Hanging on the wall of François Delattre’s office is an enormous aerial color photograph depicting thousands of volunteers standing on Omaha Beach, arranged in a pattern that spells out the words FRANCE WILL NEVER FORGET.
The annual extravaganza is an Independence Day show of gratitude for the sacrifices of American soldiers during World War II — and for Delattre, a highly personal reminder of the warm ties between two countries that haven’t always seen eye to eye, especially when it comes to military intervention in the Middle East.
“France and the United States have never been closer than they are today,” says Delattre, who presented his credentials to President Obama as French ambassador just over a year ago. “We are each other’s closest ally in the fight against terrorism — in Afghanistan but also in Yemen and in the Sahel, on every front. We prevailed together against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, bringing 42 years of bloody dictatorship to an end.
“In the same vein, our two countries have taken the lead in the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state,” he said. “We are in the forefront of international efforts to promote democratic movements in the Arab world, and we’re fighting together in the mountains of Afghanistan not only to track down the remaining al-Qaeda affiliates, but also to ensure a peaceful and democratic transition there.”
Yet amid all the turbulence around the world, the French have endured their fair share of tragedy at home. Delattre, 48, spoke to The Washington Diplomat less than two weeks before a gunman on a motorbike opened fire outside of a Jewish school in Toulouse on March 19, killing a rabbi and three children in a cold-blooded crime that stunned the nation. It followed similar shootings that killed three French paratroopers of Arab descent who belonged to a unit that fought in Afghanistan.
After a nationwide manhunt, police closed in on the shooter, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian origin who readily admitted to negotiators that he had committed the killings to “avenge Palestinian children” and to protest France’s foreign military interventions, as well as a law banning women from wearing a full Islamic veil in public.
After a dramatic 30-hour standoff, security forces killed Merah in his apartment. The second-generation radicalized Frenchman, who described himself as a freedom fighter allied with al-Qaeda, had traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan and had apparently been under police surveillance for several years.
“Words are not enough to describe the horrific and tragic attacks that struck this Jewish school in Toulouse,” said Delattre, whose embassy on Reservoir Road opened a book of condolences in memory of the latest victims, all of whom had dual French-Israeli citizenship. “The French nation is united by this national tragedy. We especially value the international community’s solidarity; I have been very moved by the many messages of sympathy that I’ve received.”
But whether the shootings will result in solidarity at home remains to be seen — coming in the midst of a heated presidential contest already filled with anti-immigrant vitriol, mostly emanating from President Nicolas Sarkozy, a skilled crisis manager who has clawed his way back from what looked like certain defeat just a few months ago.
The killings could mark a decisive turning point in the election. If they had been the work of a far-right neo-Nazi fanatic like Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik, Sarkozy could have faced a backlash for stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment. But with news that it was an unapologetic Muslim al-Qaeda sympathizer who methodically shot children at point-blank range, the president’s hard line against immigration could very well resonate among voters and propel him to a second term.
So far, Sarkozy has appealed for unity and calm — unlike Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate who said France should wage war on Islamic fundamentalism.
“I have brought the Jewish and Muslim communities together to show that terrorism will not manage to break our nation’s feeling of community,” Sarkozy said after a meeting with religious leaders. “We must stand together. We must not cede to discrimination or vengeance.”
“This is a national tragedy,” Delattre told us. “It is a cowardly attack on children, in their school, and the whole nation is behind the families and the community that was struck. But it is also an attack on the French Republic’s values that we will confront and overcome.”
Those values will be put to the test in the next few weeks as voters choose their next leader, who will not only have to grapple with the fallout from the Toulouse shootings (Merah led a relatively carefree life in France despite being under surveillance for years after reportedly training with Islamic militants abroad), but also longstanding tensions over immigration, the mission in Afghanistan, homegrown Islamic radicalization and terrorism — not to mention a euro crisis that threatens to further drag down France’s stagnant economy.
Delattre, a career diplomat, declined to discuss the particulars of the upcoming election, but as Paris’s envoy in Washington, he spoke at great length about something he’s confident will remain stable for some time to come: France-U.S. ties.
Incidentally, Delattre’s interview with us took place just as violence began rocking Afghanistan in the wake of an accidental burning of Korans at a U.S. army base, which was followed by news that a U.S. soldier reportedly went on a nighttime rampage and massacred 16 sleeping civilians — most of them children — at a village just outside his base in Kandahar province.
