Ahram Online sat down with the French ambassador to Egypt to discuss the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, security cooperation with Egypt in combating terrorism, and close consultations with Egypt on the Libyan file.
French Ambassador Stephane Romatet is one of the most active ambassadors in Egypt. He has great passion for Egypt and the Egyptians. Despite long experience as a diplomat in Jordan, Canada, Senegal and Australia, as well as his work as a consultant to the French prime minister from 2014 to 2017, Romatet considers his assignment in Egypt as a dream come true.
In interview with Ahram Online, he confirmed that French-Egyptian coordination is intense, especially on the Libyan file, and that France does not take any position except after close consultation with Egypt.
Romatet said that the agreement between Al-Sarraj-Erdogan agreement is illegal, illegitimate and void. He said that Turkish interference and Russia's role in Libya is a wake up call for the European Union to take responsibility and a lead on Libya, because its future is at stake.
He underlined that his country is working with Britain and in consultation with Egypt to issue a Security Council resolution based on the Berlin Declaration. He added that France supports the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the Palestinians cannot be deprived of their right to a state.
The French ambassador also revealed that President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi invited President Macron to attend the opening of the Egyptian Museum, and that there is a partnership between the Egyptian Museum and the Louvre in Paris.
Ahram Online: How do you view Egyptian-French consultations on Libya?
Ambassador Stephane Romatet: First, we have to understand why the Libyan issue is so critical and important for our two countries. For France and all the Mediterranean countries, Libya is really a kind of strategic crossroads. This a place where you could have a new platform for terrorism that would be a major threat for European countries, for France and for Egypt, as the security of Egypt is very closely connected to the security of Libya, because of the long borders they share. So treating the Libyan crises is certainly is a topmost priority for our two countries. For months, France and Egypt have heavily intensified their political dialogue and cooperation on the Libyan issue, and nothing we undergo on the Libyan issue — no initiative we take, no decision we make — is without prior consultation with our Egyptian friends. For France, Egypt is a key partner in dealing with the Libyan crisis.
But the European vision towards dealing with the Libyan conflict is not united. Italy, for instance, has a different position from France, and this gives us contradictory messages.
You are absolutely right. The future of Libya is a major concern for all European countries, so we have to have a common approach. Of course, we could have sensitivities and different approaches, because some EU countries have closer historical ties with Libya, like the case of Italy. France, of course, because of its own responsibilities as a Security Council member, and as part of the international coalition in 2011 that intervened in Libya, has high stakes in Libya.
The situation today is very simple: whether the Europeans take their responsibility in a united way, or if we fail this will open the gate to other countries that will impose their own vision for the future of Libya. And what you see now on the ground with Turkish intervention and the role of the Russians is a major factor, a kind of a wake up call for the European Union to take our responsibility, to take the lead on Libya because our future is at stake.
I think it is very important for France to work with the Italians, the Germans and the British. We have to find a common position, a common roadmap for Libya. We have now the Berlin communique, entailing 55 points, and we are all now committed to implement this communique, which represents the only option to secure the future of Libya.
Do you think the Berlin communique is enough as a commitment for countries and parties playing in Libya?
This is not a commitment but an engagement where we were all present in Berlin. It was not easy to put all those leaders and people in the same room. It was complicated. But I think there is a moment where we have to go beyond; we have to have a kind of higher level of general interest because this is the future of a country of six million people, this is the security of the Mediterranean Sea, this is the security that is so important for us, for North Africa and Egypt.
Do we need to have a Security Council resolution to bolster the Berlin communique?
We have the Berlin communique and we have worked a lot with our Egyptian partners to make sure that we will find every thing we need in this communique, the ceasefire, the embargo, the dismantling of the militias, the control of vital resources of the country, oil, the political process and state institutions of Libya. So we have everything we need in this communique. Now what we have to do is, first, every partner that has endorsed the communique has to take his responsibility in engagement and implement the communique; second, how to give the backing of the Security Council: we are now working on a draft resolution that will be voted on in the council, as Britain is submitting the resolution and we are working with them on it. And we are working very closely and intensively with our Egyptian partners in New York and in Cairo to make sure that the Egyptians find in this resolution everything they need in terms of implementing the Berlin communique.
How do you view the Turkish role in Libya, and is the Syrian scenario repeating?
There is a risk. This is why it is our responsibility to take back control on Libya. The EU ought not to leave the treatment of the Libyan crisis to others. This is our upmost responsibility, so we have to take the lead and to be very consistent, very coherent between EU members. We have to work intensively with each and every one of the 55 points of the communique. We are having now discussions between EU members on how to implement the arms embargo and other points in the communique. It's our duty and responsibility. If not, the future of Libya will be decided by others. And what we see on the ground, with Turkish interventions and with the militarisation of the conflict there, is a risk of losing control of the situation, and this is not in the interest of the EU.
Some articles criticised the French position as it is backing General Khalifa Haftar behind the curtain, while backing Fayez Al-Sarraj openly.
The situation is complicated and you have to take into account this complexity. Of course, if you want to decide to only work with Al-Sarraj and ignore Haftar you will go nowhere. And if you want to work with Haftar, ignoring Al-Sarraj, it will lead nowhere. We have to work with everybody. Of course, none of them are the solution; not Haftar and not Al-Sarraj by themselves. They are part of the solution. So the position of France is very simple: we work with the two main sides of the Libyan political landscape, and this is why we have our own set of relations with both. So, we are not one-sided country.
Do you think the agreement signed by Al-Sarraj and Turkey’s Erdogan is legal?
