s side, but also from France’s side.

So I think that there was... between France and Russia, there has been a certain number of troubles in the last couple of years. And I wholly approved when Emmanuel Macron said, from the very beginning of his mandate, that Vladimir Putin was welcome in France, and when he received him at the Château de Versailles and when the talks were resumed, as they were meant to. I think that this relationship is currently very important and maybe the Iran issue currently gives France and Russia an opportunity to reassert a shared vision. Fundamentally, we have difficult issues. I am referring to, for example, Ukraine and, of course, Syria, but today the topic that is in front of us is that of Iran, and so we must give it priority and ensure that with this topic, the relationship between France and Russia stabilizes and then strengthens, and that together it is possible to find common ground. Generally speaking, Mr Trump’s unilateralism, notably the unilateralism which we saw with regards to Iran, which we also saw with regards to the Paris agreement regarding climate change, which we saw with regards to the American embassy in Jerusalem - all these unilateral decisions challenge, from my point of view, the quality of our transatlantic relations. This means that for Europe, its relations with the East are getting more and more strategic. This is why I personally advocate, with numerous friends here in Paris, that this group of four, consisting of France, Germany, Russia and China, that within this group of four, all members play their part as the heart of the Euro-Asian axis, which can become a worldwide axis of stability. Naturally, each member has their own objectives and their own ambitions. But what we see today is that there is one country called the United States, which is unpredictable. And it is very difficult to try to build a future with unpredictable partners. This is why today the eastward reorientation of Europe is a very strategic issue, and this is tied directly with the improvement of relations between France and Russia.

SS: President Macron has recently said that G-7 “doesn’t mind being six plus one”, hinting that the group will be fine without the U.S. Will it? So far we’ve seen most of the crucial European decisions being taken in compliance with the United States…

J-PR: I think that a new order is being established, and while we are at the very beginning of this new process, which is a gradual deep shift, it will take a bit of time. But generally speaking, we think that diplomacy and dialogue are the way towards peace, and that it is neither via sanctions nor via exclusions that we will achieve peace. Today we are very worried by the climate of insecurity that reigns in the East of Europe, we see the uneasiness of the Baltic countries, the uneasiness of Sweden, the uneasiness of Poland, but we also see Russia’s uneasiness with regards to NATO’s expansion, a certain number of uncertainties regarding NATO, so there is a situation that is not very reassuring, and from this point of view, I think it is necessary to work towards the security of the East of Europe, and that this is achieved via a mutually trusting relationship, especially between France, Germany and Russia.

SS: Just a year ago Trump said that his personal friendship with Macron as well as the friendship between the two countries was “unbreakable”, the two were planting a friendship tree in Washington after all of that. What happened to this cordial relationship if the French President hints that Europe can drift away from the U.S.?

J-PR: I think that the French president wanted to show in his relationship with Mr. Trump that in democracy, it is the people who are President, that just because we disagree with the president doesn’t mean it’s necessary to disagree with the people. The American people were present at crucial points of our history, as well as the Russian people, who played such an important part in our liberation during WWII. So we have very important history together, which naturally President Macron pays particular attention to, but it goes without saying that there are numerous concerns about Mr Trump that are profoundly problematic for us. When he plays with the children of migrants for the sake of opinion polls, he takes these children hostage, first saying that he will separate them from their parents, then reuniting them again. All this gives the impression that when we talk about humanist vision founded especially on the importance of family, which is essential to our culture, there are a certain number of things going on that are unacceptable. And when we see that we have a car factory that makes more than 400 000 cars in Iran which is forced to close its doors under pressure from the Americans, there is, currently, in Europe a certain weariness in the face of American pressure. We are not yet at the point of the great shift that I spoke of, but I think that the intellectual and political infrastructure is now in place to prepare for a new vision of Europe’s future and more specifically that of a strong Europe, within a stable Eurasia. This strong Europe within a stable Eurasia, I think this is the destiny that is starting to emerge today and that Mr Trump is accelerating.

SS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t remember any French President being so much in the spotlight like Emmanuel Macron. It seems like everybody cares about what he says. He talks to the United States on behalf of the EU. It’s almost as if he is actually replacing Angela Merkel as the unofficial leader of the European Union. Do you agree with that?