Despite the continuing bloodletting in Afghanistan, Delattre says relations between Paris and Washington are light-years better than they were 10 years ago, at the height of French opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq under then-President George W. Bush. The anti-French sentiment prevalent in Washington back then led to hysterical demands by Republican lawmakers to boycott French wine and to rename french fries “freedom fries” on menus displayed at the House of Representatives cafeteria.
“The overall context today is very different compared to the environment my predecessors had to live with. For example, it was much more difficult for Jean-David Levitte, who did an incredible job at the heart of the Iraq crisis,” said Delattre of the former ambassador who is now diplomatic advisor to the president. “Today, the environment is much more favorable, and I don’t have to be on the defensive. It’s a good time to build longer-term partnerships — economic, scientific, university partnerships — between our two countries and to bring the Franco-American relationship to a new level for the years to come.
“Just one example: The largest event ever to commemorate 9/11 outside the United States was organized at Place du Trocadéro [in Paris] on the 10th anniversary. It was so moving. They formed two columns in front of the Eiffel Tower: one with the names of all the victims, and the other with hundreds of messages from people simply wanting to say, ‘I love America.'”
One indication of that closeness, according to the ambassador, is the two countries’ common front against Iran’s reported pursuit of nuclear weapons. Both the United States and France strongly oppose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s efforts to acquire nuclear technology — though Delattre declined to comment on whether Israel should launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
“We continue to believe that the sanctions are seriously biting the Iranian regime. We believe the sanctions can have the desired effect and force Iran to change course. We only approved the EU oil embargo a few weeks ago, so we need a bit of time to see how they will work,” he said. “We’re also trying to convince the other main oil importers like Japan, South Korea, China and India to do their part, along with freezing the assets of Iran’s Central Bank. These two sanctions, which really brought the international regime of sanctions to an unprecedented level, were put in place on France’s initiative.”
An even more urgent problem is Syria, where the death toll in President Bashar al-Assad’s yearlong crackdown against rebels opposed to his authoritarian government is approaching the 10,000 mark.
“This is totally unacceptable,” Delattre said. “We are on the same page as the Obama administration. We, the Americans and the Arab countries are trying to do three things: first, to support the Arab League proposals to initiate peaceful democratic transition in Syria…. The second front is humanitarian. Here again, we are working with the U.S. and other countries to bring humanitarian aid to the populations in need.
“The third front is about supporting the opposition in Syria, in particular recognizing the Syrian National Council as a legitimate body to represent the Syrian opposition, to enhance its credibility and ability to prepare the transition.”
France, in fact, has been one of al-Assad’s most outspoken critics on the U.N. Security Council, along with the United States and Britain, insisting that any resolution go beyond just calling for a truce, but also put into place a political transition that leads to al-Assad’s departure.
The tough stance contrasts with France’s initial, widely panned reaction to the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, where then-Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie offered Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali the use of French riot police to help control the protesters, who swiftly toppled the dictator. (Alliot-Marie, who vacationed in Tunisia at the start of the unrest, later resigned.)
Libya though marked a turning point for Paris and its support of the Arab Spring, in many ways cementing France’s re-emergence on the world stage as a pivotal regional player.
French fighter jets were the first to enter Libyan airspace to implement a no-fly zone, as Paris took a leadership role in the NATO military intervention that helped rebels crush the Qaddafi regime.
Last spring, French troops and helicopters also joined a U.N. campaign in Côte d’Ivoire to dislodge Laurent Gbagbo from power, after the strongman refused to recognize his defeat in the presidential elections, sparking a political crisis.
France’s newfound military muscle dovetailed the country’s return to NATO’s military command after a four-decade-long absence from the security bloc’s decision-making apparatus.
The country’s increased international profile has been championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, never one to shy away from the limelight. “France has decided to assume its role, its role before history,” he declared at the onset of the Libya mission.
Sarkozy, along with his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, has also assumed an integral role in navigating the euro crisis that’s gripped the European Union for the last year.
Today, however, Sarkozy finds himself in the midst of a very different battle as he fights to keep his job in an election that will very much shape France’s national and international trajectory.
On April 22, French voters will cast ballots in the first round of presidential elections that pit the conservative Sarkozy against his formidable Socialist rival, François Hollande, who just months ago looked like he would coast to victory against the embattled incumbent, who at one point was down in the polls by more than 15 percentage points.
