Benjamin Haddad is one of the leading members of the French National Assembly for President Emmanuel Macron's party. He is a member of the foreign affairs committee and also heads the "friendship group" with Ukraine in the Assembly.
What is important for Ukraine is that Haddad believes in Ukraine's future as part of the EU and NATO. He is also influential in shaping the policies of President Macron and France in general.
France is a very good example of the dramatic shift in policy towards Ukraine. How far will it go? Let's find out in this interview.
"Everything happened quicker than we thought in the last year"
Benjamin, this is not your first time in Kyiv
My first time was actually during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. As a pro-European, I was very moved to see all these young people fighting for the European flag, fighting for a better future and democracy. It convinced me that Ukraine belongs in Europe. I've come many times since then.
Let's be honest: until recently, France was not perceived in Ukraine as a country that understands that Ukraine belongs in Europe. This image of France has taken shape over the decades, and it is not groundless.
I'm here today in Ukraine with a [French] parliamentary delegation of six MPs from six different parties. Some are in the majority, others are in the opposition, but all here to send a message of friendship and solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
The French people overwhelmingly support Ukraine, Ukraine's accession to the EU and NATO, sanctions against Russia and weapon deliveries to Ukraine. What's so interesting beyond this support is that the French public, like many others in Europe, is still very interested and focused on this issue.
I'll just give you one anecdote. We have three 24-hour news channels in France.
One of the three decided to shift to 24-7 coverage of Ukraine, with very positive reporting. It's gone to number one among the news channels.
So, the French people really, really care.
We've passed three resolutions of support for Ukraine – one resolution of support, one recognising the Holodomor as a genocide, emphasising the importance of the memory of the Ukrainian nation, and оne designating the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation. The French National Assembly voted for the resolutions with almost unanimous support.
But, to be blunt, I'll respond to your question.
It's true that for a long time, France was not interested enough in this region, and didn't understand it enough.
By the way, I say region, I mean not only Ukraine but also Central and Eastern Europe in general.
What gave rise to these changes? After all, we used to see a different France, one which in 2008 voted against Ukraine's Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO and was skeptical about Ukraine's European integration. Yet now, Paris has become a real friend of Ukraine. How did this happen?
For a long time, France basically said we first have to focus on reforming the EU and integrating the EU before enlarging it.
Clearly, there was a major shift on 24 February 2022.
We understand now that enlargement is a geopolitical necessity for Europe as well. If you want to preserve peace and stability on the European continent, then you need to compete with Russia, China and other external influences that we've seen.
And of course, there's Ukraine, but there’s also Moldova, Georgia, and the western Balkans.
So we need to be much better at competing, and for this, enlargement is a necessity. I think clearly there was an awakening in France and all of Europe when we saw war on our continent again. We needed to rethink a lot of our intuitions.
I have to admit that France has played a key role in obtaining candidate status for Ukraine. I agree with your assessment that France wants to see Ukraine in the EU. But when can this happen? When do you see a realistic timeline when Ukraine will be able to enjoy membership status?
Yes, France has been active in helping Ukraine get candidate status. I do hope that we'll get to the next step later this year by opening accession talks.
It's in our interest, too, to stabilise Ukraine. Right now, Ukrainians are protecting the eastern flank of Europe. We need to bring them into the EU and NATO.
That's a good question. It also depends on you.
It's a two-way process. It's a long process. It will take years.
Some people are saying: oh, it's a long process because they don't want to see it happen. No!
We have to make it a priority to accompany Ukraine in reconstruction and reform. We should make this happen in the next few years. Then we should also prepare the EU in terms of its own internal functioning to ensure that decision-making is as swift as possible, and to reform the structural funds and agriculture policy.
I think we'll get there.
Things have happened quicker than we thought in the last year, right?
Some European politicians have mentioned dates. Charles Michel [president of the European Council] is talking about new accessions by 2030. Do you share this view that it is possible that both Ukraine and the EU may be ready for accession by that time?
I want to be blunt and say: I don't know.
I'll be frank. It really depends on the progress that we both make. It depends on how we can help Ukrainians accomplish the reforms. And once again, I am very impressed that the reforms are happening.
I do hope that we'll see Ukraine in the European Union as soon as possible. I can tell you that France is committed to making that happen.
"It didn't happen in Vilnius, but let's do it in Washington"
For Ukraine's security, NATO membership is necessary as soon as we win the war. I don't see NATO as being ready for this. The invitation [to Ukraine to join NATO] was strongly opposed by some countries at the Vilnius summit [in July 2023).
