France's Prime Minister says countries like Canada will be "indispensable" in helping to put Mali on the road to democracy and development.
"It's up to Canada to determine what support it wants to offer during this crucial phase for the return of durable peace to this important country and member of La Francophonie," Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told The Globe and Mail on the eve of his first official visit to Canada, which begins Wednesday in Ottawa with a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Mr. Ayrault will spend four days in Canada, visiting Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. During the trip, he will also meet with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec Premier Pauline Marois.
One topic of conversation in Ottawa will be the situation in Mali. France surprised the world in January by sending in hundreds of troops at the request of the Malian government to help stop an advance by rebels from the North that included many backed by al-Qaeda. France now has roughly 4,000 troops in the West African country, joining thousands of forces from other African nations. Several Western allies have provided support to the mission, including Canada, which has contributed one C-17 transport plane. However, Mr. Harper has made it clear Canada would not commit troops.
In answers to a series of written questions from The Globe, Mr. Ayrault said France is meeting its objectives in Mali. The rebel advance has been stopped, the sovereignty of Mali has been re-established and the security situation in the country is improving. He said France benefited from significant support from the international community, including Canada. France "considers Canada an ally that is always there in the most difficult circumstances," he said. "In the case of our intervention in Mali, we asked [Canada] for logistic support and the response was in line with our friendship."
He added that for Mali to find the path toward democracy and development "the solidarity of the international community will be indispensable." Countries like Canada will also have to mobilize to ensure that elections are held in Mali this summer and that a national dialogue of reconciliation involving all Malians takes place.
Mr. Ayrault sidestepped questions about the Parti Québécois government holding a possible referendum on sovereignty. He said France enjoys a "direct and privileged" relationship with Quebec that is unique, but that France also enjoys a close partnership with Canada. And he hopes his visit to Canada will energize the relationship, particularly on the business side. Mr. Ayrault said he is being accompanied on the trip by representatives from small and medium-sized businesses in France and that several commercial agreements will be signed during the trip.
The Prime Minister's trip comes as France is facing a slow economy and soaring unemployment. In response to those challenges, the Socialist government that came to power last year has slashed public spending and raised taxes. President François Hollande recently acknowledged that France won't meet a European Union deficit ceiling of 3 per cent of gross domestic product this year, with the figure coming in at closer to 3.7 per cent. Mr. Ayrault said the government is making progress on its finances and that the weak economic growth across Europe has contributed to the country's inability to meet the EU target.
As for the future of the EU, Mr. Ayrault was bullish, saying the union has achieved great success lately. Not that long ago, he added, there were doubts about the capacity of Europeans to stabilize the euro zone. Nevertheless, the problems of Greece and Spain have been resolved, a budget pact is in place and the first step toward a banking union has been decided.
And he said the debate in Britain over that country's future in the EU has encouraged France "to redouble efforts to convince our citizens of the inestimable value and relevance of the European project."