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“France is our oldest ally,” U.S. President Barack Obama reminded Americans on November 13, after ISIS terrorists launched coordinated attacks in Paris, killing 130. Indeed, the French sent an ambassador to the breakaway colony back in 1778, and Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris the next year, establishing the United States’ first foreign mission. Gérard Araud, a career diplomat who began as a Middle East specialist, has served as French ambassador to the United States since September 2014; before that, he led France’s permanent mission to the UN. Araud spoke with Foreign Affairs deputy managing editor Stuart Reid at the French embassy in Washington, D.C., on December 16, 2015.
The attacks on Paris were disturbing not just because of the loss of life but also because they struck a city that symbolizes openness. Have the attackers succeeded in jeopardizing the liberal values that Paris represents?
The answer is no. But after such a terrorist attack, you are obliged to take some law-enforcement measures. Any liberal democracy has a delicate balance between civil liberties and law enforcement. After 9/11, you had the Patriot Act. After this attack, we have the state of emergency in France.
More serious is that the attackers want to create a rift between French Muslims and other French citizens. The French authorities are very keen on avoiding it, but you saw the result of the recent elections in France, where the far right did very well.
It's a bit like Trump. Trumpism is a transatlantic phenomenon. The problem of backlash against Muslim citizens that you have in this country after San Bernardino, we have in Europe.
Why have Muslim immigrants to France, and even their children and grandchildren, had trouble integrating?
May I ask you why African Americans have problems of integrating 10 generations after they arrived in the U.S.?
The fact is that in Europe, not only in France, most of the recent immigrants are Muslims. Thanks to the economic crisis exported by the U.S. in 2008, Europe is going through an economic dire strait, especially in southern Europe, where the unemployment rate is very high. As usual, the people who are hit most by unemployment are the last to arrive: the immigrants. So we have problems of integration. But you don't blow yourself up because you are unemployed.
When you look at the profile of Muslim terrorists, you discover that a lot of them were middle-class and had a job. Their parents were perfectly integrated. Very often, the profile of the radicalized youth is someone from a totally normal family that is Muslim, but in a very moderate way. And suddenly, they see their son or daughter getting radical—he starts not to touch his mother, starts to insult his sister because she wears Western clothing, and so on. Social integration is a challenge we all face. But the real question is the process of radicalization of a tiny part of the community.
Why do U.S. conservatives love to bash France?
Actually, right now, it's the opposite. Conservatives in the U.S. love France because we were firm in negotiations with Iran, our soldiers are fighting in Mali against the terrorists, we were the first to join the American strikes against ISIS, and we have deployed an aircraft carrier in the Gulf to support the Americans.
There has always been a tradition of French bashing, which is linked, I guess, to the fact that we are very two different countries. The U.S. was created against the British colonial state, so there is a tradition of considering the state the problem. Look at the guns issue. People say, "We need guns in case the state becomes a threat." In France, we have a totally different relationship with the state. When Tocqueville came to America and wrote Democracy in America in 1835, he emphasized this point.
On top of this misunderstanding, we have the Iraq crisis of 2003, where we were right, obviously. The American intervention was a total geopolitical disaster.
We've gone from freedom fries to nous sommes tous français.
Exactement. What has been striking is the outpouring of American solidarity after the attack, from President Obama to the man in the street. Our embassy was totally overwhelmed by flowers, we have received thousands of messages, and people are still offering their condolences. Immediately after the November 13 attack, the U.S. administration was extremely supportive, especially in terms of intelligence sharing.
We are shoulder to shoulder, facing the same challenge. The only difference is that thanks to your geography, you are much further from the danger than we are. But you have seen the same threat with San Bernardino.
You mentioned the intervention in Mali. France has also intervened in the Central African Republic, and in 2013, President Hollande supported punishing Syria with airstrikes for using chemical weapons. What explains this more activist French foreign policy?
Rather than seeing a general trend, look at each of these crises. In the case of Mali, the country was collapsing and could have been a failed state taken over by terrorists. It's a former French colony, and the second-biggest Malian city is a suburb of Paris. We have hundreds of thousands of Malians in France, and these people are shuttling back and forth, so it would have been extremely dangerous for us. And West Africa was a French colony, where we still have thousands of French citizens and dozens of French schools. We had to intervene to defend our interests.
