The East Mediterranean is not a Turkish sea and interoperability between the French and Greek armed forces is a factor that brings stability to the region. These are two of the powerful messages sent by the president of the French Senate, Gerard Larcher, in this interview with Kathimerini’s Tom Ellis, following his recent visit to Athens and talks with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Parliament Speaker Konstantinos Tasoulas, and a day before he travelled to the island of Chios to find out more about the migration situation on the eastern Aegean islands.
In a similar vein, he underscores that the borders of the Republic of Cyprus are also the borders of the European Union and stresses that France – acting within the contours of international law – will protect its interests wherever they may be under threat.
Larcher, a member of the centre-right Republicans, and the prime minister – the latter is appointed by the president – hold the two highest offices in France below Emmanuel Macron. Under the French Constitution, in the event that the president dies or steps down, it is the head of the senate who takes over. This has happened twice, in 1969 after the resignation of Charles de Gaulle, and again in 1974 following the death of Georges Pompidou and until Valery Giscard d’Estaing took over.
The president of the French Senate talks about France’s assumption of the EU’s six-month rotating presidency on January 1, saying that the asylum and immigration pact is among its priorities, while also telling the countries of the Western Balkans that conditions are not yet ripe to talk about accession.
You met with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis just a few months after the Strategic Partnership Agreement for Cooperation in Defence and Security between Greece and France was signed. How important is this for France?
The prime minister received us and we discussed the overall relationship between our two countries, the French Presidency of the European Union, an important moment for France, and we exchanged views on the three reasons for our presence here, which takes place in a historical context, the 200th anniversary of the uprising to restore the independence of Greece.
The first reason was of course the continuation of the strategic partnership, which is an extraordinary affair, the first defence and mutual assistance partnership between two countries of the European Union. It does not contradict the articles of the Treaty, but it says – in Article 2 – that two countries shall provide mutual assistance. I am the president of an institution that is in opposition, but on this issue we happen to agree with the President of the Republic.
The second reason for being here is our desire to expand this partnership by strengthening the relationship between the House and the Senate. For years our relationship was not at an adequate level. When we talk about history, when we talk about Victor Hugo, we talk about partnerships that make sense, and we agreed with the speaker of the House to provide that dimension of the strategic partnership to the legislative part.
Thirdly, and this seems to me extremely important, we also came to exchange views, and we will do so tomorrow on Chios, we will see how Greece has dealt with the issue of migration. Next week I will be in Lithuania at the invitation of my colleagues in the Baltic Parliament, Lithuania in particular, to discuss this issue. In the French Presidency context, we will have two important conferences. On the security and defence in Europe. They will take place in the Senate, they will be parliamentary conferences. The conference on the asylum-migration pact will take place in the Senate. So our presence is also a preparation for the French Presidency.
What is your response to Turkey’s attacks on France, such as “the French should not be getting involved in the Eastern Mediterranean”?
It is very simple. The Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the entire Mediterranean, is not a Turkish sea. Etymologically it is mare nostrum and we are Mediterranean coastal and neighbouring countries. We especially need Greece for stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is in line with the strategic partnership, which is a mutual assistance clause, but also with the interoperability of our armed forces, because it is not just a matter of having 24 Rafale aircraft or three frigates, which is very important, but it is also a matter of interoperability between our armed forces, which will quite simply be a factor of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, which I would say does not belong to one country on the Mediterranean coast.
This brings us back to the issue of controlling extractions off the Egyptian coast, for example, the Zohr field, where France and Egypt’s role is important whatever the outcome. Egypt’s role is important, however you look at it, and we need Egypt’s stability. We are also extremely sensitive to Cyprus, because the migration issue is extremely serious there. Cyprus is the European Union’s border. We have just reviewed all this with Frontex and the coast guard, and I have to say that I asked about the situation in Cyprus. So it is not only an issue of the Eastern Mediterranean, but also of the borders of the European Union. When a country like yours, or Lithuania, goes to the front line of its borders, it is not only about those countries, it is about the borders of the European Union.
Will Turkey’s threats prevent Total from proceeding with its planned exploration?
First of all, we are a sovereign country, you saw our reaction in relation to the Courbet frigate. Naturally, we have to protect French society, and we have to protect the application of the law of the sea. As simple as that. The law of the sea, the territorial waters. So at this point there are no weaknesses or negotiations and that is our role.
What is your view on Greece’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans?
Regarding the Eastern Mediterranean, as I said, Greece is a factor of stability and therefore we have to stand by Greece for this aspect of stability. This is an extremely tense part of the world in the Middle East. From Syria to Lebanon, to the specificity of Israel, and the attitude of Turkey. We need stabilizing factors. We stand with Greece and that is the whole point of the strategic partnership. It does not oppose NATO. We need NATO, but at the same time we are well aware of its hesitations in relation to one of its partners. Hence the importance of the strategic partnership between our two countries. Hence the importance of interoperability, which is easy when we have the same type of ships or the same type of aircraft, this facilitates efficiency.
