The Cable

Can Washington Tame France’s New Tart-Tongued Ambassador?

Gérard Araud, France’s newly minted ambassador to the United States, arrived in Washington this month with a reputation for speaking his mind, a potentially perilous distinction for a career diplomat. A recent convert to Twitter, Araud has skirmished with human rights activists over French policy in Western Sahara, defended France’s controversial burqa ban, denounced Russian ...

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/ AFP
Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/ AFP

Gérard Araud, France’s newly minted ambassador to the United States, arrived in Washington this month with a reputation for speaking his mind, a potentially perilous distinction for a career diplomat. A recent convert to Twitter, Araud has skirmished with human rights activists over French policy in Western Sahara, defended France’s controversial burqa ban, denounced Russian aggression, and poked fun at Washington’s Iraq war hawks. As World Cup fever swept across the United States this summer, Araud could scarcely skip an opportunity to take a mischievous swipe at his new hosts. "Go Germany!" he tweeted. "Show them what is the REAL football. Sorry, US friends."

Over the past several months, while serving as France’s envoy to the United Nations, Araud has cultivated an online reputation as one of diplomacy’s feistiest and frankest practitioners, weighing in on all manner of international causes and crises from Gaza to gay rights, from Syria to Ukraine. That has earned him about 5,000 Twitter followers, a fraction of the audience of his former American counterpart at the United Nations, Samantha Power (104,000), but his feed has become one of the most popular destinations for U.N. insiders. Araud, who tweets from his personal account, @GerardAraud, is acutely aware that he sometimes stretches the boundaries of diplomatic decorum, but he says there is a broader point to his online battles with France’s wired critics, whom he seems to delight in taking down. "Your brain please, not your guts!" he counseled one Twitter follower who suggested France might be hypocritical for bombing Islamic militants in Mali while faulting Israel for its military incursion in Gaza. "I have not faulted Israel to exercise its right to self defense. Never."

In today’s wired world, where Twitter and Facebook can play as great a role as governments in influencing public opinion, Araud has argued that diplomats can no longer afford to rely solely on closed-door quiet diplomacy of an earlier era to advance their countries’ interests. "You are obliged to engage in the real life in the real society by using real words," Araud said in an interview with Foreign Policy.

But as he takes up residence this month in Washington, Araud appears to be having second thoughts about his war on diplomatic platitudes. One day before arriving in Washington, Araud warned his Twitter followers that he may have to take a more measured, if not perfectly boring, approach to his new job, which requires selling brand France to Americans, entertaining Washington’s elite, and shoring up U.S.-France relations. That’s particularly important now because France is weighing American entreaties to get more involved in the military campaign against the Islamic State militants now ruling much of Iraq.

As Araud is perfectly aware, the diplomatic rules of life in Washington and other foreign capitals are starkly different from those in Turtle Bay, where big-power delegates are under no obligation to make nice with their local hosts. A glib remark or an uncomfortably frank statement can go viral, fueling a major diplomatic crisis and ruining an otherwise distinguished career in government.

Consider the public skewering of Matthew Barzun, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, when he expressed disdain for Britain’s national cuisine. Asked by Tatler magazine what he would serve for his ideal meal, Barzun quipped: "I’ll tell you what I would not serve — lamb and potatoes. I must have had lamb and potatoes 180 times since I have been here." Or consider Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, whose every word and tweet was scrutinized by the Russian Foreign Ministry and often used to fuel public attacks against him. The French, of course, still harbor memories of the France-bashing — remember "freedom fries"? — that accompanied President Jacques Chirac’s opposition in 2003 to the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

In contrast to Chirac’s dovish response to that war, French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have often staked out more hawkish positions on a range of crises, including Libya and Syria, than their counterparts in Barack Obama’s administration. On Libya, for instance, Sarkozy badgered an initially reluctant White House into taking part in a military campaign against former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently expressed frustration with President Obama’s decision to halt plans to launch airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government following claims that his forces used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. For his part, Araud, one of Paris’s more hawkish diplomats, may feel the need to avoid reinforcing such criticism, particularly in public, lest he upset his new hosts.

"I think you have seen the dawn and the sunset of my tweeting career," Araud said in an interview at the modern French mission to the United Nations, where he was winding down a five-year stint as the face of French diplomacy at the world body. "In Washington, I will be doomed to say how much I love the United States and how much they [Americans] should visit Burgundy."

Araud’s colleagues said it would be a shame to see the Frenchman muzzle himself. "I hope Washington will not tame him," Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, who himself has more than 7,800 Twitter followers, told FP. "Gérard Araud is a diplomat who has great style and, unusually for someone in such a senior position, is prepared to express views in a direct and honest way, whether in English or in French."

Araud’s decision to hold his tongue may reflect a concern that neither the White House nor key lawmakers have a thick-enough skin to withstand criticism, particularly when it comes from someone with a foreign accent. But it also may reflect the fact that France, one of the U.N. Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members, possesses considerably less clout in Washington, where it is one of many countries seeking to influence U.S. policy and cut trade deals.

