The Washington Diplomat / June 2008
By Larry Luxner
In March 2003, after President Jacques Chirac refused to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, several jingoistic lawmakers here urged a boycott of French wine and bottled water, and the House of Representatives cafeteria officially renamed its French fries "freedom fries" — a move ridiculed throughout the civilized world.
Chirac's man in Washington at the time, Jean-David Levitte, lamented the outbreak of French-bashing and told the Diplomat he wished it would go away quickly.
"Our long history of friendship has been strained by many difficulties, and we are in one of these difficult periods now," he observed. "My duty as French ambassador is to do whatever possible to try to solve this difference of views in a friendly way. My hope is that soon we'll again be working hand in hand to promote our common values."
Five years later, it seems Levitte has gotten his wish.
The former ambassador is now President Nicolas Sarkozy's chief foreign policy adviser, and his successor here, Pierre Vimont, says relations between Paris and Washington couldn't be better.
"To be honest, there is a much deeper friendship between our two countries than one can imagine. When I travel around the United States, I'm impressed everywhere I go by the francophilia that exists, even in remote places in the Midwest," said the new French envoy, interviewed at length at his official Washington residence.
"Here and there, you may have some intellectuals [in France] who pride themselves on being anti-American, but this is a very small group of people and it seems very far from reality," said Vimont. "I've met a lot of American visitors to Paris who thought they'd be greeted with anger — and they were quite surprised to find the French people very kind and open, just like in the good old days."
And just in time too, considering that on July 1, France takes over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union from Slovenia. That'll give Paris an especially strong voice in EU affairs as the 27-member body debates issues crucial to the United States, such as a common European defense system, the EU's relationship with Russia and the pros and cons of EU membership for Turkey, a major U.S. ally.
If France has suddenly gone from being our nastiest critic to our best friend in Europe, much of that should be attributed to Sarko himself — the hyperactive, publicity seeking son of a Hungarian immigrant father and his country's most unabashedly pro-American leader ever.
Except for the war in Iraq, Sarkozy agrees with the Bush administration on just about every other foreign-policy issue from Afghanistan, where he's agreed to boost the size of France's 1,600-member military contingent by 700 troops, to Zimbabwe, whose ere he's spoken out against the Mugabe dictatorship.
"Sarko l'Américain," as he's been nicknamed, supports the tough U.S. line on Iran's nuclear ambitions, he's outspoken in his support for Israel — unlike his predecessor — and he'd like to see France rejoin the military wing of NATO after a 40-year hiatus.
"President Sarkozy is very much a man of action, with an entrepreneurial spirit. He represents a new generation, and maybe this explains why he was so eager to put the relationship between our two countries on a new course. This was, as you know, at the forefront of his priorities," said Vimont,
"On the night of his election one year ago, he stated very clearly that he wanted to bring a new momentum to U.S.-French relations," he said, adding that Sarkozy has returned to the United States numerous times on official and private visits. "Even during President Chirac's administration, the relationship had already improved after 2005, when we started to work together again on issues such as Lebanon and Iran. But the real change came when Nicolas Sarkozy took office."
A native of Paris, Vimont speaks fluent Spanish thanks to his childhood in Mexico City (his father was France's ambassador to Mexico, the Czech Republic and the Soviet Union). He joined the French foreign service in 1977 and has held a number of diplomatic posts, including that of France's permanent representative to the EU, a post he held from 1999 to 2002.
After leaving Brussels, Vimont served as chief of staff to the French minister of foreign affairs for five years before being appointed by Sarkozy to replace Levitte in Washington. The new envoy presented his credentials to President Bush in August 2007.
Vimont acknowledged that not all his countrymen are in love with Sarkozy, but argues that criticism of the president has more to do with his domestic policy and economic reform program than with foreign policy or his personal life.
"The president knew he was going to go through a period of unpopularity. It's never easy to ask for sacrifices, but none of this is a surprise," he said. "Mr. Sarkozy was elected on the platform of modernizing our economy and our labor market. If you look at the opinion polls, a majority of my countrymen accept that we need to modernize our economy and our labor market if we want to bring France back into the mainstream of the global economy — no matter how painful this may be."
This includes the pain of giving up France's beloved 35-hour workweek, deregulating the French labor market and raising the retirement age among train drivers and other specialized state employees (it currently stands at 50, the youngest in Europe). The French national statistics office, by 2050 — in the absence of reforms — the national deficit is projected to balloon to 123 billion euros. It's estimated that government spending currently accounts for a staggering 53.7% of GDP.
"We need to do it, because it's getting more difficult to finance our retirement pension schemes," said Vimont. "It's not an enjoyable prospect, but once again, French citizens are mature. They know what it's about, and they admit that this is necessary."
At the same time, Vimont concedes that the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a vast system of farm subsidies that costs European taxpayers over 80 billion euros a year, must be reformed. An equally big problem facing France — indeed most of Europe — is the rapidly rising euro, which at press time was trading at $1.56. Six years ago, the euro was barely worth 95 cents.
"It's becoming more and more difficult to produce in the euro zone and try to sell in the dollar zone," said Vimont. "The pressure is to outsource and go outside France. You can imagine the social pressure this will cause. For months, Sarkozy has tried to catch everybody's attention. I think by now, all our major trading partners understand that we are all trying to find the right way to proceed."
But the single most important issue for France as it prepares to lead the European Union is global warming.
"Any country that has the EU presidency tries to put an emphasis on priorities, and among our priorities will be climate change," said the ambassador, noting that the Bush administration continues to resist imposing caps on emissions of greenhouse gases — an idea Brussels wholeheartedly embraces but which the Bush administration has rejected as bad for business.
