Why France’s ambassador can live with Trudeau’s plans

Nicolas Chapuis in conversation with Paul Wells on Canada’s refugee strategy, its withdrawal of CF-18 fighters, and Operation Barkhane
France’s Ambassador to Canada Nicolas Chapuis speaks to reporters following a vigil at Nepean Point, in Ottawa, on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, where people gathered to honour the victims of Friday’s attacks in Paris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Nicolas Chapuis became France’s ambassador to Canada two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January. A student of Chinese and Mongolian history, he became a career diplomat who was in charge, most recently, of the French government’s response to WikiLeaks. He is a leading French translator of classical Chinese poetry with, apparently, a fondness for long shots: The Quai d’Orsay sent him to Stephen Harper’s Ottawa to encourage Canada to play nicely at the Paris climate-change summit.

Suddenly, in October, it was no longer Harper’s Ottawa. Preparations for the Paris summit were going very well indeed when evil struck again: Teams of Islamist murderers carried out a string of massacres across Paris. Hours after French President François Hollande addressed French parliamentarians at the Palace of Versailles on Monday, Chapuis sat down with Maclean’s for an interview.

I asked him about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to withdraw CF-18 fighters from the Iraq and Syria theatre of operations. Is France concerned? “We would be concerned if Canada had the intent, or had announced, that it will get out of the coalition, withdraw from the coalition,” Chapuis said. “It’s not the case. At all. And this has been re-confirmed at a very high level, when my minister [Laurent Fabius, the former French prime minister who now serves as its foreign minister] talked with Stéphane Dion, or when [he] met with Justin Trudeau” at the G-20 in Turkey this week.

“We respect and understand any country’s sovereignty in making such decisions,” Chapuis added. “The fight against Daesh is a global fight; it’s not only the strikes.” (Daesh is another name for the so-called Islamic State; it has long been in common use in France and is becoming more popular among political leaders elsewhere, partly because it avoids flattering the terrorist movement by calling it a “state.” As a bonus, it is said to be highly unpopular among members of the terrorist group themselves.)

Fighting the group, under any name, “necessitates a diversity of instruments. And Canada, I’m sure, will play its role, playing on the keyboards it wants to play on.”

I asked whether one of the notes Canada might play is related to Operation Barkhane, a French anti-terrorist operation already underway across Northern Africa. Chapuis said Op Barkhane might not only be a component of Canada’s response; it already was before Trudeau was elected.

“Indeed,” he replied, “and, in fact, over the last few months, Canada has granted us technical support. It was not publicized. But Canada has been granting us support that we appreciated in the Sahel [the African theatre of operations for Op Barkhane].”

Refuelling? Logistics? “I cannot go into details. You have to ask [the Canadian department of] Defence.”

One last time on CF-18s: Was he not just putting on a brave face, given Trudeau’s intention to withdraw jet fighters?

“What I’m saying is, Canada has not yet made a decision,” he said. “Second, during the strikes [on Sunday], . . . Canadians also did an operation [against Iraqi targets using the CF-18s]. Third, that Canada is within a coalition and, as I understand, will consult with all coalition members before taking a decision. And fourth, that we are confident in the way Canada will play its part within the coalition. And finally—this is important—the fight against Daesh is not reduced to strikes.”

Stéphane Schorderet, the embassy’s communications director, reminded Chapuis of another fact. Chapuis was grateful for the reminder. “The total number of strikes—it’s like GHGs,” Chapuis said, referring to Canada’s share of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Canadian GHGs are two per cent of [all global] emissions. Canadian strikes [against ISIS in Iraq and Syria] are two per cent of strikes.” The implication, on a day when François Hollande had announced the tripling of French air strength in the region, is that Canadians should not flatter themselves about how keenly our country’s air power would be missed.

Related: Canada’s place in the crowded skies against ISIS

Hollande’s other headline-grabbing announcement was that he will seek to strip French citizenship from any dual citizen who is convicted of terrorism-related offences against France. The policy is rigorously identical to the policy the Harper government was pursuing until its electoral defeat and, again, it’s one Trudeau has promised to repeal. Is France worried that Trudeau is cancelling a provision Hollande plans to introduce?

Chapuis took care first to defend Hollande’s policy: “If a person fights, destroys, intends to destroy, attacks the very values on which our national identity is founded, that person has no place within the French nation,” he said. But that is, for the moment, only Hollande’s position, not yet France’s. “We understand it is a very sensitive issue and it will be debated democratically in [France’s] Parliament.”

And Canada? “We share many things with Canada, but our domestic situations are different; the level of threat is different; and it’s part of every country’s democratic equation to decide what type of democratic governance should be made,” he said.

“There are very few issues that we think need universal implementation. One of them is the death penalty. We have been lobbying the world, either for a moratorium or for abolition of the death penalty. The question of citizenship removal when you are a dual national is not at that level of universality.”

French President Francois Hollande  delivers a speech at the Versailles castle, west of Paris, Monday, Nov.16, 2015. French President Francois Hollande is addressing parliament about France's response to the Paris attacks, in a rare speech to lawmakers gathered in the majestic congress room of the Palace of Versailles. (Philippe Wojazer, Pool via AP)
French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech at the Versailles castle, west of Paris, Monday, Nov.16, 2015. French President Francois Hollande is addressing parliament about France’s response to the Paris attacks, in a rare speech to lawmakers gathered in the majestic congress room of the Palace of Versailles. (Philippe Wojazer, Pool via AP)

Onward. Does France plan to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which would formally call on all NATO members including Canada, to respond to the Paris attacks? “There has not been a request issued by France, to my knowledge, for the time being. And the fact that we are already engaged in military operations within a coalition and a mandate, what we have asked today is to reaffirm in even clearer terms the mandate of the Security Council of the UN, which will give the legal ground and collective basis for the strikes that are taking place in Syria and Iraq.”

Would invoking Article 5 strengthen the broad coalition France and the United States have already assembled? “Really, I don’t have an opinion on that at this stage,” Chapuis said. “Really, if we have a solid, robust mandate through a UN resolution—and you may have noticed the president specifically mentioned the U.S. support in his speech in front of the Congress—then we have what we need to be in operation.”

From Paul Wells: On Trudeau, NATO treaties, and backseat ministering

Finally, I asked Chapuis about Trudeau’s plan to bring in 25,000 refugees, mostly from Syria, by the end of the year.

“Well, I think Canada is an ally, not only within NATO, but as a partner in the G7, as a friend of Europe, and of France, in particular. The first manifestation of support is political, and one should not diminish that. And the Prime Minister has been, over the last few days, very clear in his solidarity, his support, his promise of assistance to France, and he said it every single day since Friday. So, first, we appreciate that.

“Moreover, it has been magnified by the splendid expression of solidarity that we have seen coast to coast in Canada. I have been dealing with hundreds of messages today from all ways of life, all sectors of Canadian society, business, political. The Governor General came personally this afternoon to present a letter. So that political support is already enormous.

“Second, refugees, you may have heard me a little more than a month ago, when the refugee crisis began in Europe, saying we Europeans felt a little bit alone in the face of the crisis.” The new Canadian plan to rapidly accelerate refugee processing here makes Europe feel less alone, he said.

Related: Should the Liberals rethink their refugee plan?

“Remember the refugees in Europe during the war. At the time, there was already criticism . . . Today, our prime minister, Manuel Valls, comes from such a family [of refugees from the Spanish Civil War]. The refugees are those who flee the barbarians. They are not the barbarians. We should not mistake that. It would be a huge mistake before history, if we close our doors.”

Photo gallery: Paris picks up the pieces

[rdm-gallery id=’627′]