Hollande was nominated as the Socialist candidate after the frontrunner, former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested in New York on suspicion of sexual assault. A relative unknown outside of France who’s never held public office before, Hollande seized on voter anxiety over widening income disparities to propel himself in the polls. He unnerved investors but also struck a chord with middle-class voters by supporting a 75 percent tax on anyone earning more than 1 million euro ($1.3 million). In contrast, Sarkozy had regularly come under fire for pushing to liberalize France’s stale labor market, raising the retirement age and cutting taxes on the wealthy, among other unpopular measures.
But Hollande lacks Sarkozy’s forceful bulldog persona, and Sarko steadily came back from behind by unleashing a strident nationalist tone — in particular targeting France’s immigrant population. Even before he showed his mettle during the Toulouse shootings, the president declared that there were too many foreigners in France and reiterated calls to cut the annual number of legal immigrants by nearly half. A poll conducted March 13 — five days before the Jewish school attack — indicated that the two candidates were running virtually neck and neck.
And while Hollande has vowed to withdraw all French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, the economy — not security — had been the centerpiece of his campaign. He also warned against stoking a climate of intolerance following the Toulouse rampage.
Sarkozy, on the other hand, has consistently put national security high on his agenda, and he has navigated the most recent crisis with commanding authority — which could put him at a distinct advantage over the next few weeks.
But some fear that the Toulouse shootings — and a Sarkozy victory — will only incite more unfounded paranoia about foreigners, even though the tragedy appears to be an isolated incident and, despite frequent rhetoric to the contrary, there’s no evidence linking immigration to crime in France.
James Traub, writing in the Foreign Policy article “Pandering in Paris,” denounced “Sarkozy’s utterly shameless courtship of France’s xenophobic voters,” while also criticizing Hollande for “playing to French resentment of capitalism and wealth as cynically as Sarkozy was with the immigrant issue.”
The domestic politicking has also forced the president, an ardent supporter of France’s primacy in the European Union, to alienate the bloc. On March 11, for example, he threatened to withdraw from Europe’s open border zone known as the Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel among 23 European nations, unless more is done to stop illegal immigration.
“Aside from being near-impossible to do, it symbolizes the extent to which Sarkozy has soured on the European Union, despite defining himself as its savior,” writes Martin Michelot, a Paris-based program assistant with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Such a position is unheard of in France, one of the founding states and still today one of the driving forces of European cooperation.”
The ambassador, not surprisingly, tried to be more diplomatic in his reflections on the raging immigration debate in France.
“It’s very important to put things in perspective,” Delattre advised, noting that unlike many other European nations where large portions of the population emigrated, France has regularly absorbed waves of foreigners. “Decades before the Second World War, the immigration rate in France was almost the same as it is today. This has to do with the fact that in the 1960s and ’70s, there was an acceleration in immigration, and today we have a large population of immigrants living in the suburbs. One of our challenges is to better integrate them.”
Integration has indeed long been a sore spot for France, with Arab and African immigrants often shoved into poorer conclaves on the outskirts of Paris, riots periodically breaking out in recent years, and right-wing anger over the surge in foreigners, especially Muslims, growing ever louder.
In mid-February, for example, the country was consumed by an artificially manufactured controversy when far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen falsely claimed that all meat eaten in the Paris region was now halal, meaning it’s slaughtered according to Islamic ritual. She went on to call the ritual “a barbaric practice that spreads bacteria” to nonbelievers. Sarkozy, jumping on the bandwagon, threw his support behind the National Front’s proposal to label all halal meat, telling reporters that the meat scandal was the “number one issue” on the minds of French voters (never mind the country’s moribund economy and recent credit downgrade).
The ambassador agreed that immigration is a politically charged issue, especially in France, where Muslims (mainly from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey) make up between 5 and 10 percent of the population.
“We have the problem of these impoverished neighborhoods, but I would not say that the French people are upset with immigrants. Many of them are grateful for what immigrants have brought to the country,” he said, adding that despite France’s current unemployment rate of 9.3 percent, “I profoundly believe the French people welcome immigrants. It’s up to us to be able to give them the jobs they need, so they’ll feel properly integrated. This is not a religious problem.”
Delattre was born in a small town close to Grenoble and grew up in Paris. He says that “at an early stage, I knew I wanted to become a diplomat, because I used to play with the globe. This globe was a source of dreams, and when I grew up, the globe reminded me what a French diplomat could do.”
