The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It will be a total disaster’ if Marine Le Pen wins the French election, says France’s U.S. envoy

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.

Gérard Araud, France's highly regarded ambassador to the United States, didn't mince words when I asked him what would happen if Marine Le Pen won the country's upcoming presidential election.

"In diplomatic terms, I would say it will be a total disaster," said Araud. He explained that should Le Pen make good on her vows to remove France from the European Union and the eurozone, these departures would trigger a "political earthquake" in the West.

"It means the collapse of the E.U., because the E.U. without France doesn’t make any sense," he said. "And it means the collapse of the euro and a financial crisis, which will have consequences throughout the world."

Araud spoke with Today's WorldView on Wednesday at the French embassy, a vast and secluded compound on the leafy fringes of Georgetown. Just a day earlier, another French ambassador had seemingly broken diplomatic protocol to protest Le Pen. Thierry Dana, France's envoy in Japan, published an op-ed in Le Monde saying he would not serve in a government run by the far-right.

"If the pieces of the French tragedy which are being put in place were to lead to her election, I would stand aside from any diplomatic role," wrote Dana. Araud, known for his eclectic and pointed commentary on Twitter, tweeted praise of Dana's "excellent" article.

Le Pen, an ultra-nationalist who takes a hardline stance on immigration and Islam, stands her best chance yet to become president. For now, she is still likely to lose a potential run-off vote. But in the wake of last year's seismic political upheavals, it would be foolish to write her off.

As Araud's tenure as France's representative in the United States draws to an end, the 64-year-old can perhaps afford to be outspoken. A career diplomat, he has spent more than a decade in the U.S. in various posts, including a stint as the French ambassador to the United Nations. He has watched with interest as his counterparts in Washington come to grips with the new reality of life under President Trump.

"This city was in denial that something was happening," said Araud, gesturing to the capital's wonks and officialdom. "This city woke up on the ninth of November and it’s still under shock."

Araud, too, was stunned by Trump's election last year. The upset victory, coupled with Britain's earlier vote to quit the European Union, shook his own core convictions and predictions for French politics.

"'Till Nov. 8, when I was asked whether our [own] far-right candidate would be elected, my answer was 'no.' Suddenly, I felt that I couldn’t have the same answer," Araud said. He added that Trump's victory signaled "that something major was happening in western democracies, that Brexit was not an accident, that we were facing a global crisis and that the world of our certainties was collapsing." (Araud said as much on Twitter at the time, provoking enough of a firestorm that he was compelled to delete the tweets.)

Like many other diplomats in Washington, Araud says it's too early to draw any real conclusions about the shape of U.S. foreign policy under Trump. But officials in European capitals have expressed general alarm over Trump's "America First" doctrine, a vision of the global order that seems a radical rejection of longstanding American policies.

"My advice to my authorities is to say, 'try to forget the tweets and wait for the real policy,'" said Araud. He stressed that he has "not had any hint" from the new administration that France's close relationship to the United States will change.

"I personally met Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis and his first sentence to me was that the French were the best allies of the U.S. on the battlefield right now," said Araud, a reference to French counterterrorism efforts in Syria, Iraq and North Africa. Mattis, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have all sought to reassure their European counterparts that American commitments won't change. Next week's visit to Washington by German Chancellor Angela Merkel may also generate more positive soundbites.

But Araud is also struck by the pronounced polarization that has set in on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I have spent twelve years of my life in [the United States], but I have never felt the sort of paranoid frenzy that I see now on both sides — the sort of take-no-prisoners [approach to politics] and conspiracy theories," he said. "What happened with the election comes on the top of a radicalization process that we are facing everywhere. In Europe, also, our political life is much more radicalized than it was fifteen or twenty years ago."

While Araud is sanguine about the social tensions and economic inequities that have led us to this moment of crisis, he also expressed bewilderment with those in the United States — including leading ideologues in the Trump administration — who seem to be cheering the unraveling of the European Union and the wider international liberal order.

"When you talk about the liberal order, it is a Western order, an American-led order," said Araud, before embarking on a bit of a history lesson. "The European Union basically has two godfathers: One is the president of the United States and the other one is the pope." In the 1950s, Washington and the Catholic Church championed European integration as a bulwark against communism.

"So it’s a bit paradoxical to see the Americans joining the adversaries of what is an American order," he said. "That's a bit weird."

[Read the full newsletter for Araud's comments on Russia and Muslim integration.]

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.