In face of populism we mustn’t turn inwards, says Minister

Foreign policy – European Union/Brexit/Libya/economic diplomacy/cultural diplomacy – Inaugural lecture given by M. Jean-Marc Ayrault, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, at the Paris School of International Affairs (excerpts)

Paris, 28 September 2016



In our troubled world, we must show determination and not take the easy option of turning inwards. The rise in populism more or less everywhere compels us to react. Furthermore, it’s happening not only Europe but in the United States too – we’re seeing it at the moment with the presidential election campaign. It serves to remind us that peace, security and democracy aren’t intangible entities, but, on the contrary, must be defended if they are to last.

Brexit/future of EU

The United Kingdom and the European Union have just fallen prey – in June – to one of these outbreaks of populism. Brexit won’t put at risk either the European Union – I’m certain – or the United Kingdom – I hope. We’ll get over it. But we’ve got to remember that it finds its source in lies, exaggerations and caricatures. I say this all the more confidently because, as those promoting it admitted themselves as they abandoned ship the day after the referendum, what they promised is impossible. The supreme paradox is that they left the job of negotiating to a prime minister who campaigned to remain in the European Union.

I believe – I’m even convinced – we’ll get the European Union out of this rough patch. We’ll need the full force of Franco-German cooperation to do it. We’ll also need to focus the European Union’s action more on the issues of most concern to European citizens, as the President proposed in Bratislava. The peoples of Europe – with perhaps the exception of the British, who have never overcome their original misgivings – are fundamentally committed to the European Union. They still remember the conflicts of the 20th century. They understand what European integration has brought in terms of peace and prosperity. This achievement must be maintained. But we mustn’t be naïve, either; we must realize man is capable of making the worst decisions, as history has sadly shown.

For six decades, the European Union has been strong enough to pull us through the worst. Today, our peoples expect even more from it. Thinking that Europeans want “less” Europe would, in my view, be to misinterpret things. They actually want a Europe better focused on their concerns: a Europe which protects them, not defensively, but by consolidating the European model and ensuring its continuity.

A Europe which protects is one that ensures the security of all Europeans, by controlling its external borders in particular. A Europe which protects is one that defends its social model and makes sure that freedom of movement for workers isn’t used as an excuse for social dumping. A Europe which protects is one that makes sure its openness to the world is accompanied by an effort to get balanced, reciprocal advantages from its major trading partners. A Europe which protects is one that works to defend the financial interests of every European against certain multinational companies’ unfair tax practices. This is how our fellow citizens’ trust will be restored in the European project, which remains fully relevant historically.

When all is said and done, the vision of Europe I’ve just briefly outlined is the opposite of what populists everywhere are promoting. We must recognize that they have a certain knack of exploiting fears. When, on the other hand, it comes to addressing these, they merely propose solutions which aren’t solutions, because they can’t be implemented or because they’re sometimes worse than the problem itself. Faced with the chaos in the world, faced with the influx of refugees, faced with the terrorist threat, faced with the fear hanging over the least well-off that globalization will lower their job-market status, the populists are proposing to close doors and borders and even erect walls. They forget that a doctor who treats only patients’ symptoms condemns them to certain death.

Instead, I propose an ethics of responsibility applied to international relations. In our open world, self-absorption, fear and hatred of the “other” resolve nothing. Our old nations provide a solid foundation, but isolated they are powerless. The idea of unshared sovereignty is a delusion. So European and international cooperation is more vital than ever.

Since 2012, France’s foreign policy has striven only to contribute to this, in a spirit of responsibility, by fully committing itself and never giving up.


