The Role of France in the Security of the Eastern Mediterranean – Ambassador Rene Troccaz, Embassy of the French Republic in Cyprus, 24 May, 2017

by on May 29, 2017

The Role of France in the Security of the Eastern Mediterranean
H.E. Ambassador Rene Troccaz
Embassy of the French Republic in Cyprus


I’m not going to deliver you an academic presentation, because I think you all are skilled enough to know about the situation in this area. But I will try to present you some general thoughts about the way France sees the challenges, the situations in the broader area of the Eastern Mediterranean and I receive several questions which I’m going, or trying, rather, to answer to. And of course I understand that then we have a questions and answers session. So thank you again. Thank you for the organizers. And I will now start my presentation before the questions.

Eastern Mediterranean, France and our views on this area we are in the very middle of here in Cyprus. Let me first start telling you that at least for us, maybe for other countries it’s not the case, but for France Eastern Mediterranean is an area, but it’s not a political concept. We have other concepts covering this area. We have the Middle East, we have the Near East, we have what we call the Levant. Once upon a time there was also the Ottoman Empire which covered more or less most of the area we’re speaking about today. And, of course, we have the Mediterranean itself. But for us Eastern Mediterranean is not a political, a geopolitical concept. But regarding this situation I have to say not on the contrary, but that for France this area is very important in our history, in our diplomacy, and for our interests.

Historically – and I’m not going back to the Crusades – but I just want to stay on the last century just to remind you that after the collapse and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire European powers, namely the United Kingdom and France specifically in this area, had a very significant role. As you know, we were present here in Lebanon and Syria till the independence of these countries. The United Kingdom was in other areas. And so this is to say that we had a presence which is historically relatively recent. But apart from that this presence in the area was historically based on very solid items, such as promoting our language, archeology, and we had missions, scientific missions in the area. The role of – I have to mention that – the religious missions in the area. And, you know, you had in all these places – I don’t know how you say that in English – the ‘Les échelles du Levant’. It’s a French term. What are these cities – they were all the harbors all around the Eastern Mediterranean, more or less in the Ottoman Empire, where you had French communities, traders, councils, people. So we have a history in this area as France. And last but not least, I have also to mention the role of the city, of the harbor rather, of Marseilles which was the gate through the Orient and which is a major harbor, a major city in contact with all the Mediterranean area and specifically with the Eastern Mediterranean, from Larnaca, to Beirut, to Haifa, Alexandria, Smyrna, etc. So this is the background.

I come to nowadays. Nowadays on this historical background… And here I was wondering myself as a French diplomat if I take as a statistical element the questions which are asked to the speaker, every day, to the speaker of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. Every day we have a briefing and the speaker, who is the voice of France internationally, answers to questions of all newspapers, journals, medias (sic) of all over the world. And more than 50% of the questions to these briefings on a daily basis are questions who relate to this area of the Eastern Mediterranean. It can be Syria, Israel, Palestine, it can be Lebanon, it can be Turkey, etc. So this is to say that probably in terms of statistics this area is the center of our diplomacy.
Of course, on what we built during the last centuries and what our history gave us and let us, we remain with a strong diplomatic presence in the area. Of course we have embassies, consulates all over this area, very important cultural, scientific network, very important network of schools, French schools. You have in this area and the broader area of the Eastern Mediterranean from Turkey to Jordan, including of course Cyprus, thousands of pupils going to French schools. So this is to say that it still remains this area a place, a point of very significant importance for us.

What is probably new compared to the past, the beginning of last century, the 20th century, is the importance of the diasporas between France and this area. Just to give you an illustration of that, I should remind that the newly elected president of France Macron paid two visits before being elected during his campaign abroad in this area, one to Israel and the other one to Lebanon. And these were very important. Other candidates did the same trips. It shows the importance of these countries and this area as a whole.

