Earlier this week, the EU voted to impose an unprecedented embargo on Iranian oil. This was not an easy task. For Greece and Spain, this marked a significant concession. France was one of the countries that worked tirelessly to win the agreement of the 27 EU partners. In recent years, France has been among the leaders in pushing a militant stance against the Iranian nuclear program. Still, sanctions are one thing, but talk of military action is another.
Christophe Bigot, the 46-year-old French ambassador to Israel, knows this country and its inhabitants very well. He served for three years here as the deputy ambassador before returning to us as top envoy in the summer of 2009. Since coming back, he has not rested for a moment, though he did manage to find time in his schedule this week to speak with Israel Hayom about a host of issues, including the Iranian nuclear program, Gilad Schalit, and the issue that most riles up the Israelis – the French nationals suspected in causing the hit-and-run death of Lee Zeitouni, who subsequently fled the country to evade arrest and trial. To some Israelis, France has come to represent a safe haven for criminals.
This week the EU decided to impose a historic oil embargo on Tehran. There are those who see this as substantive sanctions with teeth, but they will only come into effect in July. Mr. Ambassador, since we are all aware that time is running out, why wait until July?
“Since 2003, we have been trying to put an end to the Iranian nuclear project. We worked hard to achieve this goal. First we tried to persuade the Iranians, to get clear answers from them, promises. We tried again in October to get clear answers regarding the uranium enrichment, but we didn’t get any answer from them.
“In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued its report, which laid bare what many of us already knew to be true or suspected was true: The Iranian nuclear program was geared toward military purposes. In the wake of the report, French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded unprecedented sanctions against Iran. You have to remember that oil represents 80 percent of Iranian exports, so we decided on an embargo on Iranian oil. In addition, we also decided to freeze assets belonging to the Iranian central bank, so here we are touching the heart of the matter, touching the money. This wasn’t all done in a day. I’m aware of the fact that there are those who are raising a brow and asking, ‘Why wait and give the Iranians time?’
“Indeed, many countries have agreements with Iran that need to expire. In countries that did not have agreements, the embargo has already come into effect, and the markets are already responding to the embargo. One can see how this is having an impact. The Iranian economy is beginning to collapse.”
So should Israel be satisfied?
“Israel seems to feel that it is all alone in facing the Iranian nuclear threat, but Israel is not left to face Iran on its own. First, because Israel has friends, and also because the Iranian threat is against the entire region. The Iranian nuclear program is a threat to the entire world. The Iranian nuclear program poses an existential threat. What we need is for fewer states to purchase oil from Iran, and those who continue to do so will pay low prices, so either way Iran comes out on the losing end.”
What about a new round of sanctions in the Security Council?
“We are certainly hopeful that this will happen, but the Russians and the Chinese reject this idea.”
Is the military option a legitimate one?
“I would not put it that way. Every country has the right to defend itself. But we are not there yet. We are currently in the exploratory stage of figuring out what is the most efficient means that we can utilize to change the situation in Iran. The most efficient thing is for the entire international community to join unprecedented sanctions against Iran. This is what we are trying to do. For some, this will always be too little, too late. But when one examines the decisions from this week, they are unprecedented.”
There is much talk about the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia, but there are those who believe it began with the protest movement in Iran following the president elections that were ‘stolen.’
“I absolutely agree with you on this point.”
Did U.S. President Barack Obama err in not extending his support to the Iranian demonstrators? Was it not a mistake by the West to refrain from aiding the wave of unrest?
“France offered extensive aid. When people talk about Iran, people always think about the nuclear issue, and this is obvious, but there are other issues as well. At the U.N. and the Human Rights Council in Geneva, we had very harsh words about the state of human rights in Iran and resolutions were passed.
“You have to remember that the Arab Spring was initially a ‘Persian Spring,’ and that Iran is not North Korea. There are students, there are universities, and there is a population that is much more pro-Western than we tend to think. We also need to work in providing assistance to the opposition there, and to bolster it. There are radio stations whose frequency is picked up in Iran. I am hopeful that the Arab Spring that started in Tehran will resume there.
“Take for example [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. On this issue, we are also quite clear. Whenever he raised the matter in Geneva or New York, we left the assembly hall. There is no compromise on an issue like Holocaust denial.”
Perhaps the option as to how to deal with Iran will come from the Iranian people who will topple the ayatollah regime. In that scenario, nobody would be particularly moved by an Iranian nuclear program that is civilian in nature, just like there was during the reign of the Shah, correct?
“We have no problem with a civilian nuclear program in Iran. The problem is that Iran lied. Iran is developing a nuclear program that is not aimed for civilian purposes. The Iranian regime is issuing aggressive statements. We say ‘yes’ to a civilian nuclear program, so to that end we proposed a plan that would call for providing the Iranians with fuel rods instead of enriched uranium, and they could then use those rods for doing medical research. The problem is when this nuclear program becomes militarized.”
Does Paris have information as to how far the Iranians have progressed toward a nuclear weapon?