In Central Africa, it's totally different. It's a very poor country. It has absolutely no interest in economic terms, so we didn't have any appetite to intervene. But there were massacres between Muslims and Christians, and the public in France, contrary to the rest of the world, knows where the Central African Republic is, so there was pressure to end the slaughter. To be frank, the French army didn’t want to go. This sort of mission is always extremely frustrating. Nevertheless, it was so awful that we decided to send a few hundred soldiers.
Speaking of Syria in 2013, do you think Obama's decision not to go through with air strikes damaged U.S. credibility?
I'm a French ambassador to the U.S., so I'm not going to criticize the president. But like my president has said publicly, you can always argue, but we think we could have changed the course of the war and should have proceeded with strikes against Assad.
I can understand from the American perspective that core U.S. interests are not engaged in Syria. The problem is that for the Europeans—your most solid and ancient allies—the Syrian crisis is becoming critical. In terms of fighters, thousands of Europeans have gone to Syria, and they will come back. The second element is the more than one million migrants. Try to imagine what would happen in the U.S. if one million migrants were crossing the Rio Grande.
What specifically could have been done earlier to prevent what's happening now?
The key problem from the beginning is Assad. In 2011, you had peaceful demonstrations in Syria, and at the same moment, you had peaceful demonstrations across the border in Jordan. But the Jordanians tried to respond to the political and social demands of the demonstrators, while the Syrian regime simply shot at the demonstrators. After that, little by little, it became a civil war. The problem with civil wars, as we’ve seen in Spain in ‘36–‘39, is that usually, the moderates are not good soldiers, and the radicals are. The radical elements of the Syrian rebels have taken the upper hand. It’s hypothetical, but in 2013, it could still have been possible to get rid of Assad and have a palatable Syrian alternative. Now, it's more difficult.
Why has Vladimir Putin decided to intervene in Syria?
The Russians have always been very clear. They said, "We are not married to Assad, but the choice is between Assad and the radical Jihadists, and we prefer Assad.” Why have they substantially increased their presence? In the spring and summer of 2015, we saw many signals that the Syrian army was exhausted. Obviously, the Russians and the Iranians thought they had to step in to preserve the Syrian regime. That's the reason they are striking the opposition and not ISIS, because the people fighting Assad are the opposition and not ISIS.
Is it possible the Russians are right that there is no good alternative to Assad at this point?
What the Russians are telling us is, "OK, you don't like Assad, but that's not the priority. The priority is fighting ISIS, so let's fight ISIS together.” And to fight and win, you need ground forces. If you look around the region, the Kurds are not going to fight ISIS, because they are defending Kurdistan. The Shiite militias from Baghdad are not going to fight ISIS, because they are defending their turf. They're not going to go to Mosul; they don't care about it. So you can say that the Assad army is the only solution. That’s more or less what the Russians are telling us.
Our answer is twofold. First, the Syrian army is exhausted. They can't do it. We estimate that around 40,000 Alawites have died, because the best forces are Alawites, and there are only 1.2 million of them. More important, ISIS is an answer to a real problem. We see ISIS only for its atrocities. Actually, ISIS is also filling a vacuum, which is Sunni-stan. With Assad on one side and the Shiites in Baghdad on the other, the Sunnis don’t have a defender, so ISIS has stepped in. And if we support Assad, it will encourage more Sunnis to rally to ISIS. So our answer is, yes, it will be up to the Syrian army to do the job—but an inclusive Syrian army, after political transition in Damascus.
How can you be sure that France’s stepped-up air campaign doesn't create more terrorists than it destroys?
Frankly, at some point, when you have enemies, you have to kill them. It's brutal, but it's a war. What would be the other solution? These people come to our countries and blow themselves up in our theaters. They are threatening us every day—threatening the security of French schools, the security of French embassies abroad. They don't leave us any other choice. We have to defeat them.
What does a political settlement to the Syrian civil war look like?
Our counter example is what the Americans did in Iraq. It's very important to keep the security apparatus of the regime intact so that the country doesn't collapse into total anarchy. We have to keep the Syrian army, we have to keep the Syrian security apparatus, we have to keep the administration at a high level.