It is illegal and illegitimate and France stated very blankly, loud and clear, that these agreements or memoranda are void. Egypt took a very good decision on 8 January when it convened the foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Cyprus, Greece and Italy, and the communique that came out with the approval of four foreign ministers, excluding Italy, recognised that the Al-Sarraj-Erdogan memoranda are absolutely void and illegitimate, and create a lot of difficulties, are contrary to maritime law and European interests, especially regarding Greece and Cyprus that we fully support, and that is our position.
Concerning the ideas that US President Donald Trump is putting on the table now related, to the Middle East peace process, do you think the time is right for that?
It is a bit difficult to comment because we don't have all the details. We have some questions on how these decisions would match up with the core values of any agreement between Palestine and Israel, especially recognition of the two-state solution. There is no other option. You can't deprive the Palestinians of a state, or their aspiration to have a state.
How do you view the course of economic and cultural cooperation between Egypt and France, especially over the past few years?
In this so troubled region with so many tensions and crises, Egypt is a pool of stability in the region and is a major partner for us. Working with Egypt on trying to ensure stability in the region is essential and of high importance. Egypt is the key partner to France. Egypt is one of the few countries currently stable in the region and we have strategic relations that we consider very important to France. And that is why we also care about economic cooperation, especially that conditions are much better and there is an increase in growth rates. We hope to increase French investments in Egypt, especially as conditions are encouraging to increase investments. We have investments in Egypt of about five billion Euros. France is the third largest European investor in Egypt, and we want to attract more investments, especially in the field of energy, transportation, smart cities and health. There is a 20 percent increase in French investments last year on the year before, and we hope to increase this. My message to French businessmen is always that the time is right for them to come and invest in Egypt,
What about cultural and tourism cooperation?
The number of French tourists has reached about 700,000, which is a number close to that of 2010, and I feel happy when I meet with French tourists in different places in Egypt. Egypt and France are countries that are interested in culture and are influential in this field, and we had a very successful exhibition in Paris on Tutankhamen, which a million and a half visited, and this is the largest number of visitors to any exhibition held in Paris.
The French people have a passion for Egyptian civilisation, which we are studying in the first chapter of the history book in French schools. We have around 40 French archaeological excavation missions in Egypt. There will be a very big event this year, the great opening of the new Egyptian Museum, and we want to be part of this event. We would like to be part of the management of the museum, and we look forward to this cooperation, including founding a partnership between the Egyptian Museum and the Louvre in Paris.
Do we expect the French president to attend the museum's opening ceremony?
President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has already invited President Emmanuel Macron and certainly France is interested in attending with the highest French presence in this event.
Are there any upcoming visits between officials of the two countries?
Certainly France is interested in strengthening relations and there are continuous contacts and regular meetings between President Macron and President El-Sisi. They met in the Berlin conference and I trust that they will meet this year on the sidelines of other conferences, whether in Paris or Cairo or other countries. France has a constant interest in discussing regional issues with officials in Egypt.
To what extent is there cooperation between France and Egypt in the field of combating terrorism?
Egypt and France are two countries that are heavily targeted, threatened and injured by jihadis. They hate Egypt and the stability of the country. They hate the region and they hate France. So for France and Egypt, combating terrorism and having the strongest security cooperation are really a top priority to both of us, and that's why we have high-level security cooperation with Egypt to combat terrorism.
How do you see Egyptian efforts to prevent illegal immigration?
Egypt has played strong role to stop the waves of illegal immigration to Europe. In the fall of 2015, we suffered from waves of cross-Mediterranean migration through Greece, the Balkans, Libya, and even some came from Egypt. At that time, Egypt decided to have a strong policy to prevent illegal immigration from Egypt to Europe, and since 2016, Egypt is doing huge work to control its borders and prevent illegal immigration, especially since there are gangs that smuggle and traffic in human beings. Frankly, I would like to contribute to the role of Egypt in securing migration issues on its borders.
The past months have witnessed an American escalation in the Iranian file, especially after the death of Qassem Soleimani. What is France's view of this escalation and how it affects the nuclear agreement?
We were, a few weeks ago, on the edge of an escalation that could have led the whole region off the cliff, especially after the elimination of Soleimani and the downing of the Ukrainian plane. Our first priority was to stop the escalation, to make sure that this cycle of possible escalation that could lead to kind of loss of control of the situation, would not happen. Fortunately, this escalation has stopped for the time being, and we will continue in our efforts, especially that we have the privilege as France — because of our diplomacy — to be able to speak to everybody. We speak with the Iranians, we have channels of discussions with them, and we can pass messages of easing tensions, calming matters down, de-escalating. The first priority is de-escalation. The second priority is to make sure that Iran will never be a nuclear power.
Let us imagine that the 2015 nuclear agreement in Vienna between Iran and France, Germany, Britain and the United States, that offered a framework to make sure that Iranian nuclear activities are under control and monitored, was not on the table. The US has decided to withdraw from the agreement and since then the Iranians have taken some decisions to reduce some of their engagements. But the agreement is still there.
Let us consider what could have happened if this agreement wasn't signed in 2015. Of course, we want to make sure that this agreement remains, because this is the only way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. So we think that this is the option and will continue exerting all pressure on Iran to stick to the agreement and maybe also update the agreement, to make sure that Iran is not developing its weapons of mass destruction.
To engage with Iran you have to have a kind of incentive, because if there is no incentive and there is only pressure and sanctions it will not work. So, the approach is what we call "more for more”; the more we can get from Iran in terms of commitment the more we have to offer in terms of easing sanctions.
I think Iran is a great country of 70 million people with a national pride, and I don't think that trying to humiliate the Iranians and asking them to bow is something that will lead us to any positive results for the region.
So easing the tension, coming back to the agreement, even by reopening discussions with the Iranians, is something French diplomacy is trying to promote.