For French journalists, Villepin is Nicolas Sarkozy's "worst nightmare." The former prime minister belongs to the same political family as President Sarkozy. Yet he still decided to run for president to make sure a more socially-committed voice would be heard. For the U.S., Villepin is the man who opposed George W. Bush and said "no" to war in Iraq. In a exclusive interview granted to us in Paris a few days after the launch of his campaign, he returns to this major diplomatic crisis and his vision of French foreign policy. More surprisingly he talks of his many ties with the United States, his years of studying there, and the influence of "the Beat Generation." He calls on the French and the Americans to work together to be a stronger influence in the world.
For the Americans, you are the man who said "no" to the Iraqi war. What are your memories about this diplomatic crisis and your famous speech to the U.N.?
The memory of a difficult choice because France has never forgotten the deep friendship that bonds her to the American people. A friendship that began at the very birth of the American nation, which has nourished the values we share. But at this period we had to face the specific choice of the Bush administration, which was led by neoconservatives. The Bush administration thought that, on the basis of an armed intervention, we could hope to recreate a momentum for peace and create virtuous circle for the entire Middle East. I never shared this conviction. On the contrary, I always felt that there was a risk of division, war and injustice. It was essential for the international community to face the Middle East issue with the aim of reconciliation. Everything that could produce a clash between the Arab world and the West seemed dangerous to me. Unfortunately the Bush administration decided to go to war very early. The question of the International community's legitimacy came up. And I felt that the responsibility of France was not to legitimize this intervention, but to avoid an escalation of the situation.
"For the Bush administration the possible presence of weapons of mass destruction was just a smoke screen"
Could the U.S. administration imagine for a second that France would dare to oppose the war?
I don't think so. I think it was the "little grain of sand" in the Iraqi adventure that the Bush administration had not counted on. However, we had found a consensus about the principle of U.N. inspections, in order to determine the possible presence of weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, there was a hidden agenda on the American side. For the Bush administration and the Pentagon, this principle was just a cloak, a smoke screen to prepare for a military intervention. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfled and Dick Cheney, thought it seemed to be the best solution to protect American interests.
You talk about a cloak, a camouflage concerning the U.N. inspections. According to you, did the Iraqi war rest on a lie?
Accusations are useless. But I think that the decision to intervene in Iraq preceded the diplomatic process, and this diplomatic process was only a cover for the intervention. Colin Powell was in an extremely difficult situation at this time. I've always had -- and still have -- a respectful friendship for him. He is a man of honesty and rigor. But because of his education, he is a soldier as well. He estimated though that his duty was to follow American politics even if he knew deep down that the war was not the answer to Iraqi proliferation problems.
Saying "no" to the United States in front of the whole world, wasn't that also a way of trying to put France back into the heart of things at the United Nations?
I grew up in the United States. I didn't want to say "no" to the United States. I wanted to say "no" to the Bush administration who made an ideological choice that we felt, was dangerous. Jacques Chirac and I were convinced that beyond this disagreement, the friendship between France and the United States was unwavering. We were true to our vision of the world and more aware than the Bush administration of the reality of the situation in the Middle East and the risks that this entailed. Looking back, it is clear that Iraq, like Afghanistan, was a mistake. We must have the courage to say "the choice that has been made is a bad choice." The Bush administration, driven by neoconservative ideology, preferred to play into the hands of extremists and terrorists.
Leaving NATO in such a sensational way would be perceived as a provocation
At that time you were in the same government as Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the interior minister. He had denounced your arrogance. Was he in favor of an intervention in Iraq?
I do not want to impute motives to Nicolas Sarkozy. I would not say he supported armed intervention. I think he had a close relationship with the Bush administration that led him to fear our stance.
Do you regret the pro-American turn French policy took under Nicolas Sarkozy?
What I regret is the difficulty that the United States and the Europeans have to talk straight and move forward together in mutual respect. In recent years we have seen a kind of indifference of the United States towards Europe and the temptation to turn to other regions such as Asia.
The Americans and Europeans should speak plainly and try to reconcile their views. We will be stronger if we act together. Without a strong Europe and a strong United States, the world deprives itself of important levers for action.
If you are elected president, will you leave NATO's integrated command?
The choice of returning to the integrated command of NATO was not accompanied by the changes that we hoped for. Choosing to go back into NATO for France if it's just accepting a fait accompli is not a good choice. It is in the interest of the United States for France to assume its singularity, its mediating role, its ability to ease the resolution of a number of conflicts. A France able to talk to countries that have radical positions such as Iran. I regret that France is no longer able to talk to Iran today. If it were the case, we would be closer to a solution. France must be able to seek for dialogue and cooperation with the countries of the world that are being marginalized.
You haven't answered the question. To play its role, should France leave NATO's integrated command ?
Today, leaving NATO in such a sensational way would be perceived as a provocation. We must try to achieve the same result, but in a different way. France and the European countries must all fight for Europe to assume more responsibility. Europe in NATO can only have a meaning if it asserts itself. There must be two equal pillars in the Atlantic Alliance: Europe and the United States. NATO as it exists today does not have an answer to everything. Anyway not in the Middle East.
"We cannot achieve stability in Afghanistan without the help of neighboring countries"
Must French troops leave Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is a quagmire. Jacques Chirac, the former French president, had begun withdrawing troops, and this is necessary if we want the region to take responsibility for its actions. The Afghan drama today is that Westerners are under the spotlight and that the other countries of the region are watching us getting bogged down and beaten up. We cannot achieve stability in Afghanistan without the help of neighboring countries such as Iran, Russia, Pakistan, or India. These countries have their role to play. A new "departure" has to start with a regional conference that would give these countries the opportunity to control their own destiny.