J-PR: I agree with you that Emmanuel Macron’s leadership was established very, very quickly. You know, within the institutions of the French republic, General De Gaulle said that the president of the Republic is responsible for the essentials. I know of French presidents who, on the first day following their election, and sometimes even five years later, did not have exceptional charisma. But him, Emmanuel Macron, the first day of his becoming president, he had the bearing of a great head of state. He got this magical je-ne-sais quoi, which is called charisma, which is called leadership, and it is true that in the whole world people are listening to what he has to say. First off, because he’s just 40, and is likely to be present for a while – this will be decided by the French voters, of course, – but also because he is someone who is blessed with an intellectual prowess that is particularly sharp, because of his liveliness and his modernity. So all these are considerable assets, but naturally on an international level, it is necessary to show prudence, to listen to others, because the current situation has profoundly degraded, and global tensions are very high, and there is a lot of uneasiness regarding current crises, such as terrorism, such as migrant issues, and even questions linked to the digital revolution, such as the digital economy... All this results in a very dangerous world, and France is mostly satisfied to have a president that is recognised, but there are strong expectations, and his challenge now is not to disappoint.

SS: But do you think that he has enough political weight to replace Angela Merkel as the leader of the European Union?

J-PR: I think that the political weight, he has it in his own country, because he is backed by a strong majority. Angela Merkel has a more complex political situation, with constant negotiations within her coalition. Emmanuel Macron has much more room for maneuver within national politics. Nonetheless, obviously Angela Merkel has the experience, and also has the success of her policy and the strength that the German economy has today behind her. There are challenges in Germany, for example, demographical challenges, but there are also results that are massively large, that have given Angela Merkel the status of a leader. But I truly believe that Europe’s future depends on the goodwill, the mutual comprehension, the intense dialogue that will exist between France and Germany, between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.

SS: Now that the UK is leaving the EU, France may be pulling more weight in Europe, does Brexit help Macron’s ambition to lead Europe? Will he gain more political clout with London out of the balance?

J-PR: To start with, fundamentally, Brexit is not good news. Because within Brexit there is a process of deconstruction of Europe, which is worrisome. On the other hand, we have important treaties with the United Kingdom in matters of defense. These treaties are called the Lancaster House treaties, the pacts of essential military cooperation. So we must retain a strong bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom. However, it is true that we have seen that Brexit has first and foremost brought France and Germany closer together, has brought together several countries from continental Europe, and in this situation, we can see that Brexit has triggered something, a revival of the European ambition. And from an economical perspective, from a financial perspective, we see that many financial players who were based in London, which was pretty much Europe’s financial capital, these players are progressively moving to continental Europe and rejoining the Eurozone. So this flow is strong enough to show the public opinion that there is a real interesting, new dynamic there.

SS: I would like to talk to you about the threat of terrorism. France faces sporadic lone wolf terrorist attacks on almost a monthly basis, and the Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism says that France remains the most heavily-targeted country in Europe. It’s been 3 years since the Bataclan, France has adopted a number of anti-terror laws, but the threat remains. Why is that? Is something wrong with France’s approach to the issue?

J-PR: I think that we have made significant progress, especially in terms of surveillance, in terms of intelligence. We have also made great progress in the legal and legislative aspects of these things, to make sure this surveillance policy is faithful to our laws, especially to the protection of civil liberties, which are part of our constitutional rights. There is significant and important progress here. We see that often, when we encounter trouble, we get the relevant information concerning these troubles very quickly. The problem is that a lot of times we are dealing with solitary actions, and that it is very difficult, with the number of radicalized individuals, not only in France but in neighboring countries, who can come to France at any time. It is obvious that these isolated individuals are in a situation where they are protected, in a way, by their isolation and their anonymity. But generally speaking, we have made a lot of progress, numerous attacks were foiled, and we remain very, very vigilant with regards to our military budget, which is rising, the intelligence budget, which is rising, the surveillance budget, which is also rising, and significant efforts have been made now in all these areas. But, of course, this is a very difficult war, and numerous countries have had to face this sort of difficulty, and international cooperation is well established on this topic.

