Home More News Bili: France committed to Ukraine victory, 2-state solution in Mideast

Bili: France committed to Ukraine victory, 2-state solution in Mideast

Bili: France committed to Ukraine victory, 2-state solution in Mideast
French Ambassador Laurent Bili speaks March 1 with the Washington Diplomat. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Ensuring that Ukraine wins its war against Russia while preventing the Israel-Gaza war from erupting into a full-scale Mideast confrontation dominate France’s foreign policy agenda.

The two ongoing conflicts are being monitored closely by French Ambassador Laurent Bili, who arrived in Washington just over a year ago from Beijing.

Nuclear-armed France is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council. French President Emmanuel Macron has been outspoken on both issues, telling a reporter after a Feb. 26 meeting of 20 European heads of state in Paris that while “there is no consensus yet to send ground troops” to Ukraine, “nothing can be ruled out. We will do everything we must so that Russia does not win.”

Despite a backlash from Germany and other European Union member states, Macron doubled down on his references to Russian President Vladimir Putin, declaring March 5 in Prague that a time was coming “in our Europe where it will be appropriate not to be a coward.” He added that “some powers which have become unstoppable are extending every day their threat of attacking us even more, and that we will have to live up to history and the courage that it requires.”

Anyone who doubts the French commitment to Ukraine need only look to the 10-foot-high Statue of Liberty replica on display at Bili’s official residence on Kalorama Avenue, NW. Draped in the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag, this miniature Lady Liberty leaves no doubt which side France is on.

“We all converge in acknowledging that what happened two years ago—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—is unacceptable,” Bili said. “If we let Russia benefit by using force to change borders, it will be just the beginning of decades of chaos. It would be a return to the past.”

In our one-hour interview at his official residence on Washington’s Kalorama Road, the 62-year-old Bili said he never expected to become a diplomat—let alone his country’s ambassador to the United States. Born and raised in Brittany, in western France, he studied at the French National School of Public Administration (ENA) and at the age of 30 joined the French Foreign Ministry’s Strategic Affairs and Disarmament Directorate.

Loaned to the Defense Ministry as a deputy diplomatic advisor, he then held several diplomatic positions at EU headquarters in Brussels as well as the French presidency. Eventually, he represented France as ambassador to Thailand (2007-09), Turkey (2011-15), Brazil (2015-17) and finally China (2019-22).

Bili says EU doing ‘far more than US’ to help Ukraine

Bili’s three-year stint in Beijing coincided with the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“China was closed to the outside world,” he said. “Due to the zero-covid policy, I had only three delegations from France—two visitors and one group—in three years. Here in DC, sometimes we have three groups a day.”

In a May 2023 interview with USA Today, Bili said he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping only once during his assignment there.

“The last three years have been obviously a wake-up call for many countries, and also the fact that they obviously support Russia politically, after the aggression of Ukraine, has had a very dramatic effect on the perception … of most European countries,” he told the newspaper.

French Ambassador Laurent Bili stands in front of a Statue of Liberty replica draped in the Ukrainian flag — a powerful show of solidarity at the French Embassy residence in Washington’s Kalorama district. (Photo by the Washington Diplomat)

In fact, Bili believes Washington often underestimates how much the 27-member EU has contributed to the Ukraine war effort.

Asked about fierce opposition from some Republicans—including former President Donald Trump—who argue that taxpayers no longer want to help Kyiv, the ambassador said, “There’s still a strong majority [in Congress] for supporting Ukraine.”

“It’s also a question of internal dynamics. Another reality is that even if the Europeans are doing a lot—and we are doing much more than the United States—we still need US leadership. It’s a completely different world since Feb. 24, 2022.”

Bili said France now spends more than 2% of its GDP on defense, the threshold that NATO member states have pledged to meet. In mid-February, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that a record 18 countries would reach the 2% mark this year.

His declaration followed Trump’s explosive threat at a South Carolina election rally that he’d encourage the Russians to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO country that doesn’t pay its fair share for defense.

“We should be ready to play the long game,” Bili said of NATO, which this month welcomed Sweden as its 32nd member. Though he declined to comment directly on the former president’s controversial remark or on the possibility of a Trump victory in November, he did say France is committed to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

“This is the only way to shorten the war. As long as the Russians think they can benefit, they’ll continue to fight and try to change the narrative,” Bili told The Washington Diplomat. “But threatening your neighbors with nuclear strikes—that’s not exactly the kind of world I would like to leave to my children.”

France seeks to defuse Gaza, Lebanon crises

When it comes to the other big conflict in the world now, the French position is less clear.

Five days after Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 Israelis, taking another 240 hostage and sparking the current war, Macron declared that the Jewish state had every right to defend itself. Yet faced with immediate criticism for being too pro-Israel in a country that’s home to six million Muslims and about 450,000 Jews, Macron pivoted to a more objective approach. A month into the war, he told the BBC that while still clearly condemning the “terrorist actions” of Hamas, “we urge Israel to stop” bombing babies, women and old people.

Then, on March 1, following the deaths of more than 100 Palestinians waiting for food deliveries, Macron tweeted: “Deep indignation at the images coming from Gaza where civilians have been targeted by Israeli soldiers. I express my strongest condemnation of these shootings and call for truth, justice, and respect for international law.”

Bili displayed a similar even-handedness during our interview.

French Ambassador Laurent Bili with a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette at Bili’s official residence in Washington. (Photo by the Washington Diplomat)

“We express solidarity with Israel, but it is absolutely necessary to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Palestinian people, and also to think about the day after,” he said. “There is no doubt we need a political horizon to solve this crisis—and that horizon is a two-state solution. At the end of the day, the Palestinians should be in charge of the West Bank and Gaza.”

For its part, Bili said, “France has been acting to prevent financing of Hamas, to contribute to the fight against terrorism, and also working together with Egypt and Qatar to provide medicine to the hostages,” he said. “We have also been trying to prevent an escalation of the conflict.”

A particularly concerning flashpoint has been Lebanon, where Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters, acting in solidarity with Hamas, have launched a number of deadly missile strikes on northern Israeli towns and kibbutzim, forcing the evacuation of communities from Rosh Hanikra on the Mediterranean coast to Kiryat Shmona in the east and sparking massive Israeli retaliation.

As of March 11, according to Agence France-Presse, the cross-border clashes have killed at least 312 people in Lebanon and 17 in Israel, though the situation has not exploded into a full-fledged war.

France, which granted Lebanon its independence in 1943, still exercises strong influence over its former colony. Yet Lebanon was in trouble even before the fighting. Its currency, the Lebanese pound, has lost 95% of its value since 2019, and the average soldier earns the equivalent of $220 a month, further weakening the country’s official army.

“We’re acting as a go-between for Israel and Hezbollah, to make Hezbollah understand that any miscalculation could open another war theater, and that the Lebanese armed forces should be in control of the country’s border [with Israel],” said Bili. “At the same time, we recognize Israel’s right to defend itself. But we do not think Lebanon could survive an expansion of this war.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.