European Affairs

or surprising French high school students by bringing along Hollywood star Samuel L. Jackson for a discussion about his growing up in the segregated American South. These are but a few of the initiatives taken by the Obama envoy. Since taking up his post in summer 2009, Rivkin has pursued a vigorous public effort to connect with the poorer, multiracial suburbs of major French cities.  Les banlieues, as they are called in French, have become a code word for largely-unassimilated, mainly Muslim immigrant communities.  Too often feeling ignored or mishandled by local authorities, by the central government and by mainstream political parties, these marginalized groups often become resentful, socially explosive sources of the ethnic tensions that roil France. Now the U.S. government is trying to help France defuse these changes by providing encouragement and real-life models for minority activists to learn how to use American techniques and help their communities succeed, integrate and -- who knows? -- perhaps one day lead their nations.

In what amounts to a significant but largely unreported shift in U.S. diplomacy, embassies are broadening their traditional focus on national elites and established leaders in politics, trade-unions and the like, and expanding the mix to include under-represented minorities. In France, this new focus has been dubbed by Rivkin as a “Minority Engagement Strategy” aimed at helping potential leaders in the Muslim banlieues learn the tools of U.S.-style democratic change. Part of this outreach (and its political acceptability) is that it includes mainstream French leaders, hoping to raise consciousness in their ranks about the advantages of overcoming social exclusion and promoting real diversity and not just pay lip service to the notion of it.  This new U.S. approach is now being applied in many democratic countries (and in some, notably in the Middle East, that aspire to be democratic) – an effort to walk the walk that goes with the pro-democracy talk of public diplomacy emanating from Washington.

Nowhere is this departure more emblematic than in France, where it seems to be succeeding thanks to the way in which U.S. practice on assimilation of minorities seems to overlap with French rhetoric on diversity and equal opportunity for all citizens. Tellingly, in France and elsewhere, as the U.S. works on bringing this new dimension of minority outreach, the State Department has changed the representation in many of its major foreign programs – for instance, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Marking its 70th anniversary this year, this program has changed the composition of it intake of visitor, shifting from its traditional recruitment among established elites (several recent French presidents including the current incumbent were youthful beneficiaries of the program) and now targeting promising young people from Muslim and other minority communities. Nowadays they – and no longer just the traditional elites – are accepted for each foreign country’s carefully-selected contingent of promising younger citizens to visit relevant places in the U.S.  Over the years, this program has brought more than 4,000 foreigners on these smartly-guided tours of different facets of American life.  Now – and especially since the election of President Barack Obama -- the demographics of the program are radically changing with an influx of youthful or young professional “outsiders” that the U.S. embassy considers “promising” in their own communities and perhaps eventually on a larger, even national stage. (As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently noted, many of the leaders of the Egyptian movement that overthrew the old regime in Egypt had “benefited from the visitation program” – by which she meant the State Department’s IVLP outreach and training.)  The idea is to expose these guests, first hand, to U.S. political practices that have fostered democratic change and social integration instead the ghetto-ization and raw confrontation that minorities have often faced in France.

This new focus is summed up in a passage from a U.S. embassy-Paris cable recently published by Wikileaks:

“We will continue and expand our efforts to bring minority leaders from the U.S. to France, working with these American leaders to convey an honest sense of their experience to French minority and non-minority leaders alike. When we send French leaders to America, we will include, as often as possible, a component of their trip that focuses on equal opportunity. In the Embassy, we will continue to invite a broad spectrum of French society to our events, and avoid, as appropriate, hosting white-only events, or minority-only events. We will be inclusive, working in this way to break down barriers, facilitate communication, and expand networks. By bringing together groups who would not otherwise interact together, the Embassy will continue to use its cachet to create networking opportunities that cut through traditional cultural and social barriers in France.”