About the Balkans. It is a subject that I discussed with the prime minister this morning. Indeed, I share the French position which is, I think, widely accepted. I share the view that we have to be careful with the Balkan countries being your neighbours to the north. We have to help them to get closer to European standards and we know that this will take years. And I think this is something we should discuss. That’s what the president of the Austrian Parliament was also telling me two weeks ago – for them, they are neighbours to the south. So we are exchanging views. And I will take initiatives in this direction in the context of parliamentary diplomacy in a few months. But as you probably know, we believe that we are not ready to let a certain number of countries join immediately. So, I think that instead of having discussions about accession or not, which could not be welcome in our country, I think that the best approach is to bring these countries closer to European standards. And I think that very strong relations, on this issue, which will be the subject of our interparliamentary relations in the context of this future partnership, will look at the technical aspects. We will examine the continuation of the strategic partnership, from where we will consider issues such as the asylum-migration pact, but also the Balkan issue, which I would like to share with my colleagues in the Parliament.
What are the prospects for economic cooperation and French investment in Greece?
This is an issue that we discussed with the prime minister, with the speaker of the Parliament. We also discussed it extensively with the representatives of the French community, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, our ambassador and the economic players, as well as the two friendship groups between our two chambers. Essentially, you are witnessing extraordinary growth. Over 7 percent. We had 120 businesses that remained, even during the crisis period, and you know, friends are like stars, you can count them during the night. Twenty months ago, a forum was held to strengthen the relationship with the Senate. We said that in the second half of the year we should organize such a forum again and maybe we should also address businesses, not only the big companies, but also the medium-sized companies, and maybe even the small ones, so that they also understand the importance of cooperating with Greek companies. I believe that this is also a lesson that we are learning. So, tomorrow’s strategic partnership should also be a strengthened economic partnership. The relationship between our two countries, from our side, in terms of joint foreign trade, is not yet comparable to the quality of our global partnership that has been restored, especially in the last two years.
Can you briefly talk about the priorities of the French Presidency of the EU?
The President of the Republic presented them. We had a debate three weeks ago in the Senate on these issues. There was a debate in the National Assembly. Basically, we know that we have to have what we call a strategic compass, but it’s linked, I would say, to our partnership and strategic relationship, which in a way will raise the question of what is the defence and security strategy in Europe. There is also the issue of European sovereignty, because we have seen our state of dependency.
Let us not forget the health crisis from which we have not emerged. I have not yet used that word. We have seen, albeit with some delay, that Europe is now in a position to negotiate a vaccine package. I met with [Ursula] von der Leyen at the beginning of last week and we discussed this issue, which is a major one. So the Europe of health is also an issue that we have to work on.
Then there is the issue of the asylum-migration pact that I mentioned before. There is the climate dimension. This is already a lot for the French Presidency of the European Union, but I think it is a special moment because there will be a transition, we will be in an election period, we already are in an election period. So like all political families, I’m talking about those who are attached to certain principles and values, they will be very careful that Europe is not affected too much. I will not tell you that this makes things easier.
What is your opinion on the Franco-German axis in the post-Merkel era that is just beginning?
The Franco-German axis since the de Gaulle-Adenauer era has crossed all political vicissitudes. Everyone remembers Valery Giscard d’Estaing with Helmut Schmidt, Chirac, Schroeder and me. I was a young minister at the time and I was a member of the Franco-German Council of Ministers, minister of labour, and Schroeder was then chancellor. And then I was still a minister when Angela Merkel took over. So it’s a backbone, but it’s not an exclusive axis. It is not an axis that ignores the other members of the Union, the ones that came after, and especially the ones that came because they returned to democracy. This applies to Greece, Spain and Portugal. And so I have confidence in this axis. Of course, we will have to see what the coalition agreement will do to Franco-German relations. But I would say that we have never had any difficulties, regardless of political orientation, neither in France nor in Germany. But it is not an “exclusive economic zone,” to use the terminology of borders.
As we get closer to the April elections in France, Valerie Pecresse is closing the gap with President Macron.
It is not usual to talk, in a country that is not France, about French politics, but I was asked by the prime minister and the speaker of Parliament as well, so I will make a very small comment. From the choice made by the Republicans, who belong to the same European political family as New Democracy, came the incarnation of a candidate, a project that the candidate brings, as much as a momentum of alliances. My political family had not specialized in alliances for a few years, but things have changed. Since then, in a subtle way, we are still cautious. We see that there has been a reversal of what we thought had been settled. We were going to have a second round between the outgoing president and [Marine] Le Pen. Well, finally, it’s not the case. Today, with due caution, Mrs Valerie Pecresse, who is our candidate, shows that she will be a factor, and that we should take her into account. Of course, I support her. I was already chairman of her support committee for the Ile-de-France region and I played a role, together with the Republican president, in order to have a selection system that would be moderate and positive. Because I want the French people to have a choice between the outgoing president, if he runs for re-election, and someone from a family that shares Republican values, a certain set of values. And it happens to be Mrs Valerie Pecresse.
How do you view the rise of the far right, with Eric Zemmour and Le Pen?
The far right, of course, you have experienced this in your country. When you add up the dynamic of Mrs Le Pen and Mr Zemmour, whom I consider to be on the far right, the numbers are high. Perhaps it is because we have not resolved certain issues that have been of concern to the French for 10 years and to which we need to provide answers. The question of identity. The question of how to deal with the migration issue, how to deal with integration. Those who say zero migration are not telling the truth, so how will integration be addressed? And we have seen in your country, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, what it can cause. I think we need to resolve these issues. So we have to have discussions in my political family, which has to reach out to the centre. My political family will not win on its own.
(This interview was originally published by the Kathimerini newspaper and is reproduced by permission.)