Here in Cyprus, even though, lucky us, we are in a relatively stable environment, and of course even though we have this specific situation in Cyprus, but it’s a calm area compared to all the turmoil all around us. Cyprus for us is really a strong position, a strong place for partnership, cooperation. Just to give you two examples in totally different fields. First, our navy is coming here very frequently, very regularly, because it crosses in the area due to the situation. And the basis, the safest basis in the area is clearly, without any contest, Cyprus. Second, probably some of you know that we have here, apart from the headquarters in Paris, the most important office of the French press agency in the world. The office in Cyprus, one hundred persons covering all the Middle East, is the most important one. This shows of course the importance of the Middle East, it shows also the sensitivity and the importance of Cyprus as a place appropriate to cover all the areas, evolutions, situations, tensions, etc. I’m not going to give you a catalog of all the crises, all the challenges, all the problems of the area, so what I suggest you is to mention some different points of, let’s say, where the crises, conflicts, tensions places, points of interests in the area, and there are many.

I will start and little bit develop on Syria. I will of course say some words on Israel-Palestine which is a conflict for years now. I will speak of Turkey and the relation between Turkey and the European Union. And keeping in mind of course the importance of all the countries, the major ones like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon in this area, the stability of which is so important and crucial for all of us, or at least for France and Europe.

Saying that, and before developing on Syria, let’s always keep in mind the fact that beyond
politics you have to consider the fact that this area, including Cyprus, has to face two major structural challenges. One is water; there is no water in the area. And the other one is demographic pressure. So if you combine these two elements, you always have to think that this area, apart from the political tensions, have to face and to live with these two factors which will of course last for years, and which are challenges for all the populations and governments of these other countries of the area.

So I come to Syria. Syria – five years of civil war, three hundred thousand dead people, thirty thousand foreign fighters – we can say terrorists most of them. I have to say here – it’s well-known – two thousand of them coming from France, which is really a major concern, and from other countries of Europe and from other places in the world. The simple observation is that it cannot last anymore. We need to find a solution. This is of course a humanitarian problem, a major humanitarian crisis, a diplomatic problem, problem of security, also moral problem, and it addresses the stability for all the region and probably also for the world. I’m not going to say that Syria is a Third World War – this is not the case – but it is clearly a local conflict globalized, which involves major powers, global powers, major regional powers and all the countries and populations of the area.

We have in this terrible context to face several major sensitive challenges in Syria. First, and this is the number one for us at least, for France, but probably for others also – terrorism. We have to fight terrorism. It is a fight against terrorism. That’s the clear mandate we have with our partners and this is our diplomacy, our orientation and our new authorities will follow this priority.

Second, all the area, but also Europe and, of course, France, have to address the problem of refugees. It is a problem which concerns, of course, Europe, Greece, Italy, France,
Germany. It is also a problem for the neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon.

Third, you have new elements, or the element itself is not new, but the way it’s developed is probably new – you have new aspirations. And here I’m referring to the Kurdish populations of Syria who are fighting and they have some new aspirations. We have to see how to take it into account, but I want to make it very clear: the policy of France is to maintain and respect the existing borders – that’s very important for us.

And of course because as I was mentioning previously the fact that it is a global conflict, which involves global powers and regional powers, what is at stake now in Syria is the reshaping of all the area. Not necessarily the borders, but the respective weight of each country, of different players, and the stability of the area, not for the coming two years, but probably for the decades to come.

With its geographical proximity Syria is, of course, a challenge for France as for Europe as a whole. Just to remind, unfortunately, that during the last two and a half years the terrorist attacks we suffered on our soil, were most of them, if not all of them conceived and prepared whether
in Syria, or in Raqqa, precisely, but in link with this area. So this is the reason why France is taking part to international coalition to fight Daesh and the Islamic State. In Syria, France is part of this coalition, but we’re not in a war against Syria. We’re not in a war in Syria. We are in a war against terrorism which is not the same thing. So what do we want? I will try to make my talk as simple as I can. We want a political solution. This is what we want, this is the orientation. We wish an orderly, organized, managed political solution and negotiated in Syria. I have to say by the way that – probably some of you know that – regarding this our new president spoke with some of his counterparts in Europe, with the American president, and he’s now going to receive president of Russia, President Putin in Versailles on the 29th of this month, in some days. And of course Syria – you can imagine – will be on the top of the agenda in this mood of finding realistic solutions. So we have some text fixing the basis for a settlement, one of them – I’ll mention it because it’s probably one of the most important – is the resolution 2254 of the Security Council of the United Nations of December 15th. And I have to say regarding that, that we don’t consider the removal of Mr. Assad as a precondition to discuss a transition. So, just to make a long story short, our approach is a pragmatic one. We want a political situation, a stable situation in Syria if it’s possible in the future.