The French case is particularly interesting because the France has traditionally been wary any “U.S. influence” liable to infiltrate the nation. But the current innovation in U.S. outreach seems to enjoy a benign reception and even encouragement in Paris both in government and in the Muslim community. In fact, this American policy seems to be benefiting from an astute analysis in Paris of domestic political imperatives in a globalizing world, and also from deft U.S. diplomatic management. Part of this U.S. policy is to track future movers and shakers – just as it has always done and is now trying to do in new and different less-established circles.  The program goes beyond “talent-scouting and wooing” to include a more ambitious, grass-roots effort aimed at actively encouraging leaders of minorities in France and in other countries across Europe and seeking to help them learn more about how to take full advantage of the potential for democratic change in their societies. Indeed, in many ways this U.S. move could have been modeled on Obama’s career as a “community organizer” among minorities in Chicago. In fact, it was the Bush administration that started the idea of trying to export some of the American experience of minority integration to other countries in Europe and the Middle East: now it is touted in Washington as part of the tool kit of “smart power” as advocated by Mrs. Clinton to creatively promote transatlantic cooperation and American diplomatic interests.

France, with its five to six million Muslims (an estimated one-tenth of the population) is obviously an important test case for this newer form of outreach. “Diversity” in France has been official dogma that in practice is often largely ignored. Perhaps because the current French government is aware of this contradiction, the U.S. embassy has made no secret of its work: officials have relied on “an annual public affairs budget of $3 million” to sponsor or fund a large number of small-scale programs, including “urban renewal projects, music festivals and conferences.” They have “formed a network of partnerships with local governments, advocacy groups, entrepreneurs, students and cultural leaders in the troubled immigrant enclaves outside France’s major cities” – to coach them, support them and encourage them – with a view to turning cultural outsiders and social rebels into part of broadening French national elite. Just how direly restricted the current French elite can appear, not only to Americans but also to French leaders themselves, emerges from another passage in the Wikileaks cable from U.S. embassy-Paris:

“France has long championed human rights and the rule of law, both at home and abroad, and justifiably perceives itself as a historic leader among democratic nations. This history and self-perception will serve us well as we implement the strategy outlined here, in which we press France toward a fuller application of the democratic values it espouses. This strategy is necessary because French institutions have not proven themselves flexible enough to adjust to the country's increasingly heterodox demography. Very few minorities hold leadership positions in France's public institutions…as a mirror of the crisis of representation in France, the National Assembly, among its 577 deputies, has a single black member from metropolitan France (excluding its island territories), but does not have any elected representatives of Muslim or Arab extraction, though this minority group alone represents approximately 10 percent of the population. The Senate has two Muslim Senators (out of 343), but no black representatives and only a few Senators hail from other ethnic or religious minorities. Sabeg also noted that none of France's approximately 180 Ambassadors is black, and only one is of North African descent.”

With this approach, the U.S. embassy has built up what is sometimes said to be one of the best networks and contacts with minorities in civil society. One prominent young Muslim leader from a Paris suburb told Le Monde newspaper that he felt “better known in Washington than in downtown Paris.” Thus, in June 2010, the embassy co-sponsored a seminar for French participants on how to help minorities build a political base. For two days, Karen Finney, a communication strategist for the Democratic Party, and Cornell Belcher, who had worked as a pollster for the Democratic Party, coached seventy local elected representatives and members of associations on how to communicate, fund and manage a political campaign

The desire to involve a more diverse audience is particularly strong in the realm of people-to-people diplomacy, especially trips to the U.S. that are organized, funded or facilitated by the embassy in Paris. Beyond the prestigious IVLP professional exchange effort (whose alumni include President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister François Fillon), U.S. officials have also encouraged smaller endeavors, such as partially financing the trip for eight young hip hop artists as part of a musical exchange program in Harlem; or by taking care of logistics for Reda Didi, founder and head of the think tank Graines de France that seeks to help minority politicians. Didi had been invited, along with other colleagues, to come to Chicago by William Burns, now an Illinois State Senator and a former deputy campaign manager of Barack Obama, to learn more about community organizing.

Updating traditional policies of outreach did not happen overnight, instead it came about in response to a number of key factors. Even before 2000, according to Judith Baroudy, the Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs of the Paris embassy, American officials believed that they were not getting a full picture of France, and that it could not just rely on the traditional interlocutors. They understood that French society was evolving, and that they needed to reach out to all citizens, notably those from les banlieues. The major urban riots in 2005 and in 2007 served to validate this perspective and to encourage the embassy to track the evolution of the poorer suburbs more closely. By many accounts, it has done an excellent job doing so. “I am always amazed by the quality of the information collected by the embassy, despite operating with limited means,” explains Luc Bronner, journalist at Le Monde.

