Diplomatic Connections Articles

After Charlie: France's Ambassador on the Fallout From Paris' Week of Terror

By Roland Flamini

In 2001, reacting to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, the French newspaper Le Monde ran the headline, "We are all Americans." In January 2015, following the terror killings at the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, Americans returned the compliment with "I am Charlie" solidarity marches across the country. One of the biggest was in Washington, D.C. It was led by recently arrived French Ambassador Gérard Araud, with a large number of Americans participating. Ambassador Araud was France's permanent representative to the United Nations when he switched places with François Delattre, the French ambassador in Washington, in September 2014. The Paris shootings quickly raised his profile in the nation's capital as he strove to deal with the political and emotional aftermath of one of Europe's worst acts of terror by Islamist fanatics. While terrorism knows no boundaries, Ambassador Araud told Diplomatic Connections in an interview following the solidarity march, France, with the largest Muslim immigrant population in Europe, was in the front line.

Diplomatic Connections: What did you hope to achieve with the Washington solidarity march?

Ambassador Araud: To be frank, I was there as the agent of the French community in the region. [The French in Washington] came to us and said, "You should do something." It's really frustrating when you are living abroad and your country is under attack. Actually, there were marches in 20 American cities, and in a sense we were strictly the technical organizer, which was a bit funny because the real organizer was the police commissioner at the embassy. I think it was the first time that he was actually organizing a demonstration — and he did it very well. We wanted to give the French of the region, and the French from other parts of the U.S. who came to it, and a lot of Americans, the opportunity to show in a very simple way their solidarity.

Diplomatic Connections: One of the unintended consequences of these terrorist acts has been Prime Minister Manuel Valls' statement that France is "at war" with radical Islam. When President Bush said the United States declared war on terror in 2001, this was debated in Europe — not least by the French. Europeans argued that terrorism should be treated as a criminal act, and terrorists as criminals, not fighters in a war. If it wasn't war in 2001, why is it war now?

Ambassador Araud: For us, even if the casualty figures are quite different, in a sense these attacks were our 9/11. The word "war" is just a word. It sends a message. It's a political decision to use it. I'm not sure it's worth debating what happened in 2001 and what is happening right now. The debate [in 2001] was not so much about the word but about the consequences that the U.S. was drawing from the word. There were worries about invasions. We were worried that the word "war" would be used as a sort of justification for invading countries, which actually was the case. In what the [French] prime minister said, I think there are several elements which are interesting. One is about the Jewish community in France; and the fact that he said it's a war against radical Islam, so that was also a strong message.

Diplomatic Connections: When Giscard chaired the European Convention to draft the new constitution, the Vatican tried to persuade him to include a reference to Europe's Christian roots in the preamble of the text. Instead, Giscard included a lengthy reference to the Age of Reason, one of France's biggest contributions to European civilization. Post-Charlie, how can France remain faithful to reason in the steps it needs to take following the week of violence?

Ambassador Araud: That's the major challenge. In a sense we are on the front line because we have the largest Jewish community. We have the largest Muslim community, almost all of it of Arab origin. That makes the French in the front line of everything that is happening in the Middle East. Actually, when you look at the number of foreign fighters in Syria, there are 1,200 French, 400 Belgians, and you have Swedes, Germans, fighters from everywhere. Secondly, all over Europe, from the UK to Germany, you have an anti-immigrant feeling. You have an extreme right in the UK and France, in the Netherlands and so on. And most of our immigrants being Muslims, this anti-immigrant feeling is translated into an anti-Muslim feeling. So this attack, of course, is going to reinforce this sentiment. So if we want to keep our values, first we have to protect our Muslim compatriots from attacks; we have to integrate them into society. We have to show that we don't consider them as our enemy. It's not only in political terms. It's also that we are going to be obliged to take some law enforcement measures, and it will be necessary to show that we are not targeting the Muslim community. The danger coming from this community is not even one percent. Of the Muslim population, .1 percent is radicalized.

Diplomatic Connections: How do you isolate that .1 percent of the Islamic community?

Ambassador Araud: We have between five and six million Muslims out of 65 million French people. Out of this five million, we consider a few thousand of them are radicalized. In a democracy you can't arrest people for their opinion, and the question is whether these radicals are going to cross the line and become terrorists. Monitoring five or six thousand people is extremely difficult, and 24/7 it's impossible. That's the problem we're going to be facing. There will be social tensions, but what we can say is that the demonstrations show the will of the French to react as a nation. But again, we are pretty aware of the risks.

Diplomatic Connections: In other words, you're heading for a period of tension in that respect…

Ambassador Araud: We are not over with the threat. We're facing the risk of other attacks. We have not yet dismantled the network — because there is a network behind these guys — the money, the origin of the weapons. We don't know whether al-Qaida was only a sort of sponsor, or was the operational commander of the attack. So there are a lot of questions which in the short term we have to answer. In the long term, we will still be facing threats. It's all over Europe and especially in France. So that's our concern; we want to work with all our friends.

