Since September 2014, Gérard Araud, a career diplomat, has served as France’s ambassador to the United States. This interview was conducted on May 11 at the French embassy in Washington. It has been slightly edited for brevity and language clarity.
Tom Rogan: What is your take on the election of Emmanuel Macron?
Gérard Araud: Well, first, I think what is striking is that we have exactly the same, in a sense, political atmospherics in France as in the U.S. and the U.K. And, I think, in a large part of Western democracies, which is basically that we have a revolt by some of our citizens against the elite, against the traditional political parties. Basically these people are telling us “we have tried the Left, we have tried the Right. You have not delivered. So we are ready to try something else.” But the difference — a critical difference — is that [in Macron] we had a populist guy running on the centrist platform. Basically pro-European, forward-looking, open. But Macron has never been elected, he’s 39, has never run for office. And in the French political system, this is unusual. Usually when you are running for president [of France] you have been around for 20 years. Macron did what Hillary Clinton could not do, because she was the political symbol of the system. But at the same time, [Macron] is coming from the system: he went to all the right schools, but nobody knew him two years ago.
Rogan: When Macron was elected president, did your staff breathe a sigh of relief?
Araud: Everybody has the right to their own opinion. But I think, I guess most of the diplomats were relieved. What is particularly worrying for us diplomats was Le Pen’s idea to get out of the European Union. And there is really a basic fundamental difference between the U.K. and continental Europe on the European Union. The difference is that the U.K. was not invaded, not occupied in the Second World War while the rest of Europe was totally devastated. Two world wars, one genocide. So there was a sort of will to build something different. There is something emotional in continental Europe versus the U.K. So for people from my generation, but also for diplomats, the idea of getting out of the European Union was really something major. Really it would change — not only our foreign policy — but change what our governments, Left and Right, have been doing for the last 60 years.
Rogan: How much pressure do you think President Macron will be under, in the sense that if he does not deliver on the new politics he has promised, it might empower the next leader — or the current leader [Marine Le Pen] — of the National Front party in the next election?
Araud: It’s really my personal estimation. I have publicly said that if Macron doesn’t succeed, next time Le Pen will be elected. It has been a sort of mobilization of everybody against the National Front. But what is behind the populism, it’s a genuine concern. The concerns, the discontent of the people are there. So it’s a critical presidency.
Rogan: President Trump will meet with President Macron at the NATO summit in Brussels later this month. Trump is likely to bring up his demand that NATO members, including France, spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. Do you think President Macron will pledge France toward that target?
Araud: Yes. Actually, he has already. France — our forces — are fighting on the ground. And when I met [Defense] Secretary Mattis, he told me immediately, “you are our best allies right now on the battlefield.” So we have a very strong military relationship with the U.S.
Rogan: One of the areas [of cooperation] behind the scenes that Secretary James Mattis was hinting at there, I’m sure, is the cooperation of U.S. and French Special Forces in Syria. Do you believe that President Macron will increase that force presence?
Araud: I don’t know. I’m not a spokesman for the president-elect. But for us, Syria is a national-security issue. And really for more than one year we have been insisting on retaking Raqqa. Because it is from Raqqa that most of the terrorist attacks against France — but also against Turkey — have been prepared. A lot of the French-speaking terrorists are in Raqqa. For us, Raqqa is a strategic goal. So I don’t think there will be any reduction in our commitment.
Rogan: What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see in the transition between President Obama and President Trump? And what is your reaction to Trump’s decision to use force following the recent chemical-weapons attack in Syria?
Araud: Every eight years the people in Washington discover what a transition in Washington is. And it is always complicated, slow, and a bit chaotic! When you are elected, you want to reward loyalty, and after a while you discover that competence is also useful. And in a sense all the foreign ambassadors are facing the same challenge: finding people to speak to. But we have a very good dialogue with the National Security Council. And again, the fact that it is a general [as national-security adviser], General H. R. McMaster, is a plus, because he knows the French forces. So immediately we have had a very good dialogue with him. The transition was also slow in 2009 and 2001.
The problem [under President Obama] in Syria basically was that Secretary Kerry tried to negotiate with the Russians without leverage. And you know, frankly, with the Russians you don’t get anything without leverage. So the [retaliatory chemical-attack] strike in itself, why not? It was a way of reestablishing a balance of power on this issue. But the question is, the strike itself is useless if you don’t have a strategic vision. The reason for a strike is not only that people of dying. You are not expressing your gut feelings; you are expressing your policy. So the question is, after that, what is the policy? And if you have leverage, it means that you want to negotiate something with the Russians.
Rogan: France has very capable intelligence services. What do you think President-elect Macron’s intelligence briefers will tell him about the nature of the relationship between President Trump and the Russian government?
Araud: As you can guess, I won’t answer this question. But I can say, I don’t know. And it’s true, I don’t know. Really.
Rogan: As an extension, the U.S. and France are very close partners on some things, but adversaries in terms of business and economics espionage. How do you see this dynamic going forward?
Araud: It says something that we have exactly the same vision as the U.S. On the top of the U.S. embassy in Paris there is one floor that has been built without respecting the permits, without asking anybody, and we know that it’s one floor that has all the [U.S. espionage] listening systems. And when it came out that they were spying on the president’s [François Hollande’s] mobile phone, we requested that the U.S. close [the intelligence center], and they didn’t do it. And that’s the real world.
But our military-intelligence-sharing cooperation with the Defense Department improved dramatically under former defense secretary Ash Carter. And Secretary Mattis has told us he is ready to go beyond the existing agreement. So for us, it has been totally critical. For instance, in the Sahel region [of Africa], it is millions of square kilometers and it is very, very tough in terms of intelligence. But the Americans are providing a lot of technical intelligence so that we can strike the terrorists when they cross the border from Libya into Tunisia, or from Mali into Niger. We have absolutely no complaints. We have no signal that things will be different under President Trump. And after the Paris attacks, the U.S. immediately volunteered to help us — to increase the exchange of intelligence — and on our side, at least, we are very satisfied.