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 brought sharp attention in the U.S. to the threat of potential terrorism coming from les banlieues – or by extension from the ranks of 15 million Muslims living in Europe. Washington felt that their situation could no longer be ignored by the U.S. and its embassies. Counter-terrorist officials worried, at first, that the U.S. could be vulnerable to the threat of radicals with European passports coming to commit attacks: many Europeans could visit freely thanks to the visa-waiver program. In this view, France deserved special attention because it has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Subsequently, the emphasis in American diplomacy evolved and broadened into an effort at building bridges with the Muslim world, echoing the cooperative attitude suggested by President Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009. American embassies in Europe were instructed to be open to Muslims, to court second- and third-generation immigrants, and to reach out to minorities for whom America had too often, as one official said, been reduced to an aggressive image and “become a voodoo doll”  to be attacked for everything that goes wrong for Muslims and Arabs.

The need to build ties with Muslims and minorities took an urgent turn in the case of France after the searing split between Paris and Washington over the Iraq war. The conflict led to the rise of anti-American sentiments in the country, and a pervading feeling within les banlieues that the U.S. was at war with the Muslim world. Connecting more with France’s diversity thus came under the normal purview of public diplomacy, seeking to dissipate misunderstandings and misinformation, and to improve the image of the U.S. abroad. The outreach – and notably the trips – seem to be succeeding in allowing French opinion leaders (now including those in minorities) to discover that the U.S. as a  “country is more complex than a media cliché,” according to JustinVaïsse, a French senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Undoubtedly, the diplomacy of influence and outreach pursued by American embassies throughout Europe became more pronounced with the arrival of the Obama administration. Not only did his election significantly improve perceptions of the U.S. in Europe, the image of a first African-American president also profoundly affected minorities’ attitudes, including in France. It acted both as a source of immense pride and a mirror to the frustrations they faced in their own countries. American officials in Europe are keen to help, and to share the lessons from their country’s difficult experience with race relations and civil rights. They want, according to Deborah MacLean, public diplomacy officer at the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, to “encourage these [minority] youths to realize that it is okay to be different.”

In this new U.S. push, the outreach to encourage diversity – spurred by the evolution of French society, the threat of terrorism and U.S. public diplomacy – U.S. diplomats seem convinced that the French elites will inevitably change to be more inclusive, that those currently on the periphery of the system will become influential tomorrow, according to sources cited by journalist Luc Bronner in an article in Le Monde. Moreover, according to Bronner and to Reda Didi, the embassy -- by providing a psychological boost and recognition to these movers and shakers, who often feel neglected by their own authorities -- is hoping that it will favor in the long-run the emergence of leaders who will act as counter-weights to any radical discourse.

Unsurprisingly, the American message of hope has not always proven to everyone’s liking, nor has it always received good coverage in the French press. Thus, an article in the Paris tabloid Le Parisien warned about the risk that perhaps the CIA was infiltrating the suburbs. The embassy outreach also received some unwanted but apparently undamaging attention when the Wikileaks disclosures brought to light cables on the Minority Program, including the one cited above. Officials from the Paris embassy, for their part, downplay any hidden agenda or even threatening undertones that might be imputed to their outreach program, to correct misperceptions and respond to criticisms. They emphasize that they are careful to avoid doing anything that could embarrass French authorities.  Quite the contrary, they are partnering with French officials and organizations in their outreach efforts and emphasizing that they are working with all of France.

Summing up, this outreach program in France and elsewhere seems to be succeeding so far as smart and inexpensive people-to-people diplomacy that the French government finds helpful for its own ambitions and also promotes transatlantic cooperation, including among Muslims and other minorities. The U.S. investment seems to show, according to Vaïsse, an optimistic view of French society -- that it can and will be able to overcome the challenges of integration. It is noteworthy that this U.S. program continues to promote the value of prizing minorities as a real potential asset for a democratic society at a time when President Sarkozy – together with Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron – have been publicly sounding a death knell for multiculturalism as a part of their nations’ social contracts.


Garret Martin is an Editor at Large for European Affairs