France supports giving Ukraine a path to NATO.
You mentioned Bucharest in 2008. At the time, the rationale invoked by some countries like France or Germany for not giving Ukraine and Georgia a membership action plan was that to do so would be seen as a provocation by Russia.
But what has happened in the meantime? Russia attacked Georgia and then Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.
Not inviting those countries to join NATO was a provocation.
It was an invitation for aggression by Russia.
Russia saw the decision as a sign of weakness, and interpreted it as Western countries not siding with Ukraine and Georgia. If we want to ensure long-term peace, stability and deterrence, we have to get Ukraine into NATO.
What is Putin's gamble today?
Clearly, Putin underestimated the heroic resistance of Ukrainians. He overestimated his own army. He underestimated our own reaction and willingness to provide support.
But his gamble now is that we're going to lose focus, that at some point we're just going to stop being interested.
So I think you have two steps now.
The first step is what we can do right now in negotiating bilateral security guarantees for Ukraine with some countries, such as the US and France, and making sure, for example, that the military support we are gividing continues and intensifies.
And then I hope that at the Washington summit [of NATO, to be held in July 2024 – ed.] we will give a clear invitation to Ukraine to join NATO. I was hoping that it would happen in Vilnius, but let’s hope it happens in Washington.
Do you consider this realistic? The US are still sceptical. How can Biden and his administration be convinced that Ukraine has to be invited to join NATO now?
We have to continue to make the case. I think it's really important for all Europeans to make that case to the United States.
Things have changed so much in the last year. The very fact that we're talking about the invitation to NATO as something attainable and realistic shows how fast things have moved.
Initially, we said we shouldn't send tanks, but we ended up sending tanks. Or we shouldn't send planes, and now we see momentum for this.
This is where parliamentarians, experts, civil society, and think-tanks can play a role in continuing to build a campaign for this.
Some people say Europeans and Americans are afraid of inviting Ukraine because they don't understand that it's a symbolic step. They think that Ukraine will immediately be under NATO's umbrella, with the Alliance obligated to protect it. Is there this kind of thinking in European societies, and in France in particular?
It's interesting, because my impression of France and European societies in general is that public opinion tends to be much less cynical and much less afraid of Russia than our elites sometimes are.
If you watch French TV, you will sometimes see intellectuals, politicians, former prime ministers or heads of state saying that we have to reach an arrangement with Russia, how far is this going, etc. But when you talk to everyday people, for them it's very clear that there's an aggressor and there's a victim. You help the victim defend itself. There is a very clear understanding that this is a war that's happening in Europe ,on our doorstep. So we have a responsibility to step up and act.
Sometimes I'm a little worried about the political debate in the United States. You know Trump is quite far ahead in the polls in the Republican primary. We have other candidates in the Republican primary.
Yes, [Vivek] Ramaswamy and even [Ron] DeSantis question support for Ukraine. As you may know, it's yet another source of conflict.
I don't want to be too critical, because the Biden administration has done a terrific job supporting Ukraine and building transatlantic unity in doing this. But we need to remember that this issue is first and foremost our responsibility as Europeans. Germany, France, Poland and others need to send a signal that we're with Ukraine in the long run.
"Sometimes it's not Russian money, it’s just misguided strategic thinking"
So it turns out that the French society and other European societies are more mature than their elites. Or perhaps, is the reason for this that some politicians are dependent on Russia?
Maybe some of them.
We had a parliamentary investigative committee recently in France on foreign interference. It showed, for example, that there's a clear connection between Russia and the far right in France. The far right party, the National Front, obtained a loan from Russia some years ago to support its activities.
We've seen the influence of Gazprom in Germany as well. But sometimes it’s just misguided strategic thinking.
We hear estern politicians say all the time that victory is something Ukrainians have to define. But Ukrainians have defined what they see as victory. Over 90% say that there is no room for any concessions, and that during this war, Crimea and Donbas has to be returned fully to Ukrainian control. Why don't we hear statements of support for that from Western leaders?
First, I do think we hear clear messages.
President Macron has been clear about this, that we recognise Ukraine and its 1991 borders.
President Macron was interviewed just recently by a magazine in France. He compared Crimea to Alsace-Lorraine, the region that we had lost to Germany and regained after the First World War.
He said: who are we to lecture Ukrainians on the importance of regions like Crimea, after we fought for Alsace-Lorraine?
