An Interview with French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte
By Hugh S. Galford
Seated in his spacious office, his coffee table covered with enticing books picturing various locales in the US and an Angkor-style Buddha head carving on his windowsill, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte personifies the practice of diplomacy. He is poised, assured and gracious, and his discussion of US-French relations, the French view of world affairs and his own personal achievements is candid and humorous.
It comes as no surprise to find that Ambassador Levitte’s priority is to heal the rift between France and the US caused by their differences regarding the war against Iraq. The Ambassador noted that this rift differed immensely from prior fallings-out between our two countries. There have been numerous occasions in the past where the French government has disagreed with Washington, or the US has disagreed with Paris, but there has always been an underlying genuine, mutual admiration. From the American Revolution on, Paris has held a special place in American hearts.
Over Iraq, however, there was “a US grassroots reaction,” something unprecedented and unforeseen. Why was the reaction so bitter? The Ambassador pointed to some of the main reasons. The first was 9/11. “The French,” he said, “suffered from terror attacks for decades. This is not new for us, but we never suffered like the Americans did on 9/11.”
The Americans were now at war against terrorism, proclaiming a link between al-Qa’ida and Iraq. The next step was a pre-emptive strike on Iraq. “For Americans to find the French were not on their side—for the first time in history—came as a shock.” This shock was further compounded once the war started, with Americans firmly behind the commander-in-chief and “the boys,” while France was still asking, “Is this necessary?”
The second reason was what Ambassador Levitte termed “the Fox News Effect.” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly railed on a daily basis against the French stance, inflaming his viewers. “For an hour every day, here’s this powerful guy saying, Bash the French; here’s the Embassy’s phone number.”
The third reason was a “campaign of disinformation.” The Ambassador said that anonymous sources in the Bush administration time and again leaked statements that were “just disinformation.” The situation became so outrageous that on May 17, 2003, the Ambassador sent a letter to the Administration, the Congress and the media enumerating seven examples of “disinformation to destroy the impression of the French.” The last example was that after the fall of Baghdad, the French gave passports to Saddam Hussein and his family.
As opposed to some contrary opinions, Ambassador Levitte does not think the war in Iraq was about oil. First, he said, Saddam Hussein was painted here as “absolute evil,” even by Clinton. Second, 9/11 was a key factor. “The view was that Saddam Hussein was a threat—everyone believed the reports of his weapons programs. Americans were saying, ‘This guy’s evil. He’s going to do something to us someday—let’s act now.” Then Colin Powell convinced President Bush to go the UN route. The international community backed Bush, and Hussein accepted the return of weapons inspectors. “But in parallel, 200,000 US troops were deployed, and they had to be used for US credibility. If they weren’t used, it would have been read as a signal of weakness.”
As divisive and often petty (Freedom vs. French fries) as the disagreement was, the Ambassador is optimistic for the future of relations between the two countries. “The mood is now changing. There is still a slight air of bitterness, and it can be set aflame again, but things are better.” Ambassador Levitte said that the Bush administration is willing to mend fences, and he believes 2004 will be better than 2003 for trans-Atlantic and French-US relations.
A major aspect of this rapprochement—or at least a major constraint on any flare-up going out of control—is the economic co-dependence between France and the US. France is one of the major foreign investors in the US. In terms of inflow of funds, France was number one in 2002. France, the Ambassador said, “is the second-greatest investor in terms of stock, holding $170 billion dollars—and providing 650,000 American jobs. If you bash French companies, you destroy American jobs—and hurt importers.” Sodexho, a French company, won a $1 billion contract to feed US Marines. Sodexho was able to provide a system that cut food preparation time from four hours to one hour—an important consideration under war conditions. Companies competing for the contract asked, “How can the government give this contract to the French?”
“The next day,” the Ambassador said, “the company placed ads in 40 states’ newspapers saying, ‘We’re proud to be in 40 states, employing 110,000 American citizens.’” In addition to Sodexho, there are 2500 French subsidiaries active in the US. While France exports $28 billion of goods to America, Ambassador Levitte said, “What we sell through subsidiaries—goods made in America—is seven times more important than what we export.”
