The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Charlie Hebdo tragedy, the French ambassador finds his place in Washington

Last Wednesday, Gérard Araud stepped onto an early morning plane for a long-awaited vacation in Florida. He had seen reports of a shooting in Paris and, for a moment, considered canceling the trip. But warm temperatures beckoned, and he decided check with his office for an update as soon as he arrived.

It was, he admits, a misstep. The new French ambassador to the United States flicked on his phone as the plane landed, read his messages and immediately went to the ticket counter to book a seat on the first flight back to Washington.

Just four months into the job, Araud had kept busy settling into the nation’s capital: Meeting with members of Congress and the administration, hosting French and American dignitaries at the embassy, overseeing renovations of the country’s elegant official residence in Kalorama. But the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo became, within hours, an international story and the most dramatic event of Araud’s 32-year career — and a swift reminder of what it means to serve as a diplomat in Washington.

“We are back to the first function of an ambassador, that we have been a bit forgetting, which is representing your country,” says Araud in almost flawless English. “There were incredible outpourings of solidarity, grief and friendship coming from the Americans, and I had to receive and answer these messages.”

President Obama visited the embassy Thursday to sign the book of condolence in the lobby; Secretary of State John F. Kerry did the same Friday. Calls poured into the ambassador’s office, many from members of Congress or the U.S. news media. Other foreign diplomats and VIPs streamed to pay their respects, all promising their support. Araud was invited to Capitol Hill and the White House, where he met with counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco. He didn’t get much sleep.

“I think this is, a bit, our 9/11,” he says carefully, mindful that the scale of casualties was so different. But the shootings in Paris last week “created the same emotional outburst among Frenchmen as Americans in 2001.” The embassy received hundreds of calls asking, “What are you doing?” Even Christine Lagarde, the director general of the International Monetary Fund, called him.

So Araud, with Lagarde at his side, led a march Sunday afternoon from the Newseum to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, where more that 2,000 people gathered for a moment of silence. The march, he explains, was primarily for the French citizens living in the United States who needed to do something to express their sadness and patriotism.

They were, of course, a tiny fraction of the millions gathered in Paris. Araud diplomatically sidesteps the contretemps over the absence of a high-level U.S. administration official in the Paris march, despite an apology from the White House.

“For us, it’s very much an intra-American debate,” he says, dismissing it as a partisan political dust-up; the French have been overwhelmed by the response and solidarity of the United States.

“As I said to President Obama, the American people are really a compassionate people, and I think you have shown it.” It was, if not a surprise, a touching affirmation of the sometimes fraught relationship between the countries. “The French are not cynical, but a bit skeptical about the human nature,” the ambassador says. “So, really, I was moved.”

Breaking diplomatic role

The first tweet from Araud's personal account after the Jan. 7 attack was a retweet from the Guardian detailing the facts up to that minute. What followed was a week of photos, opinions, gratitude and — for relief — the occasional "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip.

Last year, Araud, 61, was asked by his bosses to try his hand at Twitter. It was a leap of faith: Araud — witty, opinioned, fearless — was hard enough to keep on message without a smartphone in his hand. The embassy press secretary was terrified. “And he’s right to be terrified,” the ambassador says with a grin.

From the very start, Araud saw Twitter as a new kind of diplomatic tool, an experiment in humanizing his office. The embassy already had an official Twitter account for news; he wanted to do something else.

He thought a lot about the role of an ambassador in the 21st century.

“A lot of people, when you listen to their jokes or their criticism, basically see the diplomat as a sort of elegant person uttering platitudes at cocktail parties or living their life wearing black tie,” he says. “In a society which is much more democratic and open, I try to show that I’m an ambassador — but a human being.”

He posts all his own tweets (almost 7,000 in French and English) with a few ground rules: He doesn’t criticize the politics of France or the United States, he doesn’t allow insults, and he answers his critics.

Araud tweeted explainers about Charlie Hebdo and posted this Thursday: “You can say anything about Charlie Hebdo: bad taste, gross, vulgar (some would refute theses adjectives) but racist never! The opposite!”

The satirical magazine, he says, is a lot like Mad magazine: adolescent, broad, outrageous, popular. It made fun of all religions, but mainly the Catholic Church. “As maybe a lapsed Catholic, I should say that I have been shocked several times by their caricatures, and I considered that it was bad taste,” Araud explains. “But at the same, you can’t put a limit on freedom of speech.”

And he offers a small history lesson: Unlike in the United States, which was founded on separation of church and state, criticizing religion has been at the core of French political debate since the revolution. “All the progressive part of the political life is, for historical reasons, anti-religious,” he explains.

On Friday, after French police stormed the kosher market filled with hostages, Araud tweeted: "Jews and journalists, the usual victims when the target is democracy, tolerance and enlightment."

“It’s a question where I’m personally quite sensitive,” says Araud, who has twice served in Israel. “It would be a moral, human, political failure if the French Republic was not able to protect its Jewish compatriots. For me, it’s central to my vision of life, to my vision of my country. If Jews are going to Israel because it’s their conviction, their Zionist commitment, that’s normal. But if they are going to Israel because they’re afraid in France, that’s something totally different — and it’s devastating.”

‘Bureaucratic samurai’

For the past five years, he was France’s representative to the United Nations, where he negotiated resolutions and peacekeeping agreements, and battled for human rights issues in the General Assembly.

"Don't let his epic charm fool you," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Powers told Vogue in November. "Gerard is a master strategist, a diplomatic and bureaucratic samurai, and one of the most authentic and authentically decent people to ever practice diplomacy."

Araud spent a year in Washington in 1987, when he worked at the embassy as a specialist on the Middle East and lived on Q Street between 14th and 15th streets NW, decades before the area was chock-a-block with luxury condominiums.

“Everybody was telling me I was crazy,” but he loved it. He founded a bridge club with 15 American friends, and he recently discovered that the club still exists — including some of the original members who invited him to play again: “The problem, of course, is my schedule.”

His living quarters in the nation’s capital now are a lot posher than his old place. When the multimillion-dollar renovation is complete next month, Araud will move into France’s storied Tudor Revival mansion in Kalorama, site of the exclusive Vanity Fair party every spring. His partner of many years, photographer Pascal Blondeau, is moving from New York to join him here: Araud is the first openly gay ambassador France has appointed to Washington, a job he acquired when he switched roles with his predecessor, François Delattre.

The two positions are “totally different,” he says. His small U.N. staff was quick, reactive, nimble; it felt like driving a Porsche. Washington? “It’s a 30-ton truck.” He has a huge staff, consulates all over the country and 300,000 Frenchmen living in this country. He asked his colleagues — many other ambassadors he has served with over the years — how to tackle the job: ‘The first question I asked is. “How can I make a difference?’ ” In the world of modern diplomacy and global communications, Araud was afraid the role of ambassador might be unnecessary.

That, too, changed last week. “It’s obvious, at least in the coming weeks or months, that counterterrorism will become much more the focus of my action here,” he says. “It will be the beginning of a longtime endeavor.”