15 FEBRUARY 2010


A recent visit by former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to a deserted U.N. Headquarters in New York to highlight the need for wider use of the French language could have been simply added to the pathetic surroundings, particularly that a few days later the Headquarters was officially ordered closed in an unprecedented administrative decision, because of a snow storm. Who would handle a sudden emergency elsewhere on the globe may be a question that Canadian General Dallaire of Rwanda fame is still pondering.

Monsieur Raffarin is a highly regarded envoy with a worthwhile assignment. To deal with it effectively, he will need to be "aux courant" with the facts on the ground as perceived by many sincere admirers of "Exclusivite Francaise" and the bulk of disappointed Francophones.

L'Esprit Francophone that had inspired and mobilized so many in earlier days has been in a coma for years. It may have been partially eroded by the predominance of English or -- more accurately -- American language in a new "hyperpower" world where even the French President seeks to spend his political holiday on the U.S. East Coast.

Yet, the main culprit was a compliant French establishment in Paris that allowed gorgeous Marianne to be transformed into a comic version of Lady Gaga. Gone are the days when a French ambassador to the U.N. would corner the highest regard of the international community when he is now perceived as merely looking for a job; if not for himself then for his colleague -- or indeed for his immediate boss. Gone are the days when Francophones like Gabriel d'Arboussier, Leopold Senghor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Abdo Diouf illuminated the world with exquisite style and impressive logic. Gone are the days when ambassadors from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the Maghreb, let alone Canada and Europe mobilized the enthusiastic troops within the Secretariat and the missions to ensure an equitable cultural balance, particularly between the two main official working languages: English and French.

More to the point, gone are the days when Presidents de Gaulle and Mitterrand insisted on a Secretary General to speak fluent French. It became merely a trade-in bargain: no veto if you appoint a French ambassador as Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping!

It took Ban Ki-moon only one sentence in French to get France's vote in the Security Council: "en travail ensemble" to a confirmed Peacekeeping bungler!

Let us quickly inject that a number of the French candidates were very qualified. For example, Ambassador Alain Miyet, the first head of Peacekeeping, proved to exercise an outstanding role not only in his designated field but throughout U.N. overall activities. He had a strategic overview and a professional grasp of media communications that carried him way above many of his other colleagues. But then came the obligatory Jean-Marie Guehenno whose failure is so glaring that after almost a decade within the Secretariat, very few staff outside his immediate section knew what he looked like. More relevant, he rarely SPOKE FRENCH. His attitude seemed to be: to get along, go along; he would agree to whatever interference by others in his own backyard, grinning and bearing it. As the highest ranking French U.N. official, he would share responsibility for the closure of the most crucial French/Francophone outpost: the U.N. Information Centre in Paris.

What could be more relevant to France's role within the U.N.'s cultural and communication system, what could be at least an indication of an "acte de presence" than the location in the heart of Paris, within UNESCO premises, of a U.N. Information Centre, established over the years with dedication, hard work and full collaboration of French NGO, the diplomatic and academic community. Yet, just after U.S. Secretary of Defense Rumsfield spoke of "Old Europe," key Information Centres in Athens, Copenhagen, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, and Madrid were closed. Though Secretary General Kofi Annan and his designated head of the Public Information Department took the decision, it was a French citizen who implemented the closure of the European Centres, including Paris. Not a word was heard from Guehenno; not a word from the Mission of France in New York; not a word from the stalwarts at the Quai d'Orsay!

The only outspoken defender of Paris and Francophonie was former Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, a very prudent statesman who gave Le Figaro an extensive interview criticizing the rash decision and exhorting French officials to stand up, or at least wake up. Not a word!

During the time of Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali there was a standard inside quip about the repeated request by President Mitterrand to find any job for anxious Socialist party member Bernard Kouchner. The current Foreign Ministry was then dubbed "Bernard-Bernard" along the line of our then Secretary General.

Indisputably, Monsieur Kouchner has a formidable record. He gives much more than he gets. At least he puts his heart -- let alone his huge ego?! -- in any assignment he takes. But, what is his predecessor Mr. Douste-Blazy doing for the U.N.?

Except for French diplomats, not many Francophones were seriously supported. Every effort was reserved for Quai d'Orsay colleagues. When the incompetent Guehenno finally had to leave, he was pushed to remain as an "Advisor" or something; just an excuse to stay in New York and park his BMW in the diplomatic spot reserved for the (Francophone) mission of Cameroon.

Then there was that short Permanent Representative with a very long name. Unfortunately, he came to the Mission of France in the shadow of two most successful diligent ambassadors: Dejamet and Levitte. The only shadow he sought was that of John Bolton, who thought that even President George Bush was not tough enough against the rest of the world. A photo on record shows the absolute glee with which "Ambassador de la Bonbonniere" welcomed the mention of his name by Dr. Condoleezza Rice during the adoption of Resolution 1701 as an adjunct to the U.S. Ambassador with the fiercest neo-con credentials.

Ambassador Ripert, who followed, was eagerly welcomed, particularly that he came with intimate knowledge of the U.N. since his father was Director for Development, the number 2 post under Secretary General de Ceullar. He did not last long, however, due to internal French politics. His name was initially given to head Peacekeeping, but then President Sarkozy's office reportedly selected Ambassador Alain LeRoy, who seems to be doing an excellent job in very difficult circumstances. But he has not yet grasped the intricacies of internal balances, particularly that his predecessor did not leave him enough keys, nor enough Francophones to count on. Ambassador Ripert was left twisting in the air for a while and when he was replaced he was found a U.N. job, also as an Advisor on some Asian issue.

As to the Francophone main event, the annual September dinner that used to be a joyful celebration, it has now turned into a dutiful social appointment in an overcharged agenda. The presiding Minister seems otherwise engaged but graciously attentive. His obligatory speech almost predictable. Surrounded by wives of two dignitaries on right and left, he would pay tribute to Francophone beauty. A response from a distinguished diplomat would wax nostalgic about the host's brilliant career and the speaker's special links within the French capital. A toast is, of course, obligatory. Only the venue changes, sometimes. The guest list is a scotch-taped mix of old and new -- whoever was needed at the time as long as they can pronounce: "Bonsoir."

Here we are now:

  • The U.N. Secretary General is NOT Francophone
  • His Spokesman is NOT Francophone
  • NO ONE senior in the Secretary General's office is Francophone
  • Except for the obligatory peacekeeping post (and favoured former diplomats in advisory roles), there is NO fluent Francophone HEAD of Department from a Francophone country
  • There is NO Francophone among the New York based heads of Agencies, Programmes and Funds like UNDP, UNICEF, and UNFPA

There is a NEW Permanent Representative of France, Ambassador Gerard Arnaud, a bilingual who presides over the Security Council for the month of February.

There is an assignment by distinguished French statesman Jean-Paul Raffarin. Let's wait and see. Meanwhile, we advise His Excellency not to hold his breath. As they say in Francophone Lebanon: "The trouble with the vinegar is from within!"