Diplomatic Pouch / August 6, 2016
By Larry Luxner
The event was billed as a discussion of France in the wake of Brexit, but a far more urgent crisis — terrorism — took center-stage at a recent Atlantic Council conference featuring French Ambassador Gérard Araud.
The ambassador, speaking July 28, noted the spate of deadly ISIS-inspired attacks over the past year and a half. He said France now faces its single greatest security threat since 1945.
“It is a very, very dark moment for my country,” he said, suggesting that terrorists are targeting France because of its history as a colonial power in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as its war on jihadis from Mali to Libya to Iraq. “It is a threat against our security, but it also a threat against our values, the social fabric of our country.”
Since the January 2015 assault on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish deli that killed 17 people, terrorists have struck France more than half a dozen times, including a coordinated attack in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, that left 130 people dead, and the recent slaughter of 84 people in Nice by a truck-driving fanatic on Bastille Day. The latest atrocity occurred July 26, when two ISIS sympathizers slit the throat of an 85-year-old Catholic priest at his church in Normandy.
“For me, that was a watershed moment,” said Laure Mandeville, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, referring to the priest’s murder. “It shows that the people we’re dealing with actually want to wage a war of religion against us. What will be our answer to this?”
She added that ignoring the facts is a huge mistake.
“In Washington for many years, and up to now, there is this idea that the French are responsible for what they’re getting, but what we’re seeing throughout Europe is that the problem is everywhere, not just France,” said Mandeville. “Models of integration are struggling in the Netherlands and Britain. The radical Islamists who are plotting these attacks from the outside feel that if they break France, they can break any other country — precisely because of our model.”
Yet Araud strongly disagreed. The 63-year-old veteran diplomat, who has served as French ambassador here since July 2014, told his audience the debate over identity is an “artificial and toxic” trap, and that Christians and Muslims are equally threatened.
“Most of the terrorists were not real Muslims. They had no knowledge of Islam,” he insisted. “The Muslims in France are just as secularized as the Christians. You have people originally from Algeria who don’t go to the mosque. These people have not really studied the Koran, so I don’t think we are facing an identity crisis.”
He added that while 65 percent of French citizens define themselves as Christian, half of those between 18 and 35 say they have no religion. “That’s the reality of modern society,” he said.
Turning to Brexit and the future of the European Union, Araud insisted that the EU has been largely successful — and that one of its most impressive achievements has been the integration of the bloc’s newest members in Eastern Europe.
“You have to remember where they were not so long ago, in 1990,” he said, estimating that since communism’s collapse, the nations of Western Europe have transferred about $230 billion to Eastern Europe.”
Even so, said the French ambassador, “Brexit, for us, has a lot of consequences” but that “it doesn’t make any sense” to punish the UK for its June 23 decision to leave the bloc — a process that could take up to two years from the time the British government under Prime Minister Theresa May invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
“After the dust settles, the reality will be that we need to maintain a close and friendly relationship with the United Kingdom,” he said, adding that globalization has practically become a dirty word throughout much of Europe — which explains why so many British citizens voted to leave the 28-member bloc in the first place.
The UK, like France, is witnessing an “outburst of populism” which he said has stoked resentment against Brussels. In France, a direct beneficiary of this trend has been Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front. And in the United States, similar sentiments are driving the campaign of Donald Trump.
“The challenges may appear more acute in Europe than they are in the U.S., but the same concerns are being raised by our citizens in the Midwest as in the French countryside,” Araud said. “It’s a question of economics. The fact is, a large part of our citizens in America and Europe have suffered from globalization. We are facing a rebellion against globalization. It’s been very good for the poor in the Third World and the rich in the First World, but democracy is based on the prosperity, well-being and optimism of the middle class.”
Regarding the surge of refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere that has prompted widespread resentment against the EU, Araud said the situation is far more complicated than it seems to most Americans.
“We are working together on the question of migration, but you have to realize that the EU is 28 countries which have their own history, their own traditions and their own national interests,” he said. “In the same bloc, you have Portugal and Estonia, and from Tallinn, you do not see the world the same way you see it from Lisbon. And the situation in Germany is not the same as in Spain or Greece. So our decision-making process, by definition, is very difficult and very slow.”
Also present at the event was Frederic Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; John E. Herbst, director of the council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center; and moderator Jérémie Gallon, nonresident senior fellow in the Future Europe Initiative.