"As a permanent member of the Security Council, people had to deal with him regardless of what he said," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and a frequent sparring partner of Araud’s on Twitter. In Washington, he added, France is more of a "supplicant to the State Department. They can just snub him in Washington in a way he couldn’t be snubbed in New York, because he had equal status. I suspect that is what he fears."

Roth described Araud as a "refreshing" voice with "real opinions not hidden by diplomatic speak."

Araud’s tweets are highly eclectic, unscripted, funny, and disarmingly blunt, a sharp contrast to the standard-issue diplomatic talking points that populate the Twitter feeds of most diplomats. He has a propensity for retweeting pithy aphorisms from the Twitter feed @Nietzsche, devoted to the late renegade German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and posting photographs of French tourist sites. But he has shown a willingness to stray into controversy — unfamiliar terrain for diplomats.

As extremists from the self-styled Islamic State conquered major Iraqi cities this summer, Araud turned to Twitter to sum up the geopolitical debacle — and to poke fun at the George W. Bush administration’s Middle East policy. "The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an unmitigated disaster of which the Iraqis and the international community are still paying the price," he tweeted.

Later he mused, half in jest, about the prospect that France — which the New York Post pegged in the run-up to the Iraq war as a member of the "axis of weasel" — might have been right about the folly of invading Iraq after all. "A dream : receiving the apologies of all the French-bashers of 2003… And there were a lot and they were violent, patronizing and….wrong," he tweeted.

Araud, 61, was born and raised in Marseille, the southern French city that had the distinction of being both bombarded and liberated by Allied forces during World War II. His views of America were shaped as much by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets as it was by American music and film stars. Araud has fallen particularly hard for life in New York City, which he described in a tweet as "vibrant, exciting, beautiful (yes), never asleep, diverse and tolerant of all lifestyles."

"The relationship between the United States and France, when you look at it, is something of a roller coaster," he acknowledged, citing low points like the Iraq war and high points like the U.S.-French cooperation on the diplomatic efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and force Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in 2004. "We are the oldest allies of the United States; we are the only member of the G-7 [the Group of 7 industrial powers] never to have been at war with the United States."

Still, his tastes run European. Araud is an avid collector of Tintin memorabilia, including a model of the yellow convertible that delivered the redheaded Belgian reporter and his best friend, Captain Haddock, to their next adventure. He also keeps framed Indian Tintin comic strips on his wall, a gift from India’s former U.N. ambassador.

From 1987 to 1991 Araud served as the Middle East expert in the French Embassy in Washington, a period that coincided with the Gulf War. He would later go on to serve as France’s ambassador to Israel and the director-general of the French Foreign Ministry, a position that placed him at the center of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Araud has been a sharp critic of Iran, telling reporters in 2012 that Iran never demonstrated a real commitment to a nuclear deal during 10 years’ worth of negotiations that were largely carried out "in vain." In the latest round of nuclear talks, Foreign Minister Fabius has routinely taken a tougher stance than the White House has on the need for Iran to limit its uranium enrichment. Last November, Fabius blocked an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program because of concerns that it didn’t impose adequate constraints on Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities.

But Araud will have one clear advantage: Renovation of the stately French Embassy, La Maison Française, will be completed in January. And Araud has inherited an entertainment budget that is four to five times what he was allowed to spend in New York. Still, Araud said he is not prepared to entirely sever his ties with New York, where he spent the "fullest five years of my life." Araud and his partner, an artist who has no intention of moving to Washington, have bought an apartment in Manhattan, and Araud plans to decamp there for breaks from Washington, a tangible reminder that his post at the United Nations is where Araud’s passion for diplomatic jousting, both online and off, reached its zenith.

After Russia in March vetoed a Western-backed resolution denouncing its annexation of Crimea, Araud joined his American and European allies in blasting Russia’s move as a throwback to another darker era. But while Araud’s colleagues accused Russia of behaving like a regional bully, Araud took another track: He struck out at Russian pride, characterizing his Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, and the rest of the Russian leadership as third-rate geostrategists.

"The violation of international law is so obvious at this point that one almost feels pity at seeing Russian diplomacy," he told the U.N. Security Council. "The Western media sees in this matter the triumph of the Russian chess player who will have checkmated the international community. I play chess pretty badly, but I see here above all the immaturity of a player who cannot help but try to take the rook and ends up losing the game. Russia will gain Crimea and lose its credibility."

While Araud’s flair for delivering a diplomatic dig at his big-power rivals has made him a formidable debater, it has also landed him in hot water.

In February, Spanish film star Javier Bardem — a human rights activist on Western Sahara — claimed that Araud had once explained France’s unyielding support for Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara in decidedly undiplomatic terms: "Morocco is a mistress who you sleep with every night, who you don’t particularly love but you have to defend," Bardem claimed that Araud had said at a documentary screening. Araud has denied making the remarks, but the line sounded so much like something he might have said that he had to rely on other French officials present at the screening to vouch for him. The episode nevertheless set off protests at the French Embassy in Rabat, Morocco, and heightened diplomatic tensions with the Moroccan government.

In New York, Araud has faced a more daunting challenge: preserving France’s status as a world power at a time when its president’s popularity at home is taking a nose dive and the country lacks the financial wherewithal to finance its ambitions.