We have to have a government of national unity organizing elections to have a representative Syrian government. You can object, “Is it possible to organize free elections with Assad? Is it possible to organize elections considering that the opposition is really fragmented?” It's quite a challenge.
It won't work if it's imposed from outside. It will work only if the Syrians are exhausted enough. A civil war stops either with the total victory of one side or when the people say, "enough is enough."
What is the moral responsibility of France when it comes to accepting refugees from Iraq and Syria?
There was an agreement between the EU countries to share the burden. France was supposed to take 24,000 refugees, and eventually, even after the attack, we are going to accept 30,000. We are facing the same situation that you are facing in terms of immigration. On one side, yes, there is a moral responsibility. We have to help these refugees. On the other side, we face the very strong reaction of the anti-immigrant movement.
Also, and you can consider it a petty calculation, but the fact is, the more you accept immigrants, the more they come. We are in a dead end. We close our borders, these people are going to die on our shores, which is awful. We open our borders, and then there will be more people coming. And I don't know any country that is ready to accept millions of refugees.
What do you make of the Front National?
It's the same thing as Trump. Of course, Trump has his personal genius, but it's basically the same crisis. The lower middle class feels frightened by globalization, frightened for the future of its children, frightened for its moral and social values. They have the impression that the elite are cut off from them. So they want to try something new. So it’s the Front National in France, or the extreme right in the Netherlands, or Mr. Trump. It's the same solution: building walls, closing borders. And it’s the same scapegoat: the immigrant. It’s sad.
Do you think the United Kingdom will opt to leave the EU?
It's possible, and it would be a disaster—for the U.K. and for the EU. We need the U.K. in the EU for a lot of different reasons. The problem is, to be frank, this is a British debate. No other country sees an interest in opening this debate.
Does Germany have too much power within the EU?
Countries have leverage proportional to their power. Because of its economic performance since the beginning of the crisis, Germany has a lot of influence. But if you ask the question to the Dutch, they will say that France and Germany and the U.K. have too much influence.
You're perhaps the feistiest diplomat on Twitter. Has this ever gotten you in trouble with your masters back in Paris?
When you arrive in Washington, you wonder, what is the use of an ambassador in the modern world? The relationship between the two countries is so intense—in terms of human exchanges, economic exchanges, financial exchanges—that frankly, it can work without the ambassador. As for the political relationship, the national security advisor in Paris is calling Susan Rice, and they don't need the ambassador. So I've said, "Let's try to use social media”—not in terms of everybody in the country, but at least among journalists and deciders.
Also, if you want to have real effectiveness, you have to be feisty. If you simply say, "France is in favor of peace and stability," you're not going to be exciting. You need to tease the audience to get their attention.
It's an experiment. I’m by far the French ambassador with the most followers, so Paris is following my experience. Maybe from time to time, they believe I went too far. But they have told me only once that I should delete a tweet. And I'm not going to tell you which.
Speaking of one tweet you did delete, after Donald Trump tried to make a political point about gun control after the Paris attacks, you called him a “vulture.” Are most ambassadors too prudish about commenting on the domestic politics of the country that they’re in?
I didn't comment on domestic politics, because it was after he had said if the French had been allowed to have guns, it wouldn't have happened. I was just driving back home, and it was in the moment of a tragedy. That's the reason I reacted by saying he’s a vulture: the blood is still not dry, and already he's making this sort of comment. Two hours later, I deleted it—I was not asked to by Paris—because I said, “I’m not going to enter into a controversy while my people are being killed."
I went on Fox News a few days later, and they said, "Don't you think that if guns had been available in France, the French could have defended themselves against terrorists?" I simply said, “No, it doesn't work this way; it's only in the movies." I came back home. On my Twitter account, I had hundred of insults—hundreds!—coming from people from Nevada, Arizona, with 45 followers.
Have you been watching the Republican debates?
What's your reaction?
We are foreigners. I've always said to my diplomats, “You should consider that we are different.” A lot of people believe that Europeans and Americans are more or less alike, with small differences. And I think that approach is leading to misunderstanding. Actually, we are different—in our history, in our political traditions, in our visions of the world.
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