Last year, EU leaders agreed to fight climate change by building more windmills, installing solar panels and encouraging the sale of more efficient light bulbs. Leaders pledged that 20% of the EU's energy will come from green power by 2020. No such pledge has ever been issued by the United States, which many Europeans don't think take the threat of global warming seriously enough.
"We've played the role of honest broker regarding this issue, and we very much hope that whoever will be the new president will work with the EU towards a new international convention on climate change," said Vimont, hinting that he doesn't expect any miracles from the Bush administration. "We have to look at the post-Kyoto stage that comes up after 2009."
Another thorny issue is immigration, he said.
"The Schengen agreement has been working alright, but we must coordinate the national legislation of 27 countries, and adopt a set of principles, such as rules of political asylum and what kind of immigrants we will accept [from outside the EU]," he explained.
Meanwhile, the Sarkozy government is clamping down on illegal immigration, while at the same time allowing entry to immigrants for "job and professional purposes," according to Vimont. Social pressure to improve living conditions for immigrants — particularly Arab Muslims from North Africa — is intense, following a violent outbreak of rioting two years ago that affected virtually every major city in France (see related story on Islamic immigration to Europe, page xxx).
"Since then, we've been trying to find solutions," said Vimont. "In fact, most of these people just want jobs and housing, and be able to go from one place to another. From the beginning, we wanted everybody to be equal. We think we have to go back to the principles and values of that model of integration that we launched at the beginning of the 20th century."
On foreign policy, one area in which Sarkozy has especially distinguished himself from Chirac is his embrace of Israel.
"We support the idea shared by all our European partners, which is we must have a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side. The fact is, some Palestinian elements are sending rockets on Israeli cities and towns, and this is not acceptable. On the other side, Israel is building settlements. We think this should stop. We have a balanced view [of the Arab-Israeli conflict]."
Vimont insists "there has been no real change in France," only that "we have tried to improve our relationship with Israel. Maybe that wasn't clear to the Israelis before, so we have now dispelled some of the misunderstandings that existed before."
At the moment, the situation is far more tense in Lebanon, a former French colony, where heavily armed Hezbollah guerrillas backed by Syria and Iran have created a state within a state. Fighting there has left over 60 dead in the worst outbreak of internal violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.
"We're looking at the Lebanese situation with great concern and apprehension," said Vimont. "We are reminding Syria and other countries that they must respect Lebanon's sovereignty, and we ask for all those people to go back to the negotiations, which have been going on for too long. We are pleading for the violence to stop."
Vimont said enhancing and modernizing Europe's defense capability will also be a priority, with particular emphasis on how individual countries can work together in conflict zones (i.e., deploying more helicopters along the border between Chad and Sudan).
"We also want Serbia to have increased relations with the EU," said Vimont, whose country did not hesitate to recognize Kosovo's independence on Feb. 17, angering the Serbs. "We have decided we'd negotiate with them a special stabilization agreement, but we're very adamant that they have to comply with the International Court of Justice."
Regarding Russia, "they don't share the same views as European countries, but what we find is that even if they criticized Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, they haven't tried to stop the dialogue."
"We're trying to get an agreement among the 27 members so we can negotiate with Russia and improve our relations with them," he said, indicating that under French leadership, these EU talks will focus on Russian gas exports to energy-hungry Western Europe. "We also wish for a dialogue between Chinese authorities and the leaders of Tibet, including the Dalai Lama," he said. "Mr. Sarkozy has been very public in his wish that such a dialogue could be opened.
One area in which Paris and Washington clearly disagree is Turkey's aspirations to become a full-fledged member of the EU. Sarkozy has publicly ridiculed the idea as "nonsense," though Vimont is far more diplomatic in describing the two allies' differences.
"The United States is in favor of Turkey becoming a member of the EU. We, on the contrary, think we should go for a special relationship between Turkey and the EU, but not full membership."
For one thing, he said, "most of Turkey's territory is not in Europe, and secondly, Turkey's large population could create a problem for Europe if Turkey become a member. Most of France is against [full] membership. Therefore, we should try to find a special relationship that stops just short of full membership."
Vimont promised that "France, as president of the EU, will do everything necessary to keep those negotiations going on."
On July 13, France will host a summit in Paris that brings together all 27 members of the EU and a dozen non-European countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.
The proposed "Union of the Mediterranean" — to be headquartered in either Barcelona or Marseilles — aims to improve energy supply, fight pollution in the Mediterranean, strengthen the surveillance of maritime traffic, and create a scientific community between Europe and its southern neighbors. Ultimately, the long-term goal is to establish a free-trade area.
"This is President Sarkozy's personal initiative," said Vimont. "Our idea is that the Barcelona process set up in 1995 had some good results, but everybody is eager to give it a new momentum. This union is another way of pushing those ideas forward, on a true, equal basis between all the countries involved."
Alas, no conversation about France or Sarko could be complete without mentioning — at least in passing — the president's new wife, Italian supermodel-turned-pop singer Carla Bruni. The two were quietly married in Paris last February, less than four months after the president divorced his second wife, Cécilia.
Polls indicate that many French people were irritated by their president's very public romance with the 40-year-old Bruni. But Vimont insists that's not the case, calling Sarkozy's love life completely irrelevant.
"French citizens are usually not very interested in the private lives of their leaders. If today there's criticism of the government, it's mostly about its policies and reforms, and not really about the private life of the president or anybody else," he told us. "In fact, now that the president has married again and France has a new first lady, she's rather popular."