Diplomatic Connections: Talk a little bit about the issue of the integration of the Muslim community.

Ambassador Araud: There is a problem we have to face of the integration of the French Muslim community, and not stigmatizing the Muslim community, and also to work with the Muslim countries because radical Islam is rooted in Islam. We have also to work with them, we need their cooperation.

Diplomatic Connections: One other unintended consequence is that the attacks have boosted the popularity of a vulgar, and occasionally obscene, minor publication — although no one disputes its right to exist, and to free expression, and no one can fail to condemn its attackers. Post-attack, Charlie Hebdo has gone from iconoclast to national icon, at least for the moment. What is your view of Charlie Hebdo's future?

Ambassador Araud: The magazine appeals to the teenager mentality. Even as a lapsed Catholic, I have been very shocked several times by the vulgarity of the attacks on Catholicism. This is the main target of the newspaper. My God, what they are saying and showing about Christ, the pope and so on, are in bad taste and vulgar. Personally I don't like it.

Diplomatic Connections: Judging from its latest issue, it is hardly going to contribute to the reconciliation effort and damage control that you are talking about.

Ambassador Araud: The first issue of the magazine following the attack sold millions, but its usual circulation is 50,000. My guess is that after the dust is settled and the emotion has passed, the magazine will go back to its normal level of popularity. Also considering that it was editorially decimated and the best-known designers have gone, I don't know what will be its future.

Diplomatic Connections: What do you think needs to be done that isn't already being done by the U.S. and on an international level following these attacks?

Ambassador Araud: I was honored by a visit from President Obama at the French Embassy, and he basically said we are all vulnerable and so we have to work together in all respects: military, is what we are doing in Iraq; law enforcement, we have to look at our legal system but also the exchange of information between our law enforcement agencies. Does it work? And the fourth element, which is I guess the most important and innovative and difficult, is to speak to the Muslims, and especially to the Middle Eastern countries which are the breeding ground, but also the main victims of what is happening. There is a price paid in the Muslim world, and it is also up to the Muslim world to react. We need to have a dialogue with all of them and first, tell them, "Do your job."

Diplomatic Connections: You are among the many ambassadors in this town who have their own Twitter account. How do you think that [eminent 18th century French diplomat Charles-Maurice de] Talleyrand would have reacted to having to tweet?

Ambassador Araud: If he was able to do it at the time, it would have been a mistake for Talleyrand to tweet because it was the time when foreign policy was decided between basically 20 people in Europe: emperors, kings and some ministers; and it was secret. They didn't care what the citizens were thinking. I'm experimenting. I've been tweeting only since April 2014, and I'm still trying to work out what it means to be an ambassador and tweeting. You can tweet the official line, but for that we have already a Twitter account in the embassy. So I experiment, and from time to time I make mistakes, or I shouldn't have said what I did. We are living in a society where the top down is working less and less, so we have to accept it. An ambassador should be able to speak to the people, but not only uttering platitudes. Again, I'm not sure that it's useful. I'm not sure that I am not going one day to stop, or to be stopped. Sooner or later my press officer will have a heart attack because of my tweets, and I don't want to endanger his life.

Diplomatic Connections: But if you didn't tweet you could be accused of being old-fashioned and ignoring trends. And apropos of the practice of modern diplomacy I'd like to quote something Pope Francis said recently to a gathering of new ambassadors to the Holy See. This is the Vatican translation in English: "Your work is noble, very noble. The work of the ambassador lies in small steps, small things. But they always end in making peace, bringing closer the hearts of people, serving brotherhood among peoples. This is your job, but with little things, tiny things." What is your reaction to that?

Ambassador Araud: Well, I think he's right. That's what makes our job a bit frustrating; we are doing so many small things that at the end of the day we have to say, do I make a difference? When I was ambassador to the United Nations, it was quite easy. I was negotiating texts and resolutions and I saw in a sense the outcome, the product of my work. Here, the first time I met my British colleague [Ambassador Peter Westmacott], whom I know very well because he was in Paris for five years, and I asked him, "Peter, how can I make a difference?" That's really the problem for me. You do a lot of small things, exactly the way the pope said, trying to link people. In Talleyrand's time it was easy, because you had only to link a king with another one. Now you have to link two societies, and two societies which in a sense don't need you to be linked, and thousands of corporations, and thousands of people, and so on. So this is a necessary reflection of what an ambassador is in the 21st century in a Western country.

Diplomatic Connections: What was Ambassador Westmacott's response to your question?

Ambassador Araud: Peter said the problem was to make choices. We could work 16 hours a day. Everybody wants to have an ambassador at a lunch or a dinner in Washington. You have to do all these small things, but you have to make a choice between all these small things, to try to have a compass, to choose where you want to go, to have priorities. At the end of the day, this job is a reflection of your personality. I will have to choose my own way of being an ambassador.
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