Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier was interviewed for the Bild am Sonntag newspaper about how he experienced the Paris attacks from the Stade de France football stadium. Other topics included the fight against the terrorist organisation ISIS and relations with Russia.
Minister, how did you experience the evening of 13 November?
It started just the same for me as for all the other spectators in the stadium. We couldn’t place the source of the two detonations in the middle of the first half. Although I couldn’t see any smoke, my mind went first to fireworks set off by irresponsible fans. But about ten minutes after the second bang, so a quarter of an hour before half-time, the first bit of news came through: a security officer told the French President and myself that there had been an explosion right outside the stadium.
A few minutes later, the security officer came back and reported three deaths. That was a shock. The French President and I looked at each other and wondered whether we could leave the spectators in the dark in these circumstances or would have to cut short the match. After that, new information arrived every two minutes about the attacks throughout the city. President Hollande and I withdrew briefly to talk without being overheard. At the request of the security officers, however, we quickly came back out into the stands to avoid giving any unsettling signs before the police had secured the crime scene.
There were more in‑depth discussion at half-time. The outcome was that the French President would leave the match and go to his crisis unit. The French security services asked us whether we might be prepared to remain in the stadium in spite of the danger, in the interests of preventing a rush or even an outbreak of panic if people noticed that the VIP stand was suddenly empty. So we returned to our seats and for 45 minutes feigned interest in the football match.
Until just before the match ended, it seemed that word of what happened had not yet spread around the stadium. We watched attentively for any sign of unrest in the stands, but we noticed nothing. The French security services used the second half to vastly increase the police presence outside the stadium.
Five minutes before the match ended, we were ushered behind the stands, then it was into the lift and down to the underground car park, then at speed out of the stadium towards the airport, where I had planned to go that night anyway for my flight to the Syria negotiations in Vienna. As we drove out, the space in front of the stadium where the attack took place was already completely cordoned off, the exits on that side where shut and spectators were being guided towards the other exits leading towards the city centre.
I have only the highest praise for the French police. It is thanks to them that the stadium was cleared without a mass panic breaking out. By maintaining such calm in such a tense situation, they earned the utmost respect.
Were you frightened?
By the time we heard about the series of attacks across Paris, if not before, nobody knew how the night would end. Of course, I was extremely concerned – but not so much about a possible further attack in the stadium, because the attackers had clearly not made it into the stadium as intended and had blown themselves outside it. My greatest concern was that word of the attacks would spread and cause an outbreak of panic within the stadium.
What was your impression of Hollande?
He looked shocked, but also disciplined and determined.
How must terrorism be combated?
It certainly won’t be possible without engaging ISIS militarily. The crucial thing will be finally bringing together all the different forces fighting ISIS on the ground.
That’s where we are seeing military successes – those places where joint action has been agreed. One example from Iraq is the coordinated action by the army in Baiji and the Peshmerga in Sinjar; the liberation of Tal Abyad with a Kurdish-Arabic alliance is another.
Things are a bit different in Syria though...
You’re quite right. Up until now, Assad has concentrated less on combating ISIS and focused chiefly on fighting the moderate groups. Instead of joining forces against ISIS, the Syrian army, the Free Syrian Army and the moderate militia groups have been getting bogged down in a three-way war, which needs to stop. We need now to bring together everyone who is against ISIS.
Don’t we also need Western ground troops if ISIS is to be defeated in the end?
I don’t know anybody who wants to go in there with Western ground troops. ISIS would love to have the hated Western troops in Syria or Iraq to throw their suicide-bombers at.
Russia’s President Putin is fighting ISIS alongside France. Will this shared fight against terrorism bring Russia back into the fold with the world powers?
We mustn’t underestimate how serious a threat Russia sees in developments in the Middle East, given the millions of Muslims in the Russian population. I believe Russia has no interest in tying itself up in Syria for years on end and getting drawn deeper and deeper into war. I therefore have the impression that Russia is actually seeking a way to resolve the Syrian catastrophe too. The important thing is for the US and Russia to stick together in the Vienna negotiations. It is plain that the Russian Foreign Minister and US Secretary of State are cooperating constructively in the talks. That’s a good thing, for all that major differences do remain, not least with regard to the fate of Assad.
Might this even be Putin’s ticket back into the G8?
We never had any interest in isolating Russia or changing the G8 back into the G7 long-term. That decision stemmed from the breach of trust in Ukraine that began with the annexation of Crimea. If we manage to dismantle more hurdles in the Ukraine conflict and if Russia continues to work with us on resolving the conflict in Syria, then the West can and should have no lasting interest in excluding Russia from the regular dialogue among the major Western nations.
Is 13 November to Europe what 11 September was to the US?
The terrorist attacks in Paris are an attack on our open society and on all of Europe. When people are asking the Federal Foreign Office whether they can go to Christmas markets or should cancel their holiday flights, that’s a sign that the fear sown by ISIS has already taken hold. But however dreadful the attacks in Paris were, we mustn’t give up the things that make our lives so well worth living. We mustn’t be guided by fear.
This interview was conducted by Roman Eichinger and reproduced by kind permission of Bild am Sonntag.