In North Africa, the Arab Spring brought a lot of hope and reshuffled the pack. There has been great success, such as in Tunisia, where France will go on helping consolidate democracy. But there has also been great fragility. Firstly, persistent terrorism, which must be eradicated, and then the urgent need in Libya to restore balance and sound institutions. This is why France supports Fayez Sarraj’s Government of National Accord. As soon as it was installed in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, I went there with my German colleague Frank-Walter Steinmeier to convey a message of confidence and support. The time has now come to find a compromise to bring together all the country’s forces and allow them to rebuild a state which can combat terrorism effectively and bring prosperity and justice to the Libyan people too. With this in mind, it’s essential for all Libya’s partners to mobilize, especially all the regional players. France aims to contribute to this, and at the moment I’m preparing a meeting in Paris to this effect.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In the Middle East – I was remembering Shimon Peres, I could have talked about the Oslo Accords and the huge amount of historic work done by Yitzhak Rabin –, but today the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a source of insecurity for the whole region and of suffering for the two peoples. The mistaken idea has gradually taken hold that the status quo could carry on. The consequence is that the prospect of two states living side by side in peace and security is growing more remote, undermined as it is by continued settlement activity and the absence of any political process, while despair among the people is encouraging the most radical ideas to take root and heralding what looks certain to be a resurgence of violence.

There again, France has taken the initiative by once again mobilizing the international community to encourage the parties, Israel and Palestine, to return to the path of negotiations, and by creating the conditions for this. I remember the scepticism that the announcement of our intentions was met with a few months ago. It has now given way to the expression of a desire by many countries – sometimes very far from the Middle East: China, Japan, Australia and Canada come to mind – to get involved again in the search for peace. In New York last week, I noted that the conflict was back on the international community’s agenda: this was our chief objective. Of course, there’s still a great deal of work to be done. I’m not unaware of the difficulty of the task and how long the road is. But I want to repeat to the Israelis and Palestinians: you’re being offered a unique opportunity to return to the negotiating table. Dare to make that brave choice of peace.

French diplomacy/economy/tourism/climate

I could tell you about many other situations where France is playing an active role. But I wouldn’t want to give you a narrow impression of what France’s foreign policy is: it’s not just a diplomacy of crisis, or of reaction to the often tragic nature of international relations.

French diplomacy builds, it invests, it’s deployed in the cultural field, the economic field, the field of human exchanges, through one of the most highly-developed networks in the world. It’s also being constantly updated to adapt to French society’s priorities and needs. It’s the opposite of the backward-looking bureaucracy it is sometimes depicted as. It’s active on every front.

On the economic front, in particular, to support exports by our businesses, attract foreign investment to France and promote France as a tourist destination. Secondly, on the front of human exchanges, which are key to the future success of our country’s international reach. I’m delighted that last year France became the third-largest global destination for foreign students, passing the 300,000 mark. On the international solidarity front, too, with profound changes to our development policy over the past four years, based on assistance that has started to increase again thanks to President François Hollande’s commitments. On the global challenges front, too, with the success of COP21, which for the first time enabled us to give the planet an ambitious framework for combating climate disruption. On the front of culture and Francophony also, because respect for diversity is one of the answers to the world’s problems. Finally, on the values front, because France – and I weigh my words, especially in the sometimes twisted context of public debate, including in our country – is never as strong as when it’s in agreement with itself and promotes the human rights and freedoms that are central to its Republican system.

I’m well aware that I’ve painted a gloomy picture for you. It mustn’t lead us, lead you, to despondency or fatalism. On the contrary. Our pledge is to face problems head-on and respond to them. And we must also appreciate successes: peace and security are making headway in the Sahel; new development prospects are opening up in Africa; democracy is establishing itself in Burma and civil peace in Colombia. I’ve also told you about our diplomacy, which builds and invests. So helping make the world a better place isn’t mission impossible, if the desire is there, if the energy is there, if the ability to mobilize hearts and minds is there.

To uphold our values, protect our interests and our people, offer everyone more opportunities, keep our societies free and open: those are our priorities, those are our goals, that’s our battle. I hope each of you will, to the best of your abilities, be passionately involved in this.

Thank you for your attention./.

Published on 03/01/2020

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