Rogan: Do you believe, especially in the field of NSA signal intelligence, that the U.S. has helped save French lives in France?
Araud: Really, I don’t know — it’s not because I am trying to underestimate what’s happening. I am out of the intelligence channels.
Rogan: In this building, as in any other embassy, there are a good number of intelligence officers, but is there a segregation between you and those officers?
Araud: I receive a lot of notes coming from our intelligence services, but they are notes on the political aspect. There are notes on topics where it’s normal that I would be informed. The exchange between the NSA and France — I don’t know why I would know. The principle we have in France is “need to know.”
Rogan: Does that same need to know precept apply to DGSE [France’s CIA/NSA] communication with the French diplomatic staff?
Araud: Exactly. The need to know.
Rogan: President-elect Macron’s internationalism differs from President Trump’s foreign-policy philosophy. With a special focus on the Paris climate agreement, how would you advise Macron to persuade Americans that internationalism is in their interest?
Araud: Something I have learned over a long time as a diplomat is never to have a discussion of principles or high politics. What matters for me is that the Trump administration will decide on each issue. And so far, looking at the first steps of the Trump administration, we find nothing really worrying for us. And even on climate change, it was the only issue that Macron raised in his phone call with President Trump. I have traveled extensively around the United States discussing climate change. And when you leave the Beltway, you have the impression that a lot of these ideological, silly debates are not of interest to people. All the cities are committed to fighting climate change. All of the major corporations are. My advice to President Macron — and Macron used these words on the Paris climate agreement — is, Look at the words. First, it’s not legally binding. It’s based on voluntary commitments. If we had 192 countries signing this text, you can imagine they were not going to accept being in a straitjacket. Each country is making its individual target. We wouldn’t really like it that much, but if the Americans want to change their target, they can do it. But for European public opinion, [if the U.S. withdraws from the Paris agreement], it will be really a major shock, a major trauma.
Rogan: Do you think one of the things that muddied the waters here is that, if you look back to the Kyoto Protocol, many European nations didn’t meet pledged emissions targets?
Araud: Yes. In a sense the Kyoto Accords were a failure. But we [France] have learned the lessons. It’s not one size fits all. Every nation has its own dynamic, its own economy. You can’t infringe on sovereignty today. We were not going to try and impose a straitjacket on everybody. As for implementation, you are not going to send the army to impose commitments! As the French, we are optimistic. We see in China and public opinion — and in India — that public opinion is exerting pressure to act. And technology is moving very quickly. But what was important in Paris is that, for the first time, we had every country saying, “We are facing a serious challenge and we want to face it.” There will be bumps on the road, but having the U.S. out of the 192-countries agreement will be bad. And also, it will allow China to take the high moral ground.
Rogan: What likelihood do you see of a major free-trade deal between the U.S. and the EU under Trump and Macron?
Araud: The problems were not born with Donald Trump. On both [EU and U.S.] sides, there has been a lot of resistance to free trade. President Trump has expressed a latent feeling that free trade is destroying jobs. We have been negotiating [a trade deal] for three years, but three years is not long. There are a lot of sensitive issues.
Rogan: Do you believe that [British prime minister] Theresa May’s Brexit negotiating strategy — the aggressive way she has articulated her belief about getting a good deal — is delusional?
Araud: First, psychologically, it’s very awkward. The EU was wrong to leak details about the recent dinner between [Theresa May and EU negotiators]. But when May started saying “Let’s make Brexit a success,” it’s nearly an aggression for the EU side. It really made the answer of [EU Commission president] Jean-Claude Juncker very predictable: “It can’t be a success.” Because for us, on the EU side, it’s a lose–lose situation. We are sad to see the U.K. leaving the EU. And we do think it will be bad for both sides. My personal conviction is, and I was not surprised by this first spat, is that [Brexit] will be contentious and that there could be a major rift. And maybe a hard Brexit. It will be extremely complicated. You have, also, the yellow press in Britain, which will fan the flames of any problems. Really, frankly, I hope I am wrong, but frankly I believe it will be a very, very messy process.
Rogan: The British government has said it might withhold intelligence sharing with the EU if they don’t get a good Brexit deal. What are your thoughts on that?
Araud: They said that once. After that, they realized it was devastating, that the exchange of intelligence is a two-way street. The problem is that Brexit in real terms is a tragedy for the British. They had access to the biggest single market in the world, and they are going to lose that access. And basically, whatever they say about their importance, they are alone negotiating in front of the Continent. So they are trying to find arguments. But there’s a commonality of security. If we stop a terrorist in Paris, he can’t go to London. The result of the [Brexit] deal will be that the situation of the British vis-à-vis the EU single market will, by definition, be worse than their previous situation.
Rogan: When you think about the European Union, of many member states competing with their own interests? Would you prefer to see a United States of Europe?
Araud: No. No, it’s impossible. It’s impossible. We are all countries. We all have long histories, we have strong identities. So there won’t be a United States of Europe. Period.
Rogan: Would you want a United States of Europe?
Araud: No. I don’t. France is France.
Rogan: A fun final question. Many Americans tourists travel to France. But if you had to pick one place, where should Americans visit?
Araud: My mother lived in an area near Avignon [in southern France]. There is a region called Luberon, and I think it is magnificent. You have Avigno,n which is really great. But you have this whole region north of Aix-en-Provence and east of Avignon.
Rogan: Ambassador, thank you.