I think there are two objectives. Of course, territorial integrity and sovereignty. And then, giving Ukraine a clear path to Euro-Atlantic institutions is what will really signal that Ukraine has won and Russia has lost, and that Ukraine is now part of the European family forever.
We are afraid that some Western leaders, some Western countries, want to make a trade with Russia, to trade the status of Crimea and NATO membership for peace. Is that realistic?
No, I don't think so. We've seen in the last few years, when we tried diplomacy with Putin, that it doesn't work. It doesn't work for a simple reason: Putin is not interested in it.
This is someone who for 20 years has built his regime in opposition to the West, in opposition to the EU, in opposition to the United States and NATO. Different presidents from Europe or from the United States, such as President Obama, for example, have tried to dialogue with Russia, have tried a transactional approach. Putin is not interested!
The best available option is to give Ukrainians the means to defend themselves and to regain their territory.
"Europe needs to ramp up its own defence production"
Is it likely that Ukraine will also get French-made fighter jets?
I support giving Ukraine fighter jets. I'm frustrated that it took so long for the F-16s. It's still taking a long time. At the beginning of the war, people said: it will take months to train the pilots, so we're not giving them F-16s. Well, start training the pilots! The F-16s would have been very helpful in the counter-offensive right now.
Our general strategy works: we don't want NATO or European countries to get dragged directly into the confrontation. We give Ukrainians what they need, whether that be that tanks or fighter jets. But from a technical standpoint, I don't know if it's better to have French or other countries' fighter jets.
I really want us to accelerate the ammunition plan of the EU. The plan that [EU Commissioner] Thierry Breton has set up. Let's make sure that it works, producing a million rounds of ammunition a year.
I mean, we need to ramp up our own defence production.
The French president has called for a war economy.
The situation we've been facing for a year and a half shows that our industrial processes are not quick enough to be able to respond to the needs of Ukrainians.
Are you prepared for the possibility that next year, due to the US election campaign, we will have a significant decrease in American support? EU countries would then have to take on more responsibility for assistance. Are you ready for that?
First, it would be misguided on the part of the US. I don't want to speculate, because the Biden administration has been very strong and very steadfast from the start. A lot of us would want things to go quicker and be more ambitious.
... But still, even Republicans in Congress have so far signed on to help Ukraine. It's important that this continues. We Europeans will also continue to make that case to Congress and to the US.
To the second part of your question, down the road, after the election, if it doesn't go the way we hope, yes, Europeans really need to be ready to step up.
We need to put ourselves in a situation where we can help Ukraine even on our own. We're certainly not there yet.
Is there an understanding of this readiness among the elites of the United States?
It's a good question.
I think that clearly what's happening in US politics right now shows that those who thought in 2016 that it was an accident of history, that it was only a parenthesis of four years and we will then return to normal, were wrong.
Clearly something deeper is happening. US society is changing. US priorities are shifting to Asia, to the rivalry with China.
American presidents, on both the left and the right, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have asked Europeans to spend more on defence, to take more ownership of their own security and defence.
I can't blame Americans for saying to Europeans: you have to be more self-reliant. That's a message that we have to hear for ourselves and also for our relationship with America.
I'm a big proponent of European defence, of European sovereignty, of giving ourselves the tools to enable us to compete in the world. That way, we can ensure our own security, not against or without the US, but as partners and allies to the US.
I don't want Europe to just be a passive theatre of great power rivalry between the US and China. I want us to be a power. I want us to be able to compete with Russia and others on our own continent.
And do you understand that Russia is definitely not the country that you have to cooperate with?
Oh yes, absolutely.
We're talking about security issues, but look also at energy. For so long, people in Europe, in Germany, but not only there, thought that energy trade with Russia would be sort of like a commodity that's traded on the market between customers and suppliers.
No, it was a weapon!
It's a political weapon that was used by Russia as a means of leverage and influence on our democracy. We have to develop alternatives in terms of nuclear energy, renewables, and different suppliers to be able to invest in our own sovereignty.
I really hope, and this is what I am advocating, that this is the end of naivety in Europe.
And President Macron, does he share your views?
Yeah, it's at the heart of President Macron's vision. It's for Europe to step up, to be able to defend its own interests in security, defence, energy, trade and technology, to be able to compete on the world stage.
And clearly, the first step towards this today is in Ukraine.
Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko,
Video by Volodymyr Oliinyk,