Last year on July 14, Bastille Day, French Ambassador Philippe Étienne proudly unveiled a 1,000-pound bronze “mini-me” of the Statue of Liberty on the lawn of his official residence in D.C.’s Kalorama district before a crowd of dignitaries that included US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Nicknamed “Lady Liberty’s Little Sister,” the nine-foot replica was crafted from the original 1878 plaster model that French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi used to design the Statue of Liberty on New York’s Ellis Island.
These days, that statue has taken on added symbolic meaning as Lady Liberty is wrapped in the colors of Ukraine—a nation that, ever since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, has literally been fighting for its freedom day and night.
“My role has been to manage the bilateral partnership between the US and France, which is the basis for our common action in this crisis,” said Étienne, noting that the war coincides with France’s six-month rotating presidency of the 27-member European Union.
“We must ensure there is very close coordination of our positions,” Étienne told the Washington Diplomat via Zoom while recovering from a recent COVID-19 infection. “We continue to raise the price of Putin’s invasion, completely support the Ukrainian people, and work via the UN and other international organizations to condemn Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine and isolate them as much as we can.”
Yet relations between Washington and Paris have not exactly been smooth sailing of late.
Last September, a furious French President Emmanuel Macron recalled Étienne home for consultations after Australia cancelled a $66 billion deal to purchase French-built submarines— opting instead to buy nuclear-powered subs from the US and Britain instead.
Submarine scandal prompts recall of ambassadors
In an editorial, the leading French daily Le Monde said: “For any who still doubted it, the Biden administration is no different from the Trump administration on this point: The United States comes first, whether it’s in the strategic, economic, financial or health fields. ‘America First’ is the guiding line of the foreign policy of the White House.”
The submarine fiasco marked the first time since a French ambassador has been recalled since bilateral ties were established in 1778.
“It was a real crisis in our relations,” said Étienne, a career diplomat. He noted that the Biden administration had already settled other disputes involving French wines and the Airbus-Boeing rivalry. But then the Australian sub deal fell through, and Macron was enraged.
“I was recalled. It was our way to mark the seriousness of the crisis, but President Biden reached out immediately to the French president, and the US government recognized that things should not have been done the way they were handled,” Étienne said. “There were six weeks of consultations, leading to a summit in Rome.”
On Oct. 29, the two leaders adopted a declaration marking the end of the spat.
“It was a roadmap for our future relations, and it was important to have it when the war broke out in Ukraine so we could have very close consultations, especially while France is holding the presidency of the EU.”
Étienne: Isolate Russia but don’t break relations
Étienne, 66, has previously served as ambassador to Romania (2002-05), director of the cabinet of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (2007-09), French permanent representative to the EU in Brussels (2009-14), ambassador to Germany (2014-17) and diplomatic advisor to Macron (2017-19).
A graduate of the École Normale Supérieure and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, Étienne has a teaching diploma in mathematics and a degree in economics. He’s a graduate of the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, an officer of the Legion of Honor and a commander of the National Order of Merit.
In a March 26 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Étienne said France strongly supports the investigation launched by the International Criminal Court into allegations of war crimes by Russia.
“We have been working to isolate Russia,” he said, sidestepping Blitzer’s question on whether Russia should be removed from the G20. “The consequences of its aggression affect not only Ukraine but the whole international community. This is a violation of the UN Charter and constitutes a grave threat for other vulnerable countries, especially food security—a big challenge now because of the war started by Russia against Ukraine.”
Even so, France has chosen not to break relations with the Putin regime.
“We condemn very firmly the Russian aggression, but we still keep speaking with them, and we have our ambassador operating in Moscow,” said the ambassador, who speaks English, German, Spanish, Russian and Romanian in addition to his native French.
New priorities for 21st century Europe
Russia’s invasion has, of course, fundamentally shifted European priorities in the wake of a refugee crisis without parallel since World War II. More than 4.3 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Feb. 24, with neighboring Poland receiving more refugees than all other nations combined.
“We had a program to reinforce European integration, but the war in Ukraine has changed everything—not only for us but also for Europe and the world. We have taken very bold moves to welcome millions of refugees from Ukraine and give them access to schools, jobs and healthcare,” Étienne said.
“But the most important thing is that this war has brought all 27 EU members much closer and led to a major historic transformation of the EU on defense,” he said. “We are now in the process of adopting a strategic compass for the EU.”
None of that would be possible, of course, without the backing of Germany, whose $4.2 trillion economy and population of 83 million make it the most powerful nation in Europe.
“I was the French ambassador in Berlin from 2014 to 2017, and during those years, I could see that Germany was already more than willing to support other European countries when we had big issues,” he said, recalling the November 2015 Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more. “We asked for Germany’s support, and we got it. Now we’re facing a still bigger upheaval with this unjustified war. Indeed, in Germany but also in other countries like Sweden and Denmark, we see this accelerated determination all over Europe.”
To that end, the French Embassy is working with the National Park Service to honor Jean Monnet, a French diplomat who lived in Washington at the beginning of World War II.
Widely considered one of the founding fathers of today’s EU, Monnet—who died in 1990 at the age of 90—frequently took long walks in Rock Creek Park, not far from his embassy on Reservoir Road.
“The EU—which was originally called the Steel and Coal Community—was brought to life in May 1950 on the ruins of Europe after World War II, and based on peace between France and Germany,” Étienne said. “We have received from the city of Paris a traditional Parisian bench, and we propose to put it in Rock Creek Park where Monnet developed his thoughts. So, there’s a very important connection between this commemoration and what we are experiencing now.”