What does this mean concretely? First, if we have a political transition, we need to rebuild a state, a robust, strong state which means that it will be agreed, accepted by the populations of Syria. This will probably allow – and we wish that it allows in the future – for the
refugees to come home. But they need to have a safe home to come back. We stick very much as France, and this will not change with a new president, on the protection of the minorities. And here I’m referring to the Christians of the Middle East, and specifically in Syria. We will also have to face as all the countries of the area, and specifically Syria, to the challenge of reintegrated generation of chaos. You have young fighters there, Syrians, foreigners, who are fighting for now five, six years. They are not going to school, they are not going to university, they are not working. And you can imagine these people who are acting freely without any control for years now. It is a problem in order to re-stabilize a whole society. It will take time. I’ve just mentioned that to show and to underline the fact that the solution in Syria will take time, needs real negotiations, and will need also to face challenges which concern also the societies. And when we finish that, hopefully – we know it will be very difficult and it will probably last some time – then comes the question of financing the whole architecture, the whole rebuilding of Syria. You know that worldwide European Union is the number one donor in financing development cooperation. Of course, in the case of Syria we first need a strong political solution on the basis – and this is our approach I was mentioning – and then comes the financing. So we need to finance something strong and not something weak. And of course – again, I’m mentioning that twice, but it is very important for us, it is of a major priority – the fact that the borders have to remain as they are, and we very much stick on the importance of integrity of Syria and of course of all the countries of the area. And here I’m thinking of Lebanon, of course, who is, as you know, a very good ally of France, historically.

After these few words on Syria let me come and I will be even shorter on the conflict of Israel-Palestine, not to explain what the situation is – I wouldn’t dare that – but just in a couple of words to tell you what is the meaning of what we think and what we try to do in this conflict and in this area. Our position is well known, I’m not going to repeat it here. You know that we want a two-state solution, living in peace and full securities for Israel and having a Palestinian state. We think, we strongly believe – and the new administration in France is in the same mood – that it is an illusion to believe that in the long term we can live without a solution. We think it is a concern for Israel, for Palestine for all the area, and of course for Europe. So this is just why, and we try to take in the recent past some initiatives in order to promote peace. Of course, we’re not the ones who are going to make peace. Peace belongs to Israelis, to Palestinians. But we think the international community has the obligation to support these initiatives. And this is the meaning of what we’re trying to do in this area, because – I’m coming back to what I was saying at the very beginning – all these external questions, whether it’s Syria, Israel, Palestine and other conflicts in the world are now domestic problems inside the European societies. So this is also another dimension we have to deal with when addressing these questions.

Turkey and Turkey-Europe. Again, I’m not going to deliver any academic speech on that, but few words to say and addressing to Cypriot friends and colleagues from other embassies serving here in Cyprus as I am. Turkey today is not Turkey in 1974. It’s another country. I don’t mean that countries remain what they are. But it’s not the same size, it’s not at all the same perspective. And I want a little bit to insist on that. Turkey is now one of the major players within the G20, it’s a country which we understand has the ambition to discuss on an equal basis with Europe, with Russia, with the United States, with India, China, with all the countries of the world. It’s a major player – it’s not anymore a regional power in this area – it’s a major player who probably has the ambition to become a global player. It’s a major growing economy and I would like to give you an example to illustrate this approach. It’s something which is not very much discussed here or analyzed, at least as far as I know, here in Cyprus.