SS: Beyond French borders, Macron has intensified the anti-terrorist involvement in Syria - moving more troops in and upping the aid sent to the Kurds in the north. What is Paris hoping to accomplish in the country, what kind of dividend is Macron after with his military investment?

J-PR: You know that the French policy has always been based on dissuasion, on talks, not force. So intervention is not our strategic habit. But sometimes, against terrorism, we are obliged to come to aid of countries that are in chaos, and that is what gives legitimacy to our actions in Africa. With regards to Syria, in the previous five-year period, we had two goals that were sometimes incompatible: on one hand, the goal to fight terrorism, and on the other, the goal of fighting against Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting his own people. So these were two goals that were contradictory because the fight against terrorism required in part the acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s role in Syria. And we had many debates in France, and opinions differed greatly, and today Emmanuel Macron has showed the course, which I think he spoke of at great length and with great conviction to Vladimir Putin. Our goal number one as of today has been clarified, and it is the fight against terrorism. With regards to the future of Syria, which is important - the Syrians must orchestrate their country’s future, and if we can help them, we will, but our number one goal is to be able to fight against the terrorist hotbeds that currently exist there.

SS: Does France have any kind of colonial guilt over the Syrian affair - since it was France who basically created modern Syria by drawing lines on the map?

J-PR: No, I think that there have been numerous debates regarding the consequences of the colonialist spirit, which is still present in some places. But this debate doesn’t concern the Levant, it concerns, in the past, Africa and the current political path that we follow is very clear on this subject. So I do not think that with regards to Syria there is a French position that is particularly motivated by our direct interests. Our main interest in this affair is peace, it’s the protection of our people, it’s the fight against terrorism. So of course, it is a blow to the heart when you see so much historical heritage… all the traces of the huge civilisation of what was once Mesopotamia, far before us and way before modern times, all these images of destruction of historical and civilizational heritage were very hard to stomach. However, our main purpose in this region is that of protection of our people by fighting against terrorism.

SS: So you do not think at all that France hopes to restore its influence in its former domain maybe, like in its former African colonies?

J-PR: France is never happy about losing its influence. So I think we seek to radiate our influence everywhere where we can. But as it happens, on this topic, we do not have a vision that would be in the best interests of France, but we have a vision that is in the best interests of peace, and we act on behalf of the international community, with the international community, to fight against terrorism and obviously to gather all the goodwill that exists around the world to unite in international solidarity against terrorism. This is our guiding principle.

SS: Finally, I heard you say that actual war is not impossible at the eastern European frontier, with NATO squaring off against, I imagine, the Russians - what makes you think that the mutually assured destruction doctrine will fail?

J-PR: I think that the NATO summit that will take place in July will undoubtedly be the summit that will put NATO face to face with a major strategic decision. We can see that NATO’s founding principle was solidarity, but that today this solidarity is, for the most part, challenged by the American president. So I think that there is truly a strategical revision that must be carried out. Personally, I have committed myself by creating a NGO, a non-governmental organization, that is called ‘Leaders for Peace ‘ (Leaders pour la paix), and I work with Mr. Orlov from Russia, and other partners, we are around 30 in total, people representing different countries, but all having had experience being, for instance, a diplomat, a prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, or a Nobel prize winner, and we are all very, very worried by the situation of incomprehension that is unfolding to the East of Europe, and we would truly like to try to convince the various parties to avoid this reciprocal accusation, these threats of war that we hear from both sides and that are, for us, scenarios that are not only catastrophic but are also not truly of strategic interest to anybody. And we are all aware of Europe’s issues with Russia, we are all aware of the historical context within Europe, and that we must be able to listen to each other. But security in this region must be assured and assumed and we should not find ourselves in this situation of virtual threats, of tensions on both sides, which truly creates an uncertain climate, as we can currently see in Sweden. I think that NATO has its share of responsibility here. Russia has shown its capacity in a crisis, it showed its will and its power, its capability of showing the strength of big Russia, and we are all well aware of all this, but it is necessary to be able to appease and calm this part of Europe, because it is now a source of tension that does not seem to make much strategic sense to us.

SS: Mr Raffarin, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the former Prime Minister of France, about Europe’s vital issues.