Asma and Bashar al-Assad, two lovers in Paris
(Regis Le Sommelier | Dp-news-Paris Match)
On the sidelines of their official visit to France, the Syrian president and his wife offered themselves a romantic break in the most romantic of capitals, Paris.
Paris Match: You were born and raised in England, where you met your husband. How did you feel when you return to Syria to become the first lady?
Asma al-Assad: I am Syrian and no matter where I was born, I always felt to be Syrian. I lived in London for twenty-five years. So I was fortunate to be exposed to both cultures and in particular to great experiences that British culture had to offer. When I returned, I never thought that I was going to live in a foreign place. For me, it was like I was returning home. I spoke the language, I lived in the Syrian culture and was aware of the inheritance. The only difference is that in England I was single, I was married while in Syria. Being designated as a first lady is a privilege and an honor. It's also hard work, specially in Syria where people want you to get involved. They do not want a first lady who is only there for the ceremonies. They require you to be involved in the development of the country and to support changes that are happening.
You've been a businesswoman. Is it an advantage in your action today?
There are things you can plan in life. I studied computer science at the university. I wanted to work in an investment bank and pursue an MBA. But I had not planned to marry a head of state. Life is just full of surprises. I married him for the values that he carries and because we feel very close. Of course, my experience, everything I learned in finance, serves me today: having to think critically, be able to work with enormous pressure. I work in development, education and citizenship, and my training helps me.
We note that the first ladies like Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni play an increasingly visible role to their husbands, especially to improve their image. How would you describe your role?
I do not think my husband has an image problem. [Laughs] He does not need me or anyone to improve his image. But the image may be false and built, or it may be true. I try to attach myself to the truth. I start from there to consider what needs to be changed in my country. In that sense, I think my husband and I are complementary to each other. The first ladies have long remained in the shadows, and the emergence of women in politics is recent. Everything depends on where in the world it is. In the Far East, there are more than thirty years that women have attained positions as president. In the Middle East, I am far from to be the only one.
Why is your visit to France so important?
Our countries have a long historical relationship. We cannot and must not ignore it. In our time, relations between countries are mainly political. But politics has its ups and downs. I think we must learn from past lessons and diversified nature of our relationship. We should strengthen our exchanges in culture, education and economy. Thus, when trade policy is at its lowest, we have other ways to communicate and meet together. Do not put all our eggs in one basket. We want our relationship to be built over time. In Syria, for three years, we place culture at the heart of our national development. Two years ago, we began a partnership with the Louvre. We want to take advantage of the Louvre’s expertise in interpreting the past and historical analysis. We have the best labs and the best research equipment. On the cultural front, we need you as much as you need us. We are two developed countries, proud of their past and both secular. These are excellent reasons to build a ever lasting contact.
On secularism, France has problems with integration, especially its Muslim population. How Syrians perceive our debate on the nationality?
If someone decides to immigrate to a country, he must make the decision to integrate into society. This is essential. On the other hand, the country chosen should help integration. There must conquer a spirit of openness. In Syria, for example, we have a very large community of Armenian Syrian. They speak their language, have their schools, etc.. They came to us a century ago with the idea to integrate into society. They wanted to be part of our society. Historically, we have integrated all kind of different populations. We draw our strength from this diversity. Christians are threatened in many countries of the Muslim world.
Recently, a massacre was perpetrated during a mass in Baghdad. Syria seems to be spared.
When we say that Syria is secular, we mean that we tolerate all religions. People here are free to practice what they want. We are secular because of our history, not because of a need to live together in troubled times. When the head of state kneels to pray at the Grand Umayyad Mosque, also he kneels before the tomb of John the Baptist, a Christian saint. To me, it's part of my identity, it's like my right arm and my left leg.
Have you been surprised by what Americans think of you, through the diplomatic telegram released by Wikileaks? Is this a threat to nations that these secrets have been revealed like that?
The real question is: what does this say about the West and its vision of freedom of speech? It is more important than the details of what some think of others. The issue is the val ues of democracy and freedom of speech which the West is proud of, and that it uses to judge others.
Is this good or bad for the Nations?
It is not for me to say. Only West is concerned about it? The western democratic values are now at risk.
At the time of the war in Iraq in 2003, Syria was isolated.
Part of the American right wing pushed for that Syria will be next on the list of countries that had to change the regime. How did you feel then?
I think anyone who attempts to isolate only isolate itself. Our concern at that time was not our isolation, but the humanitarian work among the Iraqis who escaped from war and came in. In few months, our population increased by 10%. We have done everything to help them, so they have access to education, a roof to live and to counsel.
Are they left Iraq since then?
Their number has decreased, but it is still around 900,000, which is still substantial.
Have the elections of Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy changed Syrian foreign policy?
I do not know them personally, so I do not think I am the best person to comment. We must ask politicians.
You say that Syria is a partner for peace in the region. How far are you willing to go for peace?
Indeed, we believe that the only solution is peace. But for a tango, you need to be two. And, today, we do not have a partner for peace.
How do you see the role of women in politics in the Middle East?
They already play a major role in Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia. In, Europe and the United States, very few women have attained the highest office. Syria's vice president is a woman. We are the only one in the Arab world to have a woman at this high position. Our Parliament is composed of 13% women. Today, there is nothing that women cannot do.