Minister sets out French armed forces’ role in world
Defence – Syria/Iraq/fight against terrorism/North Korea/United States – Interview given by Mme Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces, to the daily newspaper Le Monde
Paris, 14 October 2017
Q. – Is France a medium-sized, European or global power?
THE MINISTER – In a very uncertain and unstable international context, the [strategic defence] review states, above all, what France wants to do: maintain and even develop strategic, technological and operational autonomy. To maintain that autonomy, it’s important for France to keep a full armed forces model, which justifies the historic increase in resources decided on by the President.
This means keeping the nuclear deterrent, being able to intervene alone or in a coalition and being able to bring NATO and European Union allies into our operations. In the Sahel, our ability to intervene across the military spectrum is an incentive to our partners to join us.
Q. – Is France at war?
THE MINISTER – That language, which may have been used in the past, doesn’t feature in the strategic review. The French armed forces carry out a number of missions on national territory – including Operation Sentinelle – in support of the domestic security forces, as well as operations in various theatres like the Sahel and the Levant, without forgetting the maritime theatres… Those missions are not set to be reduced over the coming years. That doesn’t mean the details of the effort won’t be revisited.
Q. – Which is France’s priority region: the Mediterranean or Africa?
THE MINISTER – France has something unique: it’s a founder member of the EU, the only country in the bloc that will possess nuclear weapons after Brexit and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In the new context of Brexit, this uniqueness becomes even clearer and predisposes France to intervening in a broader geographical area which isn’t solely its neighbourhood.
But the review does stress the fact that a geographical area exists in which France must be capable of intervening alone if necessary or in conjunction with our allies, in accordance with the law: from the Mediterranean basin to sub-Saharan Africa, an area our major allies won’t necessarily go to spontaneously. We must be capable of intervening swiftly there, then honouring our commitments there in the long term.
Q. – Are Syria and Iraq part of this area where France has a remit to intervene?
THE MINISTER – The President has asked us to work specifically on this issue. Once the military organization of Daesh [so-called ISIL] – the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State organization – is defeated, we’ll face a sort of mutation and other terrorist movements could develop.
The question of the form of the coalition’s commitment will very soon be asked and, for France, that of support for the Iraqi army, at Baghdad’s request, in a process which is also diplomatic and economic. The link between the jihadist terrorist threat on our territory and the potential breeding ground for threats which that region will be in future suggests that we won’t be leaving the region overnight.
Q. – In the 2013 White Paper, Islamist terrorism wasn’t mentioned as such. It’s mentioned 40 times in this review.
THE MINISTER – Terrorism, a major threat, is automatically described as jihadist. That’s a reality of the security context we’re living in today, which we no doubt hadn’t sufficiently appreciated when Daesh hadn’t yet established itself in Syria and Iraq.
Q. – Do you say, like some of our allies, that Russia and China pose an “existential” threat?
THE MINISTER – We emphasize the return of military competition and the reaffirmation of the Russian and Chinese powers. We absolutely don’t use your language with regard to China. As for Russia, it’s not a threat in itself. In some regions of the world, the key to resolving problems also involves Russia. So we must clearly make allowance for and develop frameworks of dialogue between Europe and Russia. However, in the face of new affirmations of power, we must show that we’re not disarmed.
Q. – Are other states a threat?
THE MINISTER – Nuclear proliferation in all its dimensions is, with the challenge North Korea is posing. Regarding Iran, we recall that the agreement signed in July 2015 is a stabilizing factor in relation to this proliferation process. There are no very new elements, but the heightening of each of the threats is the major fact guiding our analysis and our recommendations in terms of military capabilities.
Q. – Do these threats mean a sort of pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region, where France has interests and territories?
THE MINISTER – We have a useful presence there, because of our departments and territories, because of the existence of defence relations, because of our bases, and because of the permanent or temporary deployment of ships. We’ll seek to ensure that international rules prevail in that region.
Q. – The review highlights the preventive function. Have we learned lessons from the limits of military interventions?
THE MINISTER – Prevention is the ability to stop situations degenerating and needing armed intervention, by means of a stabilizing presence as near as possible to potential crisis areas. This involves, of course, a cross-cutting approach involving everything from the armed forces to development agencies and from diplomacy to the intelligence services’ activities. It’s nothing new, but in an unstable world it’s especially necessary and justifies the existence of our overseas garrisons and forces, maritime deployments and the efforts we make with the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. This being the case, each must play its role.
Q. – France is calling for cooperation projects, but to what extent?
THE MINISTER – France must be able to be totally autonomous: in terms of the nuclear deterrent, it goes without saying, but also of protecting the country, intelligence, the ability to command operations, special forces and cyber defence. By definition, all the rest is open to cooperation and partnership at European level.
We’d like to be able to intervene in variable-geometry configurations with countries that have the capabilities to conduct operations alongside us. In addition to the efforts being made to bring about a Defence Europe, the President has called for a common force capable of responding swiftly to urgent needs. If we had to repeat an operation of the same type as in Mali, it would be better to go there with other Europeans from the outset.
Q. – But which ones? In Germany, for example, any deployment requires a vote in the Bundestag.
THE MINISTER – The Germans have the capacity to support us. Nor are we giving up conducting operations with the United Kingdom, with which we have very strong bilateral defence relations that Brexit isn’t set to alter.
Q. – And cooperation with the United States?
THE MINISTER – With regard to the environment and geostrategic context, the review underlines the less predictable nature of our American ally today. Seen from the United States, protecting Europe is a less significant issue than it may have been. But it’s also said that Washington remains a crucial partner – France is working to maintain the solidity of the transatlantic link.
Q. – What are the priorities set for the armed forces?
THE MINISTER – The strategic review doesn’t deal with the operational contract – the number of planes, ships, armoured vehicles and troops deployed in various circumstances. It draws up a long list of capabilities our armed forces will have to meet. A few are eminently important: the ability to be the first to enter a theatre of operations in the face of hardened defences, and to remain there. We mustn’t forget intelligence: the efforts made must be continued, while strengthening the ability to handle data gathered.
Q. – Where do you position the cursor between the regeneration of forces, which are said to be worn-out, and investments for the future?
THE MINISTER – Clearly you have to do both. But must we do everything in a single military estimates act, or aim for a longer timeframe in order to distribute the effort more effectively? The question can be asked. Rebuilding the potential for intervention is a major priority. That regeneration will, by definition, consume substantial resources./.