“This is a matter for our intelligence people, but I can say that we need to act quickly. Time is working against us. This is why the sanctions that were approved by the European Union are so important. Now we need to persuade Russia and China to sign on.”
“An end to the oppression in Syria”
Let us revisit the Arab Spring, if you will. Does Paris agree with Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s assessment that Syrian President Bashar Assad is living on borrowed time?
“I think that a leader who raises his hand against his own people, and who does so repeatedly, has a serious problem of legitimacy. It seems to me that there are already 5,000 deaths in Syria from the start of the rioting. Europe imposed sanctions against the Syrian regime. We are demanding a democratic process and an end to the oppression.”
Let us assume that Assad survives in power. In such a scenario, could France resume working with him?
“Assad has shown no signs of returning to his top form. We need to look forward, and forward means democracy.”
France was the driving force behind the recent war in Libya. Why not in Syria as well?
“The situation is different. In Libya, there were two resolutions passed by the U.N. Security Council. As for Syria, Russia and China have opposed any resolution in the Security Council. We are acting according to the principle of respecting international law. You need to remember that in Libya there was support for military action from all countries in the region, including the Arab League. In Syria, the Arab League is active, but it opposes military intervention. Syria’s neighbors and the Arab League are opposed to a military operation.”
I know the extent to which you were involved, both personally and emotionally, in the efforts to free Gilad Schalit. Would France go to the same lengths as Israel did for the sake of one of its own prisoners of war?
“We are in the same situation. You have been in a state of war since 1948. This is not the case with France. But we too have soldiers fall into enemy captivity every year, many soldiers. We have had dozens in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Africa, and Yemen.”
But in France there isn’t that same public pressure on the authorities to release prisoners as there is in Israel.
“I’ve been serving for more than five years in Israel. I got to know Schalit’s family and his exceptional parents. In December, when it was cold outside, there weren’t always a lot of people at their tent. France saluted the Israeli government’s difficult decision to release Palestinian prisoners because we know that there are families of the victims of terrorist attacks. But the Schalit prisoner swap gave much honor to the state of Israel.”
“We believe in a Palestinian state”
Why did France vote in favor of Palestine’s membership in UNESCO?
“We believe that the solution to this crisis is a Palestinian state. UNESCO, a place that represents peace and culture, was the appropriate stage to show that one day there needs to come into existence a Palestinian state. But that same week we also said that we would abstain from voting to admit Palestine into the U.N. because on that stage we think that this would lead to tension. That request would not advance peace.”
“The judges will decide”
The hit-and-run accident that killed [25-year-old Israeli woman] Lee Zeitouni [in Tel Aviv in September 2011] harmed France’s image since both suspects fled to France, where they are walking free. Could France do more to act against these two suspects?
“I visited the family of Lee Zeitouni at Kibbutz Neve Or in the Beit Shean valley, and I didn’t discern any desire for revenge on the part of her parents. I promised them that day that I would extend them my full support. What happened was shocking, and justice needs to be done.
“France wants to arrest the suspects and bring them to trial, but Israel needs to make an official request, or the family needs to do this. Both options are available. I am as frustrated as Israeli citizens, seeing two suspects walking around free. I am frustrated because I know that they could be brought to trial in Israel.
“There are two ways to arrest them. This is the message that I sent to the Knesset. I passed this information along to the highest level of Israeli authorities. This was mentioned by the French president, but it hasn’t been done.
“Why? Because they would have preferred to stand trial in Israel. I too would have preferred for them to be tried in Israel. They lived in Israel, they were not tourists. The accident occurred in Israel and the victim was Israeli, but these people said via their attorney that they did not wish to return to Israel. I am French, and from a moral standpoint, I think that they need to return to Israel.”
Is it not possible to extradite them given the severity of the crime which they are suspected of committing?
“We don’t extradite French citizens to Israel just as we don’t extradite them to Australia, Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, or Switzerland. We don’t do this solely in cases involving EU states. So people tell me that we need to change the law. In this instance, the law states that France does not extradite its citizens to countries outside of the EU.
“There are a number of other countries who do not extradite their citizens. Israel began extraditing in 2002. Since we do not change the law and these people do not wish to return to Israel – and I am sorry for this – the only way is for them to stand trial in France.
“I am of the opinion that there is no possibility remaining for the suspects to return to Israel. I will say that since the accident, the Israeli authorities have made a number of secret requests and we have acceded to them. An investigative judge has been named to the case and a police investigation is ongoing. The results of the investigation have been turned over to the Israelis.
“We located the suspects in October. We know where they are, but our hands are tied because we have not received an Israeli request to arrest them. You need to trust the French judicial system. People say that prison terms in France are lighter but this is only when talking about maximum penalties. The results are different when one speaks of the average sentences that are meted out.
“We are both democratic countries, and the judges are the ones who will make the ruling. I appeal to you: Trust the French courts. Morally, it is inconceivable that the individuals responsible for the death of Lee Zeitouni will not stand trial. The French media have reported extensively on the accident. The French president spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue. Sarkozy’s wife sent a letter to Lee Zeitouni’s mother. I don’t remember an instance where an accident that didn’t take place in France has been covered so extensively.”