Turkey is becoming a major player in Africa. Turkey is developing a strong African diplomacy. They open embassies in almost all the countries of Africa. They have a network now of flight connections between Turkey and most of the African capitals and major cities, much more than other European flight companies. Istanbul is becoming an African hub. If you want to leave Somalia, Mogadishu, to go abroad, except if you want to go to Kenya, the only way to go outside from Somalia is to go to Turkey with Turkish Airlines. It says a lot. Turkey invests a lot in a global, influential diplomacy, in a soft diplomacy in Africa. It shows that Turkey has worldwide ambitions. So what we need and we wish for us is of course a stabilized relation with Turkey. Turkey is challenge, it’s a neighbor, it’s a country in a difficult situation, and it’s a country with which we don’t agree systematically on all the items. We stick very much and we insist, and our new president will – I’m sure of that – will insist on what our values are, namely human rights. We’re not going to bargain that. But, of course, Turkey is a country we have to take into very serious consideration. And what we wish is to see how with the instruments we have – and when I say ‘we’ I don’t mean France here only, but the European Union – we have the customs union, we have the discussions with the negotiations with Turkey. Frankly, I don’t think that it’s in a very good shape now, but at least to see how we can contribute to stabilize the Euro-Turkey relations. We think it’s important, we are convinced it’s important for us, it’s important for the neighbors – the European neighbors of Turkey – starting by Greece which receives all these waves of migrants. We are convinced it’s useful for Cyprus. And you know in this framework of negotiations we have with Turkey, let’s consider also the efforts made by Europe which in some cases are a little bit forgotten or underestimated. I here want to remind that in order to support Turkey in its efforts to organize the flows of refugees, European Union – which means Cyprus, France and all the other countries of the EU which are represented around this table – we paid six billion euros, which is quite significant. So it’s not true to say that Europe is not helping Turkey regarding this major problem of the refugees.

And of course we cooperate with Turkey. We have to fight common challenges like terrorism, and this is also something which stems from Syria as I was mentioning previously.

So I would just finish, conclude my words, and this will probably give us the possibility of a transition to the questions, saying some words on Cyprus, of course. Again, I’m not going to speak of the Cypriot problem here, I think I have here experts much more than I am. But anyway, I want to tell you what Cyprus is for us, is for France. And it’s not slogans, it says, I think, how we consider the relation with Cyprus, and it tells you also our position on the Cypriot problem. Simple considerations. First, Cyprus is for us, for France an ally. We are in the same European Union, we are in the same eurozone. Cyprus is a good friend of us and we are a good friend of Cyprus. Cyprus – I mentioned that previously when speaking of the whole region – is really – sorry to use this word – I would say basis for our navy which comes very often on the island. It was the case last year, the year before, and the cooperation is excellent. It’s now, I have to say by the way, formalized by an agreement in the field of defense between the Republic of Cyprus and France. So this is the first thing – Cyprus is an ally.

The second thing – and this relates to the work of my ministry, my authorities regarding Cyprus and of course of the French Embassy in Cyprus – Cyprus is a unique case, because it’s the only country within the European Union with a conflict and with the presence of the United Nations. Which means that in a way the French Embassy here and my instructions, and the mandate I have from my authorities, my president, my minister, is to serve in a country of the European Union – I was mentioning all the common structures we belong to, Cyprus and
France – and also in a country where we have a UN problem. So this duality is one of the specificities. And I will conclude with these dualities saying that now that’s a fact. France is within the P5 – permanent members of the Security Council, probably the only one for obvious reasons, which has this double quality of being a P5 member and a member of the European Union. And concerning the problem of Cyprus which is the only UN problem within the European Union, it gives us a specific role to play, we hope a useful one. And for us Cyprus is of course a problem for the United Nations, it is also a question for the European Union.

I thank you very much for your attention and I’m ready to answer your questions if there are any.

See: Developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East

See: The Eastern Mediterranean: the French Foreign Policy

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