Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani (L) with the French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Photo: KRP
PARIS, France – Kurdish President Masoud Barzani was welcomed like a head of state in Paris, where his meetings with French counterpart Francois Hollande and other top officials underscored a strong relationship between the Kurds and France which has grown even closer since the start of the war with the Islamic State (ISIS).
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 to come to the assistance of the Kurds when they found themselves at war with ISIS two years ago.
“The meetings were very important and the meeting between Barzani and the French defense minister lasted one hour,” Ali Dollamari, the Kurdish government representative in Paris, told Rudaw.
In September 2014, only a month after the Kurds had started pushing back ISIS from the gates of their autonomous region in northern Iraq, Hollande became the first world president to visit the Kurdish region and pledge his country’s support.
In Paris, Barzani also met with France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has visited the Kurdish capital in the past to eye the role of his military advisors training the Kurds outside Erbil.
“The French said that they will continue the flow of support that they started for Kurdistan,” Dollamari added. “It is pleasing to know that the French defense minister personally stressed his support for President Barzani and the Kurdish people.”
The defense minister renewed his pledge to stand by the Kurds in their war against terrorism just days after France delivered artillery to the Kurdish Peshmerga directly and without going through Baghdad, which would get the arms to the frontlines faster and be more effective in battle.
Assault rifles, artillery and hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds have been delivered to the Kurdish forces by France in the last two years.
Kurdish leaders have long said they are fighting ISIS and terrorism on behalf of the world and that the Peshmerga are at the moment the main bulwark against the spread of this threat to Europe and the rest of the Western world.
As a country that has seen three deadly attacks in less than a year -- all claimed ISIS -- France appears to grasp the significance of the Kurdish role better than its European neighbors.
By helping the Kurds with arms and military advisors, France is fighting the extremist group on the ground. The Kurds have so far proven to be the most reliable ally of the international coalition in combating ISIS.
It was French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius who urged European Foreign Ministers in the summer of 2014 to do all they can to help the Kurds.
Dr. Kawa Shawali, a political analyst in France who was part of the Kurdish delegation, told Rudaw that apart from winning promises of military help from the French, Barzani’s visit “was also a great diplomatic victory.”
“In my presence Mr. Hollande has expressed a lot of support for the Kurds of Iraq,” Shawali added.
In response to a Rudaw question about possible French support for Kurdish independence, Shawali said that Paris understands the Kurds’ ambitions but that they have prioritized other things first.
“They (France) say that ISIS must be defeated first, and get rid of its threat,” said Shawali. “Then you (Kurds) can talk to Baghdad and see if they agree or not. Then you can take your own course, whether it’s a referendum or anything.”
The Kurdish Peshmerga are now an admired force among the French public and a film made by philosopher and a supporter of the Kurds Bernard-Henri Levy which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year brought the name of the Kurdish forces to millions more people in France and around the world.
Hollande and members of his government also watched the Peshmerga film.
“The French are closely watching the changes in the Middle East and see that the Kurds have their own place in the Middle East and in the midst of these changes.” Shawali explained.
Relations between France and the Kurdistan Region go beyond military. Many Kurdish students study at and have graduated from French universities in the last several years, while a French cultural and language center in Erbil hosts events and language courses throughout the year.
After this week’s visit, the two capitals also aim to work at the municipality level.
Barzani met with head of the Paris Municipality Anne Hidalgo, who said that her city would carry out a number of mega projects in Erbil, especially in road building and infrastructure.
The Paris mayor has been in Erbil in the past and her visits have been returned by Erbil governor Nawzad Hadi.