Asked if he thought France had a special role to play as a bridge between the US and the EU, Ambassador Levitte demurred. “The EU will be 25 countries in May. They all have special links to the US, all for different reasons. But together, the EU is the invisible, but most indispensable, partner of the US.”
The Ambassador drew a parallel between past German-French differences and current differences between France and the US. “The French-German Youth Organization and the organizations created by the Elysée Treaty of 1963 transformed relations between France and Germany to a point unimaginable two generations ago.” Given the success of previous programs, the FGYO has begun a new exchange program for university students from France, Germany, and the US. A “trans-Atlantic Erasmus program,” it will focus on the study of the three countries involved, with the aim to develop relations among the younger generation.
A major new, and successful event in Franco-American cultural relations is the current “Chez Nous” program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The “Festival of France” began in January 2004 and runs through April, showcasing classical and jazz music, plays and dance, opera, films and French regional artists. Ambassador Levitte gave all credit for the program to the Kennedy Center: “They took the initiative,” he said. “It has been a wonderful partnership. This is the largest of the Kennedy Center’s festivals—they’re giving us three months. The Embassy helped to expand the program by finding new talent.”
Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, said, “I am a fundamentalist for France, a fundamentalist for freedom—for France is freedom.” The French Cultural Attaché, Roland Celette, recently won the prize for the best partner/program organizer for DC.
Ambassador Levitte has had a long and varied foreign service career. Having graduated from Paris’ Sciences-Po and the National School of Oriental Languages, where he studied Chinese and Indonesian, his first posting was to Hong Kong and Beijing. He served on President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s staff, as Second Counselor at the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations, and as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the African Bureau in Paris. He has served as French Permanent Representative to the UN in both Geneva and New York. In the French Foreign Ministry, he has held the position of Assistant Secretary for Asia and Undersecretary for Cultural and Scientific Cooperation.
A point of personal pride for Ambassador Levitte was receiving the 2004 King Legacy Award for International Service. The idea of the prize, he said, was to honor a person who spread Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, message internationally. As great an honor as it was, Ambassador Levitte admitted astonishment. “I have no clue why I received it.” Then he pointed to the fact that two-thirds of France’s development budget is reserved for Africa—due to their historical presence in the continent, and as a humanitarian priority.
Prior to presenting his credentials in December 2002, Ambassador Levitte returned to Paris. There, it was determined that his main goals should be to develop ties, cooperation and exchanges between French and American universities. Europeans, he said, “focus on multilateral relations—the euro is the best symbol of shared sovereignty. In the US, the stress is on protecting their sovereignty. There is now a new European generation emerging.
“Without building bridges of understanding to the US, there is the possibility of a future rift.” The FGYO program discussed above is one such bridge and channel for European efforts, and during these difficult times their initiatives have earned Ambassador Levitte and German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger the title of “Brothers in Diplomacy.”
“I want not only to mend fences and rebuild the Franco-American relationship, but to go beyond and if possible take out of American minds the negative clichés about the French.”
On the governmental level, Ambassador Levitte can celebrate the formation of the Congressional French Caucus, which had 53 members as of February 4, 2004. At a recent event for the French Caucus held at the French Embassy residence, Senators, Congressmen and staff sipped French wine and joined in the spirit of fun precipitated by the appearance of surprise visitors descending the wide staircase. Everyone’s attention turned from the buffet table to the flamboyant grand entrance of historical luminaries Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Napoleon, Lafayette, and Marechal Murat, all praising and poking fun at each other.
A sense of camaraderie prevailed throughout the evening and in the words of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), “Changing ‘French fries’ to ‘Freedom fries’ was beneath the dignity of the US Congress, so when the idea was suggested we agreed, it was time to have a French Caucus.”
While there are still difficulties facing Ambassador Levitte, one senses he enjoys this unprecedented challenge, and his outlook, energy and ideas point to a brighter, more amicable future between France and the US.