As he approaches the one-year mark in his post, Ambassador Gérard Araud talks climate change, Charlie Hebdo, and what makes America great.
Gérard Araud, the ambassador from France to the United States, is the picture of French savoir faire. It would be a cliché to say if it weren’t so true. When we meet for our interview—a week after I canceled our first appointment, owing to a respiratory infection that made me feel like a Black Plague victim—I am full of apologies. He dispels my unease with a wink and a smile, saying, “Are you sure you did not have too much fun over the weekend, and that is why perhaps you canceled?”
Yes, the French ambassador is charming. He is also transparent and forthright, making him a rarity in diplomatic circles (and fun to follow on Twitter). With the first anniversary of his appointment approaching in September, Araud sat down with Capitol File to discuss his goals, Charlie Hebdo, and his gorgeous, newly renovated residence.
What are your objectives during your tenure in DC? Ambassador Gérard Araud: [In December 2015,] France is going to host a major UN conference on climate change. My mission is to mobilize all the support that we can have on an issue—corporations, the local authorities, the engineers—so I am traveling a lot, spreading the gospel of climate change. I am amazed every time I cross the Beltway to discover how much the Americans, the real Americans, are committed to fighting climate change.
“Americans are positive. You say "there is a problem; we can overcome it.' It's the root of American greatness"—Gérard Araud
The last time you had a post in dc, the first Bush was in office. GA: Yes, Reagan, too. I arrived in ’87 in Washington, and I left in ’91. The city has dramatically improved. [Back then,] driving to Union Station, for instance, you really couldn’t stop. It was dangerous. And now with the Convention Center, the Verizon Center, Downtown, it’s trendy. Now 14th Street is the place to be, but it used to be the street not to cross.
What has been your worst day on the job? GA: When I was told about the [Charlie Hebdo] terrorist attacks. The best day was, in a sense, the day after, when President Obama came to the French Embassy to sign the condolence book. He made a very moving message, and we chatted a bit. It was a very strong signal of the French-American friendship.
It’s been four months since the attack. How is France? GA: The French people must send a clear message that we are not going to be intimidated. We are a democracy and a united people. But the long-term problems are still there. We have had more than 1,400 French people [go] to Syria…. Most of them are coming back radicalized and trained. As you go to Paris you will see—[there are] soldiers protecting synagogues and temples—we are aware, and we are ready to fight it.
Americans, especially people from DC and New York who lived through 9/11, felt Charlie Hebdo deeply. GA: We have been astounded by the American reaction…. We have received thousands of messages on the website of the embassy and received hundreds of letters. I was very keen to answer each of them…. It was very moving, and perhaps I’m not used to saying, the Americans are really compassionate people. We the French have felt it.
What have you come to like most about Americans? Least? GA: Americans are positive. No moaning… whining. You simply say, “Okay, there is a problem; we can overcome it.” It’s really the root of American greatness. And the worst trait is your coffee. [Laughs] The only thing that I will never adjust to is the American coffee. It is much better [now] thanks to Starbucks. In the ’80s, the coffee, it was a sort of syrup.
Do you get paltry american vacation time, or will you holiday during the month of August like most French? GA: We have a house in Greece and have gone there for 20 years. So I’ll stay there for a few weeks doing—and that’s not American—doing nothing. Americans need activity, I don’t…. My only activity is to choose which restaurant, and there are only a few, so the choice is easy.
I follow you on Twitter and enjoy your feed. You are very direct, which is not a very French trait, is it? GA: I have been asked by my authorities to have a personal Twitter account, so the question raised [was], “What is the use of having an account if it’s not a reflection of my personality?” I am also trying to understand this new [social media] culture. So, I’m in a sense… this Twitter account is a bit of an experiment. I’m really tiptoeing on some red lines. [Laughs]
I find it refreshing! GA: You’re not the only one—an ambassador, we’re supposed to be stiff. And as an ambassador, the job is in a sense the reflection of your personality. So that’s my personality. I’m from the South, so I guess it explains a bit of what I’m doing.