On 28 October Gérard Araud, Ambassador of France to the United States, spoke to a standing-room only audience of 200 at Georgia Tech. The Ambassador spoke for 20 minutes about the importance of the climate change summit in Paris at the end of the year, the terrorist threat in Europe, and the refugee crisis before taking questions on a wide range of topics, from the conflict in Syria to Europe’s economic malaise. The event was co-sponsored by the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence, the Consulate General of France in Atlanta and the Atlanta Council on International Relations.
Ambassador Araud expressed optimism that the Paris summit will deliver concrete action on climate change, noting that it will be a bottom-up process with each party making commitments and followed by peer review of their implantation. He noted that while in Atlanta he had met with the CEO of Coca Cola, the President of Delta and Mayor Kassim Reed to discuss action on climate change.
Referring to the January terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery in Paris, the Ambassador stated that Europe is facing a major terrorist threat. Of particular concern, he said, are the number of Europeans fighting in Syria. The French government estimates that there are 600 French citizens fighting in Syria at any given time and that roughly 1,600 are or have fought in Syria. These fighters, he contended, return “radicalized and very anti-Semitic.” The Ambassador also stressed the extent of cooperation between the U.S. and France in fighting terrorism in Mali and in the fight against Islamic State. The ambassador noted that while the conflict in Syria does not affect U.S. vital interests – the U.S. is no longer dependent on oil from the Middle East and the conflict does not threaten Israel — for Europe it represents a “vital crisis,” because of both the involvement of European fighters and the refugee crisis it has caused.
Turing to the refugee crisis, the Ambassador began by stressing the number of people who have been displaced by the conflict, both within and beyond Syria. He noted that the refugee crisis confronts Europe with a dilemma. If it closes its borders, refugees will die. If it opens its borders, governments will face administrative and political challenges. Contending that “political life” in Europe and the U.S. is “not that different,” he noted that the refugee crisis has been a “blessing” for anti-immigrant, far-right politicians, which has put pressure on governing parties. In the question and answer session, the Ambassador argued that, as in the U.S., the prolonged economic crisis, which has hit the middle class particularly hard, has contributed to the rise of right-wing parties. Nonetheless, he does not consider the rise of these parties, which are also Eurosceptic, to be the main threat to the European project. Rather he thinks that the UK leaving the EU would “devastating” for both the UK and the EU. He “prays” that that does not happen.
In response to a question about Russia’s involvement in Syria, the Ambassador clearly articulated a strongly Realist worldview, which had been evident although more obliquely in his earlier comments. He argued that in trying to understand international relations, rather than ask who is right or wrong, one should look to national interests and the balance of power.
The Ambassador’s talk was very engaging and injected with humor. There were still many hands raised when he had to leave to catch his flight back to Washington.
A video of the Ambassador’s talk is available here.