According to you, was the intervention in Libya a good decision? Do you salute the role played by President Nicolas Sarkozy?
I do salute the initiative taken by France within the framework of the United Nations. I do, however, have some regrets. First, I wish NATO had been kept a little more at a distance. Secondly, the political support to Libya cannot negate the reality on the ground. There is a huge gap between the Benghazi government and the actual balance of power in the country. There are also strong differences of opinion with our Arab partners, especially the countries that intervened in Libya, such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia. I fear that with our ignorance of local realities, we might find ourselves trapped despite our good intentions. I call for more pragmatism. But today there is no solution in a State that doesn't have a global vision of things,.
Do you think we should now consider a similar intervention in Syria?
A similar military intervention in Syria would be extremely dangerous because of the strong divisions between social and religious communities. Moreover, the strategic situation of this region makes it very sensitive: you have to take into account Lebanon and Israel. However, from a diplomatic point a view, we have the duty to go further; in particular with our dialogue with Russia or China. I also regret our lack of support forlocal initiatives: Arab League initiatives or Turkey's initiatives, who proposed humanitarian corridors. We also suffer from the lack of dialogue with Iran and we therefore deprive ourselves of their capacity to help solve a local conflict. I deplore the absence of diplomatic commitment and strategic vision. We need to be more committed and united to influence neighboring countries.
After the Arab Revolutions, do you fear the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?
Nobody can deny there is a rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But this threat will grow even stronger if we don't play our part. What is striking today in Europe and in the United States is our inability to accompany the changes in these Arab countries. The social and economic situation in Tunisia and Egypt remains very worrying. This is why we shouldn't be surprised that opinions are becoming more radical in these countries.
How is it possible to play a part without being accused of interfering?
Once more, we need a joint approach. If the United States decides to intervene, they must not do it alone, but in collaboration with European states and emerging countries. Then, things will be very different.
"Nicolas Sarkozy and other European leaders have committed the mistake of choosing weak European representatives"
In an opinion column, you've compared Nicolas Sarkozy's politics to "a stain of shame on the French national flag." Can you confirm this statement?
This statement didn't concern foreign policy. I was talking about the quarrel we had on "national identity," about Nicolas Sarkozy's stigmatization of some communities. I thought that these policies were not giving a very good image of our country. I think French people need to agree on common values instead of being divided. It is vital to have a critical point of view in politics, or nothing will move on. It's so easy to be lukewarm. In the Bible, the lukewarm are violently condemned for not daring to take sides. One needs to have the courage to tell the truth. And this applies both in national and in international matters.
You've just disclosed your campaign slogan: "For a free and independent France." Is this really possible today? Or do you continue to live in the illusion of France's "greatness"?
No, not at all. I'm not interested about "greatness" in the old "De Gaulle" sense of the word. I mean a France that is faithful to its calling. Nowadays, the European debate is sterile. We need to recognize that a State has its own prerogatives. But we also need to recognize that Europe offers our country the possibility of being much more powerful and active on the international scene. On one condition: We have to understand that both France and Europe must be strong. These last few years, Nicolas Sarkozy and other European leaders have committed the mistake of choosing weak European representatives: Mr. Barroso, the president of the European commission, Mr. Van Rompuy, the president of the European council or Catherine Ashton, High Representative of European diplomacy.
With weak representatives, Europe can't score any points, it cannot exist. A country is both national sovereignty and shared sovereignties. This example also works for the United States: just like France, they don't have the ability to bring peace to the Middle East. We therefore deprive ourselves of the ability to work together. We would be so much stronger if we could work together... But today, neither Europe nor the United States are playing the role they should on the international scene.
"When I was a teenager, the "Beat generation" movement left its mark on me, so did the hippy movement."
You claim the legacy of "social Gaullism." What does that mean?
A national ambition, a political presence in the world must be allied with social justice. This applies as much to European states as to the U.S.A. We saw it with the sub-prime crisis. My conviction is that if our states can't manage to put social justice at the center of political choice, the social cohesion which holds our country together will gradually break down. In some French companies, the gap between the richest employee and the poorest is on a scale of 1 to 400. We have to think about what justice really is. A state, a people, can't move forward if some people go so much faster than others and are more protected. The French have to share the feeling of a common destiny.
When did you go to the U.S.A. for the last time?
Last time, it was for a conference one year ago. I always go back there with great pleasure. You know I spent a part of my youth in the U.S.A. and I passed my A-level in New York. Then, I was to do with here for six years as a diplomat in Washington, in charge of the Middle East and anything to do with terrorism.
What do you prefer in American culture?
When I was a teenager, the "Beat generation" movement left its mark on me, so did the hippie movement. I have been fascinated by this moment of collective liberty, life and happiness. This non-violent movement influenced me deeply. American poets like Jack Kerouac were a source of inspiration. Likewise, every time I arrive in the U.S.A., every chance to travel through the U.S.A., to take road 66, there is always the same feeling of wide open spaces of America which their share of dreams and opportunities. We think big, in the U.S.A. We think "initiative." We want to make something. This is a privilege of the U.S.A. For every lover of liberty and democracy, the U.S.A. is always an inspiration source.