France’s new ambassador to Greece, Patrick Maisonnave, calls for cooperation on multiple levels between Athens and Paris on issues ranging from security to investment in his first interview in Greece.
Maisonnave tells Kathimerini that France will defend its interests in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – where French company Total has signed a licensing agreement for hydrocarbon exploration along with Italy’s Eni – while stressing that Turkey is a player that does not always cooperate at the regional level.
Greece has gone from being at the center of the economic crisis to the center of complex geopolitical developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. How can Greece and France work more closely in these areas?
I was here 12 years ago, just before the start of the financial crisis. Twelve years later I discover a country that has been deeply affected. The crisis has scarred the country deeply. The population has suffered greatly. Courageous choices were made, including, and most importantly, to stay in the eurozone. Greece is clearly at the center of a multitude of challenges: the refugee crisis, humanitarian issues, security issues, geopolitics and a slew of regional and extra-regional factors that are particularly complex, foremost of which is Turkey, which does not always play the game of regional and bilateral cooperation. We are allies, but in practical terms Turkey acts alone, as evidenced by its recent initiative in Syria.
We are concerned about the instability in this part of the world. However, there are also promising partnerships for the exploitation of natural gas deposits. There’s the Cyprus issue, which is fundamental. Cyprus is a victim of violations of its sovereignty and there’s a lot at play in this area. Greece is particularly exposed. In this context, there is a good deal of convergence and many common interests between France and Greece. The friendship between the two nations goes back a long way and runs deep.
In which areas could cooperation between Greece and France be strengthened?
There are three separate dimensions. The first is economic. The former government made bold decisions. The new government is presenting clear and encouraging prospects that we welcome and which will lead to the path of economic growth. There is also the immigration crisis, which is not a Greek crisis but a European Union one. Lastly, there’s the area of defense, the strategic dimension. We want to make an effective contribution so that the Hellenic Armed Forces can return to a state that will allow Greece, together with others, with France, to deal with security challenges.
You mentioned Cyprus. France has a presence in Cyprus’ EEZ and particularly in Block 7, where a concession has been granted to Total. How will France respond to Turkish drilling in Block 7?
As you say, France has interests there. Total is due to start activities in Block 7 soon, so there is a clear French interest. In this regard, France will do what it has to so that Total can carry out the activities agreed in the concession with the Republic of Cyprus. Apart from that, there is a fundamental issue of respect for international law as far as we are concerned. We condemn Turkey’s behavior, as just a few weeks ago a Turkish ship sailed to Block 7. In response, we took measures together with the Cypriot Navy so as to show our presence in the area and to act as a deterrent. Why? So that we could stress the need for respect of international law.
France is in favor of the European Union assuming a more active role in foreign policy. Do you think we might see some progress in this direction in the next few years?
We need to look carefully at the region. Russia and China clearly have plans for the area. And there are those of Greece, of course, and the other European Union member-states. The EU needs to develop tools to protect the sovereignty of its member-states. France wants to support Greece’s efforts, so that it can participate in all the cooperation frameworks, both industrial and operational.
Do you think that a stronger French military presence is likely?
The cooperation over military procurements is very important. There is also a defense cooperation in which we would like to become involved anew with our Greek friends. This would be up to us, by helping reform certain structures of the Hellenic Armed Forces. Furthermore, France has the ability to project its power beyond its borders. France is present in various operational arenas across the world, such as in the front against terrorism. We want the Greeks at our side, we want the Greeks to participate in our efforts, which are not aimed only at protecting France, but Europe as a whole.
As far as EU enlargement is concerned, why does France object, and particularly to the accession of North Macedonia and Albania?
There is no French veto. And there is no “knife in the back” of the people of Albania and North Macedonia. We believe that the process of bold reforms in these countries is not over. There are certain things that need to be done so that their candidacies can be credible. No one questions the political necessity of these countries’ accession to the EU, nor their prospects in the long term. There is no going back as far as France is concerned. But right now, we have a European Union that is not working very well. We are discussing a European budget that would have new costs in the case of enlargement. We need consensus for the European budget. We also need to look at the behavior of certain Balkan states. Right now, Albanians are the top asylum-seekers in France, something that tells us that asylum procedures can be misleading. Albania is regarded as a safe country. So, there are national issues but also issues of a European nature. We believe that the enlargement process has become more complex politically and that we need to consider the political realities in the EU.
Could you be more specific about the defense cooperation between Greece and France?
Of course. The economic crisis has had an impact on Greece, halting investments in several areas, including defense. We are involved in a series of discussions with regard to our cooperation with the Greek government so that we can upgrade some of the French equipment that the Hellenic Armed Forces have – such as the Mirage fighter aircraft and the NH90 helicopters – but also to proceed in the area of frigates. We believe these frigates will help Greece find the strategic advantage it needs in this part of the world.
How are Greek-French relations in the area of investments?
As I have said, France wants to be one of Greece’s leading partners, just as it was during the decade of the crisis. I would like to hail the French businesspeople who stayed in Greece despite the difficulties. [Prime Minister Kyriakos] Mitsotakis has embarked on a wide-ranging and bold effort to restore the economy and I have no doubt that French businesspeople and French investment funds will be in a position to participate in this effort – in the area of defense, which I mentioned previously, but also in the areas of transport, insurance and financial services, in the hotel and tourism sectors, in energy, pharmaceutical products, the management of water resources and waste, and the area of agriculture and food. All French businesses are happy to share their know-how, and I am confident that French investments will return to Greece soon.