Delattre’s dream came true 24 years ago, when he won his first posting to the French Embassy in Bonn. There, he headed up an office dealing with the economic impact of Germany’s reunification and the environment. A member of President Jacques Chirac’s foreign policy team from 1995 to 1998, he was responsible for European and transatlantic defense and security matters, as well as managing the Bosnian crisis. He also spent four years as communications director at the French Embassy in Washington, and another four years as consul-general in New York before being named in 2008 to his first ambassadorial post as French envoy to Canada.
During his time in New York, Delattre recalled, he’d often bring visiting ministers to Harlem or the Bronx and show them how municipal authorities were attracting private investment in poor neighborhoods. “This is where we have to draw on lessons from the American experience,” he said.
Today, the ambassador regularly travels to states such as Georgia and North Carolina in part to promote business ties. Delattre agreed that joblessness, rising gas prices and economic uncertainty are dominating the upcoming presidential elections in both the United States and France.
“The truth is that with the economic crisis, the level of discontent is quite high in every democracy today,” he said. “We are no exceptions to this rule. We have to deal with that.”
Even so, he took pains to downplay the eurozone crisis, insisting the euro has been an unparalleled success ever since it replaced the franc in his country 13 years ago. In February, Banque de France declared that some 50 million old franc notes still in circulation are no longer transferable into euro; banknotes already converted will be sent to a cement factory and recycled into material used to construct tennis courts.
“Since the establishment of the euro, we’ve created 14 million jobs in Europe; over the same time, 8 million jobs were created in the United States. So the euro has been a great success story for Europe but also for America. Back then, the American press was full of fears about ‘Fortress Europe.’ But exactly the opposite has happened, and the euro helped promote American exports and investments to Europe,” Delattre told us.
“People keep saying the euro is a weak currency, but it’s much stronger than when it was founded — 20 or 30 percent higher, in fact, which is a problem for our exports,” he explained. “When we founded the euro, we established a very strong monetary union but a weaker economic union. So our key objective today is to reinforce the economic leg of this union and establish a decision-making process for the eurozone and promote a better coordination of economic policies between the eurozone member states.”
Delattre said the United States and France are working within the G8 and the G20 “to tackle the roots of the crisis, and to restore confidence through the Deauville Partnership” established in May 2011.
“Within the G20, we’ve seen some real results in terms of fighting against tax havens. We are working hard to get the emerging powers on board and be aware of their global responsibilities on every front.”
Delattre adds that Standard & Poor’s Jan. 12 downgrade of France and eight other eurozone countries (in France’s case, from AAA+ to AA+) has had “zero impact” on his country’s economy. “The only impact it could have would have been on interest rates, and it had none,” he said. “There was no impact at all, for one simple reason: The markets had already anticipated it.”
Many eurozone countries are, of course, in far worse shape than France. On March 14, EU finance ministers gave the green light to the €130 billion ($170 billion) second rescue package for Greece. Commentators said this was a pure formality after a satisfyingly large proportion of creditors agreed to a debt cut for Greece, though Delattre insists that “we cannot accept a default, because that would likely spin out of control.”
On a much brighter note, Delattre says France and Ireland are the only two countries in the 27-member European Union whose populations are growing thanks to natural increases rather than immigration.
More important, he said, France is in the midst of a “booming entrepreneurship” with more than 600,000 new businesses having been started in the past year alone.
“This is a spectacular increase compared to previous years, and a record high for Europe,” Delattre told The Diplomat. “It says a lot about the vitality of the French economy, and the fact that the younger generation in my country — instead of knocking on the government’s door like they used to — now roll up their sleeves, start a business, fail, start again, and at the end of the day, they succeed. The French government has been able to seriously cut red tape. One example of that is today, you can start a business online in 15 minutes.
“Innovation is our number one, number two and number three priorities without any hesitation,” he continued. “We are investing in France in an unprecedented way in higher education and research. A few years ago, we established 71 innovative clusters all over the country, bringing together the private sector, the universities, research centers — and it works. We draw lessons from the American experience.”
To that end, the ambassador says the two countries are cooperating across the Atlantic like never before.
“The backbone of the French-American partnership is cross-investment. We are among the top five foreign investors in the United States; 4,000 French companies support more than 650,000 American jobs. Conversely, the U.S. is the top foreign investor in France, and U.S. investment in my country increased by more than 30 percent last year, so the dynamics are huge.”
Delattre added: “The fundamentals of the Franco-American friendship are stronger than ever. I’m very confident for the coming years and decades. What we must try to do now is build on this favorable context to bring the Franco-American partnership to a new level.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.