This past summer, Araud had the humbling task of having to sell France’s storied Park Avenue residence for the U.N. ambassador — he got $70 million for it — to help underwrite the costs of running the Quai d’Orsay, France’s Foreign Ministry.

On the world stage, however, it has been hard to tell that France is stretched. Since his arrival in New York in 2009, at the height of the global economic meltdown, Araud has presided over a period of intense French activism, helping Paris win U.N. support for military interventions in Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic.

His advocacy of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya so exasperated Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that she confronted him in a fit of frustration.

"You’re not going to drag us into your shitty war" she told him. Araud responded in kind: "We are not a subsidiary of the United States."

For Araud, it is a matter of honor and necessity that France "not be taken for granted, that they have to be courted," said one senior diplomat who worked with Rice and Araud during the run-up to the NATO-led intervention in Libya. "I think he played that card well with Susan. Araud drove her mad, but at the end of the day she knew that France had to be brought on board."

In the end, it was the United States, despite its initial reservations, that came around to supporting a tough military operation in Libya. With the White House on board, Rice secured support for an ambitious U.N. resolution that permitted far-reaching military strikes against Qaddafi’s forces, precipitating the Libyan leader’s downfall and execution at the hands of allied Libyan militias. The operation was initially viewed in Washington and Paris as a success. But the initial euphoria in Western capitals has been tempered by Libya’s failure to function as a unified state and its recent descent into all-out civil war. The chaos in Libya, meanwhile, has helped fuel the proliferation of arms and Islamist extremists throughout the region, most notably in Mali.

On Syria, France, alongside Britain, pressed early for a tougher line against Assad and his Russian protector, President Vladimir Putin. In the fall of 2011, before Russia had cast the first of four vetoes on Syria in the U.N. Security Council, Araud and Lyall Grant, the British ambassador, struggled to overcome American resistance to a major press for U.N. sanctions. Rice feared that such a push would lead to an open confrontation with Russia, which was likely to cast its veto, and thereby would hand Assad a political victory by exposing the council’s deep divisions. Rice’s assessment was correct — Russia cast its first veto — but the United States finally came on board.

It was Britain and France again, in April 2013, that first raised concern before the United Nations that Syria had used chemical weapons against its own people. The United States subsequently reached a similar conclusion. When Obama unveiled plans to conduct airstrikes against Assad’s government in response to the chemical weapons allegation, Hollande was first in line to sign up for the air operation. "Sometimes we squabble, but in the end we want to show that we are there" with the Americans, Araud said. In the end, Obama dropped his plans for airstrikes in the face of congressional resistance and a Russian-backed proposal to have Syria give up its chemical weapons program, a move that embarrassed Hollande.

Araud, along with his former British counterpart at the United Nations, Lyall Grant, has striven to shape American decision-making by staking out positions on key international crisis early in the game and then trying to coax the Americans into following suit. If you want to know where American policy will wind up tomorrow, according to some observers, you’d be wise to look at where France and Britain are today.

For now, diplomats say French influence has relied heavily on French diplomats’ ability to fashion policy in the U.N. Security Council. They have proved adept at drafting resolutions that set international policy on major security issue.

The U.N. Security Council "is central to their ambition to have a global role, and they have to justify it every day," said Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States.

"The one who leads, the one who presents the text, who stakes out a position early in the day, is the one who more or less determines the game," said Wittig, who served alongside Araud in New York as Germany’s former envoy to the United Nations. France, he said, "is not the biggest country in the world, so they have to demonstrate leadership through political will and intellectual capacity — which they do very well. You see them [the French] taking a position very early in the day so others have to rally around their positions."

The French have one distinct advantage over the United States. The French presidency wields greater power over France’s national security policy and does not require parliamentary approval to launch risky foreign operations.

"In a sense we are more nimble," Araud said. "In the American system you need to go through the ordeal of the interagency process. There are the centers of power, the Congress, and so on. In France and the U.K., the decision-making process is much shorter, which means we are reaching our conclusions and we are defining our policies before the United States. When France and Britain make a decision, it is factored into the U.S. policymaking decisions. They can’t ignore what their main allies have decided."

By the same token, France can achieve little in the U.N. Security Council without the support of the United States.

When the Central African Republic, a former French colony, erupted into interethnic violence in December 2013, raising U.N. concerns about the possibility of genocide, Araud sought to convince a reluctant Obama administration to approve a costly new U.N. peacekeeping mission. He found a sympathetic ear in Samantha Power, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was able to overcome congressional misgivings about paying for an expensive new peacekeeping mission that could cost more than $300 million in the first 10 months. "Samantha Power has done an incredibly great job," he said. "Without her I don’t know if we would have awakened Washington to the problem." Power did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.

But other observers have taken notice.

"A Martian visiting the U.N. in recent years and watching Araud get his way over Mali or CAR [the Central African Republic] might have concluded that France was Earth’s one remaining hyperpower," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N. at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. "There is always the question of how long France can keep up this level of influence at the U.N., given that its real clout in Europe and the wider world is declining. Araud may have only delayed France’s decline at the U.N., but he did it with élan."

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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