France is one of the United States’ oldest allies. The relationship between the two countries dates back to the Revolutionary War. Today, France and the United States cooperate on a number of economic, political, and security issues. In an interview with GJIA, France’s Ambassador to the United States Philippe Étienne discusses the realignment of France’s relationship with the United States under President Joe Biden, as well as a number of issues concerning France’s domestic politics and its role in the European Union.
This interview was conducted on the campus of Georgetown University, in summer 2021, months before the lifting of the travel ban and the announcement of the ‘AUKUS’ alliance on September 15, 2021 which led to the recall of the ambassador of France for consultations.
GJIA: Recently, we had an election in the United States that was very consequential because we now have a very different president than the one we had before. How do you think France’s relationship has changed in the first few months of the administration of Joe Biden? And how do you think the relationship with the United States might change in the long term, now that Donald Trump is no longer in office?
PE: The bilateral relations between France and the United States are strong. They have very powerful pillars. One of the pillars is our history beginning with the Revolutionary War, through the two world wars, and into the 21st century. We will never forget how American soldiers liberated our country. The second pillar is our military and security cooperation, particularly the fight against terrorism. And the third pillar is our economic, scientific, technological, and cultural cooperation. We have created 800,000 jobs here in the United States, thanks to the investment of French companies. What these three pillars mean is that our relations are strong and remain strong.
But of course, the last presidential election in the United States has changed the context of our relationship and created a lot of new opportunities for two reasons. First, the new administration has decided to ease some tensions and lift some tariffs that were introduced by the previous administration. And second, this new administration has decided to interact with us, again, within multilateral organizations in the rules-based international system. And even on day one, that was clear with the US’s return to the Paris Climate Accords. Within this framework, we have many more opportunities to develop our cooperation.
How do you think the French people in general reacted to the election in 2020?
I must say that this election, but also all previous US elections, have been followed with significant interest by our population. But I do not think this is specific to France. Frankly, my impression is that interest was huge in the whole world, because the choice was between two very different personalities and very different policies, but also because it is the United States. The United States is the most powerful country in the world and the most important democracy. We followed this election very closely—it was something very important for us.
Talking about France specifically now, many in France have found initial Covid-19 restrictions, the loosening of those restrictions, and then the re-implementation of the restrictions frustrating. From your perspective, is there anything France might have done differently if it knew what would be coming with the pandemic?
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the lifting of the travel ban, which occurred on November 8, 2021.
I think the confusion you mentioned has existed in all countries in the world, because nobody at the beginning of this pandemic knew exactly what this virus was. And of course, if we had to start again, we would be better prepared. In the United States or France, we would have had masks ready. Plenty of other things would have also been organized differently. Still, we were lucky that vaccines have been developed quite quickly.
So we hope, for instance, that students will be able to come again from Europe to the United States. We hope that European citizens living legally in the United States will be able to travel to Europe. For the time being, they haven’t been able to because they haven’t been allowed back into the United States. So we hope that we will be progressively reopening on both sides and that our communities will be able to reconnect.
I think that was, as you mentioned, possible in large part thanks to vaccines. Now, a lot of people believe that early on, when the vaccine was very hard to get in European countries, that perhaps the European Union (EU) could have approached its vaccination strategy differently. Do you think the EU’s initial approach to vaccination was correct?
A good question. The political choice was made from the outset to empower the EU to negotiate with the manufacturers of the vaccines. I’m personally convinced it was a good decision, both in the short term for efficiency, and in the long term for the future of the European Union.
As to the second part of your question, I think that this crisis in general has accelerated European integration, particularly between France and Germany. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron made a number of proposals that have been accepted by other leaders. The EU is borrowing money on the financial markets to give money to the member states for the first time. The German finance minister called these our Hamiltonian moments, which tells you as American scholars where this idea comes from. We have also proposed greater integration of healthcare. For instance, we proposed a European body. One of the successes of the United States is that they started an agency to scale up and accelerate the production of vaccines by sharing the costs between the private and public sector. We did not have this in Europe, but we have decided to learn lessons from the United States and to integrate more health policies in Europe.
You said that the coronavirus pandemic has perhaps led to more integration in the EU. A few years ago, however, the United Kingdom left the EU, and their vaccine rollout has been seen as among the best in the world. How do you think Brexit has affected France so far? And how do you think it will affect France going forward?
Well, Brexit affects the European Union, not only France. We have solid bilateral relations with the United Kingdom, where, for instance, a strong military and security alliance is needed for cooperation on a bilateral treaty called the Lancaster House Treaty. And we do have a land border with the United Kingdom in the tunnel under the channel. So of course, we are one of the main access points for British citizens, British goods, and British services.
