Kurdish President Masoud Barzani is on his fourth official visit to Paris, scheduled to meet with outgoing President Francois Hollande. The French president has visited Erbil twice, first only a month after Kurds started pushing back ISIS from the gates of the Kurdish capital in 2014. He paid a second visit about two months ago, after the extremist group had been largely forced out of Kurdish territories.
The heavy traffic between the two capitals shows just how far relations between the two sides have developed and consolidated.
Franco-Kurdish ties have been in the making for nearly three decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kurds were a rebellion group within Iraqi Kurdistan with few or no friends at all internationally. Now they are pushing hard for an independent state, building ties with countries as though they are one, displaying sovereignty in all ways except on the political map.
Last month, when President Hollande visited Erbil, he took the chance to visit the Kurdish front lines with the Peshmerga less than 20 kilometres east of Mosul, an unprecedented move from a western leader with a seat on the UN Security Council.
It was, however, his first visit that earned him a special place among Kurdish leaders when the under equipped and ill-trained Peshmerga were facing the well-financed extremist group ISIS, empowered with the many weapons they seized from the retreating Iraqi armed forces just months earlier.
“Kurdistan was under threat from the most brutal terrorist organization when you first visited us,” President Barzani said addressing his French counterpart in January in Erbil. “The war was very close to our capital. You ventured coming to the Kurdistan Region at that critical time. It was a great support for us and a brave stance that you and your nation took.”
The question now is what happens to the strong mutual relations knowing that Hollande is not running for another term in office in the upcoming hard to predict presidential elections in France. Will the Kurds be able to maintain the same traffic no matter who resides in the Elysee Palace? The Kurdish government has not revealed to the public any known diplomatic ties with the presidential candidates.
If there is one lesson learned from the US presidential election, it is that the Kurdistan Region has eggs in all bags, as the Kurdish expression goes. When President Barzani and US Vice President Mike Pence first spoke on the phone after the November election, Barzani’s office released a photo showing both leaders much younger, an explicit message that their friendship, if that is the right word, predates Pence’s recent election victory.
France and the Kurdistan Region have a long history of close relations. Danielle Mitterrand, first lady of France in the 1980s and early 1990s, advocated for the Kurds suffering under Saddam Hussein’s brutal tactics and was instrumental in campaigning for the no-fly zone that effectively allowed the Kurdistan Region to develop its current autonomy. She is affectionately known as the Mother of Kurds, and inaugurated the first Kurdish parliament in 1992.
France was one of the first countries to open a consulate in the Kurdish capital Erbil after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, and it was one of the first nations to come to the assistance of the Kurds when they found themselves at war with ISIS two years ago.
Barzani hailed France’s support as an essential member of the international coalition in January. “Mr. President, we have always seen France as a supporter of the Kurdish nation.”
In 2014, President Hollande told that Kurdish nation that, in times of need, France was more than ready to offer support.
“France sent military support for the Kurds when they asked for it,” he said. “You used the support properly and were able to change the balance of power in the region.”
From the Kurdish side, the head of Kurdistan’s foreign relations, the highest Kurdish diplomatic post, Falah Mustafa, took part shoulder-to-shoulder with French and world leaders in a march on the streets of Paris following terrorist attacks on the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and two other attacks that killed 17 people in January 2015.
President Barzani expressed his condolences on that “sad day.”
The French government has deployed 500 troops to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region as part of the international coalition fighting ISIS, providing military training to the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces since 2014.