In the last issue of Labour Affairs, Froggy deplored that France should, against most of the rest of the world, advocate intervention in Syria. Since then things have gone from bad to worse. France stood alone with Saudi Arabia in trying to derail the Grenoble conference with Iran, agreement that looked a possibility from October 2013. Israel naturally applauded the French position. Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a two page interview to Le Figaro on 17 November where he said that he had told the Knesset to roll out the red carpet to François Hollande on the occasion of his visit.
The visit duly took place; Hollande spent 3 days in the region, his longest foreign trip so far, including half a day in the Occupied Territories.
In Grenoble, France refused to consider lifting sanctions even partially and just for the duration of the first round of negotiations. Hollande repeated this in front of the Knesset: “I am saying here clearly that we will keep the sanctions as long as we are not sure that Iran has unequivocally and irreversibly forfeited its nuclear weapons program,” he said. Meanwhile, the United States have recognized that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. France seemed to be attempting to make a name for itself by continuing the previous stance of the US and of the UK, of attacking Iran by pretending that it has a nuclear weapons programme.
What will France gain from this? It is getting talked about, but not in a good way. It may gain some economic advantage in Israel. The economic delegation round Hollande included the leaders of Ariane Espace, Bouygues Telecom, Orange and SNCF, who participated in talks to form better economic relations between the two countries.
According to the Jerusalem Post Hollande devoted much less time in his speech to the Knesset to the Palestinian question than did Sarkozy in his visit to Israel in June 2008.
According to David Morrison (author with Peter Oborne of the widely applauded “A Dangerous Delusion, Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran”), France wants to be harder on Iran than the US and the UK, specifically it appears with regard to the heavy water reactor which Iran is constructing at Arak. This reactor has been known about for a decade. The notion that it will provide the means for Iran to have a bomb within a year is the kind of half-baked nonsense that one is used to hearing about Iran’s nuclear activities.
When it is in operation, the reactor could be a source for plutonium, which can be used as fissile material for a bomb (as an alternative to highly enriched uranium). However, the reactor isn’t in operation yet – it is supposed to start next year some time and it will be under IAEA inspection when it is in operation. Furthermore, to obtain plutonium for a bomb it has to be extracted from “spent” fuel from the reactor (that is, fuel that has been in the operating reactor for some time, certainly months, perhaps years). The process of extraction of plutonium from spent fuel is referred to as “reprocessing” – and Iran hasn’t got any facilities for doing it.
France isn’t in a position to prevent a deal being done with Iran that the US and the other members of the conference in Geneva want. In extremis, it can simply be ignored. Where will France’s international reputation be then?
Hollande and his Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius did not appear embarrassed when the agreement was eventually arrived at early 25 November: everything had happened as they had wanted, according to them: Iran was going to be closely monitored, it would not be able to develop nuclear armaments; the lifting of sanctions was partial, limited and reversible. The news programme that day on France Inter had a researcher, not a politician, answer questions on the subject; he was asked leading questions but refused to be drawn into attacking Iran in any way.
11 November ceremony
The news provider Al Jazeera reported on its website that President Hollande was the first president to be jeered at during an 11 November Armistice remembrance ceremony. 73 people were arrested for shouting and jeering on the Champs Elysées as the presidential car rolled past. They were soon released, bar four. Two comments present themselves. The first is that if French presidents, since Sarkozy, flout conventions in their behaviour and their public presentation, it is not surprising that the traditional respect for the dead of the First World War, as expressed in that ceremony, is also a thing of the past.
The second is expressed in one comment printed after the Al Jazeera article: “This is what happens when you try to honor the dead while at the same time trying to make more of them across the globe.” This is a very good point, although the protestors were shouting “Hollande resign” and “Socialist dictator”, and were probably not thinking of Hollande’s foreign policy. The Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls quickly said that the protestors ‘were extreme right-wingers unhappy about the gay marriage legislation’ introduced by the Hollande government. If that was the motivation, then it would settle everything down, everybody knows where they stand on that issue, and it would be to the discredit of the anti-same sex marriage groups to have disturbed a traditional remembrance ceremony. Could the disturbance have had something to do with France’s position regarding intervention in Libya and Syria, and on Iran? The National Front is against intervention in Syria and for negotiations with Iran; Marine Le Pen has pointed out that Iran has every right to develop nuclear power stations. However, she definitely did not endorse the 11 November demonstrations.
Another possible reason for the disturbance may be that the character of the 11 November commemoration has changed; from being a commemoration of WW1 soldiers, it is now the commemoration of ‘all who died for France’; this year Hollande relit the flame on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, as per tradition, but this year he also went to a small town near the Swiss border to commemorate the Resistance there. As part of the commemoration event he hosted a lunch for the families of soldiers who ‘died for France’ in the past year, of which seven died in Mali. From being a ceremony deploring the death toll of WW1, a ceremony that everyone almost might want to respect, it has become a ceremony that is contentious to say the least.
Not everyone is aware of this change: the ceremony is still mostly presented in the media as the commemoration of the armistice of 1918.
Let us hope that the eccentric stance on the part of France in foreign affairs is a temporary blip. What is not a temporary blip is the continuing disappearance of industrial employment in France. The firms of Petroplus (oil refinery), PSA (Peugeot cars) and ArcelorMittal (steel) were the most striking closures of the first year of Hollande’s presidency. Now La Redoute (mail order clothing), Alcatel-Lucent (telecommunications, in 2007 the second biggest firm in telephone networks in the world), Tilly-Sabco (poultry processing) and FagorBrandt (white goods), all very large businesses, have failed or are failing. The poultry processing plants and other agri-business firms are failing in Brittany, and the Breton farmers are very vocal in their protests. Their red bonnets, a rallying symbol, were in evidence apparently during the 11 November protest.
Still, France did qualify for the world cup, so all is not lost. To qualify, France had to beat Ukraine 3-nil (or any 3 goal difference). France beat Ukraine 3-nil, thanks to the pep talks of its coach.