Brexit has consequences for all of us, [but] I think [it has] more for the UK than for the rest of the European Union. We think that we all lose in this, but it is a decision of the British people. It is a democratic decision. Whatever you think about the arguments that were used in the electoral campaign, and I am not sure all the arguments were completely honest, it was a decision, it has been implemented, it was painful, and the European Union now looks forward. And to be frank, Brexit has increased pro-European sentiment in all areas.
Interestingly, everybody has seen how complicated leaving the European Union is, even for a country like the UK, which was not a member of the eurozone or a member of the Schengen free movement area. So the UK already had a special status [and was] much less integrated. But even for the UK, to leave the internal market, to leave the European Union, to leave the academic exchange programs, to leave the research programs – these were all very impactful. You cannot imagine how many French people live in London and how many British people live in France. Brexit was an enormous deal for all those people, with many economic consequences. And when we looked at that, the people have said, “Well, I understand now how important it is to be together in the European Union, to be stronger in a more sovereign European Union, as we said, because we are stronger together.” When you look at what is happening in the world, we prefer to remain together and to become stronger together in what our president called a project for European sovereignty.
Transitioning to French domestic politics, one of the most misunderstood issues in France among Americans is perhaps the issue of laïcité. In France, it is presented as a separation of church and state, but it is interpreted by Americans as potentially discriminating against certain groups of people, especially Muslims. How do you think France can address concerns about excessive immigration while also making sure that it is protected against threats like terrorism?
I have been asked this very often, and l sometimes get a bit nervous. Because you have in the same question related laïcité to terrorism and immigration, which is confusing. I’m not saying that there is no connection between these issues, but what we ask from our American friends is to look at the reality in France, not through your own reality. Look at what is happening to your friend and oldest ally. France shares the same core values of democracy and freedom with the United States. And we also share this idea of separation of church and state, but we also have differences. We want to look at the situation in the United States as something that is your reality. And I think you have to look at what is happening in France, in the context of the whole of what is France, including our history and our society. For example, the French Revolution led to the treatment of our Jewish citizens as absolutely equal for the first time. Emancipation of all the citizens suppressed slavery and the slave trade. We got these ideals from the French Revolution, which considers that all men and women are equal, whatever the race, whatever the origin. And for this reason, the fundamental principle in our country is this principle of equality and the belief in freedom.
To live freely, we must respect equality and the laïcité principle, which was legislation passed in 1905 to protect the state from interference from the Catholic Church. And progressively, this legislation has become a principle of independence and freedom. The state and the public sphere must remain independent from the influence of religion, but the religions are also absolutely free. So this principle of life is also a principle of freedom: you are free to believe in what you want or not to believe at all. In this respect, we want our basic principles to be respected by all our citizens, and one of these principles is equality, but especially between girls and boys, women and men. And this is a reason why we have been very committed here.
We are working well with the United States against terrorism and violent extremism. But we are not exactly the same society. I think we have the same core values, but we do not integrate and implement them exactly in the same way, because we have our own traditions and we have different societies. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are not fighting discrimination. A few months ago, President Macron announced a new hotline and new legislation to help prevent discrimination. So, we are not saying that there is no discrimination, but we are fighting against it, and we are not targeting anyone with based on their religion with laïcité.
In countries like Germany and the United States, there has been a recent shift away from populism with the defeat of Donald Trump and losses for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. What makes France different from these two examples, given that there has not appeared to be a similar shift? What will Emmanuel Macron need to do next year when he runs for reelection in order to balance the wants and needs of different parts of the French electorate?
If you compare the United States, France and Germany, you should look at the two last elections. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron won by a huge majority in the second round. Nobody knows what will happen in the upcoming French elections, we have democratic elections. But I think it is fair to say that in all of our countries, there are indeed parties that express a feeling that you should not cooperate with other countries. Frankly, our country right now, particularly since the last presidential election, has been a country that has been systematically promoting more international cooperation, more integration in Europe, European sovereignty, and multilateralism, and has helped the Paris Climate accords stay alive over the last few years. All objective data shows that we are a driver of more cooperation in Europe and in the world.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Philippe Etienne served as President Emmanuel Macron’s chief diplomatic adviser from 2017 to 2019, when he was nominated to serve as France’s Ambassador to the United States. He graduated from the École nationale d’administration in 1980. He has also served in diplomatic posts in Serbia, Germany, Russia and Romania.
Interview conducted by River Harper.
Image Credit: U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)