The one in which, on June 23, 1995, Jacques Chirac received Françoise Giroud, Jacques Julliard, Paul Garde, Pierre Hassner, and me to hear us describe the agony of Sarajevo.
And it is the one in which Nicolas Sarkozy, on March 10, 2011, made the historic decision to recognize Libya’s National Transitional Council in order to avoid a bloodbath in Benghazi.
Today, it is François Hollande who greets us.
With him are France’s minister of defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian; his special military adviser, Benoît Puga; and his diplomatic advisers, Jacques Audibert and Emmanuel Bonne.
At the other end of the long table, the six top generals of the Kurdish Peshmerga have taken their seats. I met them weeks ago at the front in the hills above the Tigris and, with the magazine La Règle du Jeu, organized their visit to Paris.
The French president is serious.
Spread out before him are military maps to which he refers several times during the hour-long interview.
He seems to be moved when Mustafa Qadir Mustafa, Kurdistan’s minister of Peshmerga affairs, evokes the memory of Danielle Mitterrand, who was a great friend of the valiant Kurdish people.
He offers thanks when he learns that the first thing the delegation did after arriving in the morning from their respective war zones was to gather at the former offices of Charlie Hebdo and then at the kosher store in Vincennes, where, on Jan. 9, the very barbarism they are fighting on the front lines in Kurdistan struck the heart of Paris.
But what obviously interests the French president the most is the information that his visitors bring about the situation at the front, the ratios of the opposing forces, the anticipation in the trenches of the next volley of rockets, the attacks and counterattacks, the coalition aircraft that Kurdish forces guide from the ground in cooperation with French liaison officers, their too-heavy losses, the wounded who should ideally be evacuated to French military hospitals, and arms — arms, especially, because the Peshmerga are the democracies’ shield against the worst savagery the world has known in a long time, the savagery of the caliphate’s decapitators. The Peshmerga can become the democracies’ sword, as well, provided the West is willing, without further delay, to take the initiative in the ground war that represents the only chance for the remaining Christians on the plain of Nineveh to return to their villages to pray once again in churches as old as the apostles. But how does one respond when one lacks the requisite arms? When the only tanks available are those captured from the infernal columns of a kamikaze army? When stocks of Franco-German Milan anti-tank missiles are dwindling? When ordinary ammunition is becoming scarce? What can be done when one has only secondhand Dushka machine guns to repel the heavily armed death brigades that pillaged Saddam Hussein’s arsenals in Mosul?
The generals had prepared a list on a single sheet of paper, which I advised them might be better presented elsewhere than the Elysée Palace.
Not at all, said the president with a gesture that reminded me for an instant, but in reverse, of the gesture of irritation with which François Mitterrand would wave away a favor seeker.
Not at all, let’s see it, he insisted, taking the list from the hands of the Kurdish minister and then handing it, after a quick and knowledgeable inspection, to his minister of defense. Time is short, indeed. Daesh is recruiting mightily and growing stronger, even as it seems sometimes to retreat. And it is certainly true, he said in substance, that your enemy is our enemy; your war is our war; and, from Kobani to Mosul, Kirkuk, and Tikrit, your Kurdish freedom fighters, who have, through the ages, overcome so much oppression, domination, and division, are the sentinels of our freedom — fragile sentinels, woefully underequipped sentinels, sentinels in support of whom France will no longer hold back.
Not a trace of the easygoing, bantering François Hollande so often portrayed in the press.
Not the slightest reference to the recent electoral setback of his majority, an event that seems far away indeed from the cataclysm that, for the past year, has ravaged one of the cradles of humanity and that, without these six men and their troops, threatens to break like a wave over the world.
A civilian war leader conferring with uniformed military leaders.
The president of the world’s fifth-largest power, a member of the United Nations Security Council, listening intently to the generals of a great nation that is not yet a state, offering encouragement, promising France’s redoubled support.
It is a weighty and potentially decisive moment.
When the time comes to leave and the Peshmerga leaders offer their host a black flag that they took from a Daesh unit after a fight in which they were supported by French special forces, I read in the French president’s face a glimmer of gratitude and pride.
And of fraternity.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy
Editor’s note: The meeting described above took place April 1.