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French Ambassador Describes What He's Watching For On Biden's 1st Trip Overseas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. and the U.K. are signing a new Atlantic Charter today outlining common values, signaling a renewal of the special relationship between the two nations. President Biden is in the U.K. today, Day 2 of a carefully choreographed trip to make the case that America is back, rejoining, recommitting to international alliances after four years of Trump and America first. After Britain, Biden heads to Brussels to meet with NATO leaders, EU leaders, what Biden calls like-minded democracies - among them, France.

Philippe Etienne is France's ambassador to Washington, and he's on the line now to discuss what France will be watching for on this, Biden's first overseas trip as president. Ambassador, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PHILIPPE ETIENNE: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much, Mary Louise, for having me, and especially today, since yesterday, we have opened France to American citizens. So it's a good opportunity.

KELLY: You're referring to the pandemic restrictions being lifted. So Americans are now welcomed back to France.

ETIENNE: Yeah. And also to the fact that vaccination in France, in Europe in general, is really very successful, like in the U.S.

KELLY: Yes, I know that France - you're now at about 20%, was the latest number I just saw - 20% of the population there fully vaccinated. I'm sure that I speak for many Americans in saying we will look forward to our next - to being able to get on a flight and going to visit.

Let me turn you to travel of a more presidential nature and to the broader relationship. I opened by mentioning Biden is signing this charter today, the renewal of the special relationship with the United Kingdom. What about the relationship with France? In the nearly five months since Biden became President Biden, has there been a shift?

ETIENNE: Well, France is the oldest ally, so the relationship is increasing. We have a very, very good and even thriving economic partnership. But also politically, indeed, things are moving on, and we have a lot of commonalities which will be exposed during the upcoming summits.

KELLY: Well, let me follow on the politics. And I'm asking because France has seen firsthand the U.S. threatening to pull out of NATO, pulling out of the Paris climate accord, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Do you feel you now have a reliable partner in the U.S.?

ETIENNE: We can do very much, and we will do very much. For instance, one priority is the vaccination of the world against the virus.

KELLY: Working together on the pandemic - but I do wonder if you are hedging your bets in any way because you must be looking ahead and saying, OK, four years from now, you could have a new U.S. president who will rip up everything that President Biden is agreeing to right now.

ETIENNE: As you signaled, U.S. is back into the Paris climate agreement. It is an important example because now we can lay very solid foundations which will last, I am sure, whatever the result of elections will be in the coming years.

KELLY: You mentioned the G-7 meetings, which are happening in Britain, and then, of course, the NATO meetings to follow in Brussels. And I want to ask about the alliance because it is not only former President Trump who has raised questions about the alliance. Your president, President Macron, declared NATO brain-dead not so long ago. How would you describe NATO today? Coming back to life?

ETIENNE: Well, first, I want to draw your attention to the fact that there is a third summit, which is a summit between the United States and the European Union, also in Brussels, like NATO. And the two have a link because the EU is a more and more reliable partner and including in all fields related to security, which is not only defense, but also all things linked to our sovereignty, to our security worldwide. And yes, my president said before the last NATO summit in London that we had to work very much to re-establish a political cohesion inside NATO allies. We had had some...

KELLY: He said - I mean, if I just may put it...

ETIENNE: Yes, please.

KELLY: He put it considerably less diplomatically. He said, and I'll quote, "we are experiencing the brain death of NATO."

ETIENNE: Yes, right. But we - it was clear - and he said that at the time he didn't mean the military, the interoperability between our military. He mentioned the lack of political consultancy with the U.S. administration, but also it was just after Turkey came into the northeastern part of Syria and went against the Kurds, who are our allies against the terrorist groups. So it is - obviously it was a proof of a lack of consistency and a lack of a common vision between allies.

KELLY: So this is what prompts my question to you today, which is, how would you describe the state of the alliance today, its relevance today?

ETIENNE: After this, we had a group of wise persons who worked, and we expect from this NATO summit working for a new strategic concept, NATO 2030, proposed by the secretary general. We expect that we will go for more consistency, obviously, with this administration, with the recommitment by President Biden to the alliance, to - the solidarity between allies is one of the very positive, very important elements.

KELLY: The last stop on President Biden's trip is Geneva, where he will sit down with Vladimir Putin. And I nodded to this, it seems to me, very deliberate choreography. Biden wants to project that he arrives in Geneva with the full force of Europe's like-minded democracies backing him, that it is not just the U.S. standing up to Putin, taking a firm line with Putin, but all of you. Is that true of France?

ETIENNE: Like President Biden, like Secretary Blinken have said, we think we must be firm when Russia takes actions which are unacceptable. But on the other hand, we have to have a dialogue with Russia. So indeed, the fact that this summit will take place in Geneva is important, and the fact that it will take place after the consultations between the United States and its allies is also important because...

KELLY: Well - I'll just push you on the Russia question and put to you the same question that I've put to many American officials, which is - there's always talk of taking a firm line, and yet Russia's behavior does not seem to change. Does any of it work? Because Putin is still running Russia, and Russia is continuing to conduct cyberattacks, to hack, to conduct violations of human rights, imprison opposition leaders and so forth.

ETIENNE: You are - you're right. We must be clear-eyed. But it is - to be firm means concretely to take actions and to react or to prevent. And we do that. We have reacted. We have reacted strongly. We have taken actions. So it is not only we say we are firm in words, but we also have to dialogue. There is the Iranian negotiation, for instance. There is a lot of other issues where we - anyway, we have to negotiate, negotiate with Russia in particular and with others. So this combination is not only the only way for us, but it doesn't mean there is only one pillar. The two pillars of firmness and dialogue are working.

KELLY: The case for diplomacy being made there by a diplomat, Philippe Etienne. He is France's ambassador to the U.S. Ambassador, thank you.

ETIENNE: Thank you so much. Thank you, Mary Louise, for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.