The day before Bastille Day (14 July), Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to the US, was standing outside his residence in Washington, DC, in front of the – or rather, a – Statue of Liberty.
The original is still located safely on Liberty Island in New York Harbour. But 136 years after the famed monument landed in the US from France, its “little sister,” as Étienne called it, has arrived in the American capital.
The new statue – a bronze replica of the 1878 plaster model, a 16th of the original’s size – was in New York for 4 July, US Independence Day, before making its way to Washington, DC, for Bastille Day, the national day of France. The plan, the ambassador explained, is to keep it in the capital for at least ten years.
Étienne is no stranger to new starts. In the years before coming to serve as ambassador to the US in September 2019, he was variously France’s permanent representative to the European Union, France’s ambassador to Germany, and, in the two years prior to his current post, diplomatic adviser to the French president, Emmanuel Macron. His predecessor in Washington, DC, Gérard Araud, said of the US before departing: “You are offering us a test case of what happens when a populist is elected in a liberal democracy. So thank you very much.”
Étienne, who has been in Washington for almost two years, arrived before the coronavirus pandemic, before we donned masks and socially distanced (or didn’t), and before 600,000 Americans died of Covid-19. When he arrived, Biden hadn’t yet won the presidency, Trump hadn’t yet denied the election’s legitimacy, and people hadn’t stormed the Capitol to try to stop Congress from certifying the results.
I asked him, given all that has changed since his arrival, if he now views the French-US relationship differently.
The ongoing pandemic, he noted, is “an opportunity to underline how this cooperation is important”. It isn’t only that France and the US both still need to protect and vaccinate “our own people”, he explained; they also need to work together to figure out solutions related to the production and distribution of vaccines “all over the world”.
It is also a period, he said, where the world has witnessed afresh the value of democracies and of defending them. Liberty, freedom – these, he said, with little Lady Liberty poised behind him, are the US and France’s “core values”.
“It is a time to remember,” he added, “that we have inherited these values from the people who were before us, and we have to defend them, and to build back our societies.”
In this, the French ambassador sounded not unlike the American president. “Build back better” was a presidential campaign slogan for Joe Biden, and is now the name of his three-pronged plan to “rescue, recover, and rebuild the country”. A few hours after I spoke to Étienne, the US president gave an address on the importance of voting rights, and on passing legislation that will protect all Americans against voter suppression. (Notably, however, the president did not mention abolishing the filibuster – without which voting rights are unlikely to pass the Senate.)
The statue, like the original, is also meant to be a symbol of friendship between the two countries. I asked if there were areas where Étienne, as ambassador, saw that friendship as being especially strong – and which areas are in need of attention.
“This French-American partnership is very strong in many fields. In the cultural field, but also in the economic, investment partnership. Also in security, military cooperation,” he replied. “Of course we have to develop, for the future, an even more ambitious agenda, not only between France and the US, but also between Europe and the US.”
There are many challenges, he said, but the two he named specifically – and to which he believes the US-French relationship can be a particular asset – are vaccination and combatting climate change. (Though, as I have written before, the steps taken so far on these issues have been criticised by progressives and believers in multilateralism alike for not being ambitious enough.)
As well as being a symbol of friendship between the US and France, however, the original statue also somewhat accidently became a symbol of immigration. A poetry contest was held as part of efforts to fundraise for the statue’s pedestal and in 1883 the words of the winner, Emma Lazarus, who was descended from Jewish immigrants, were published: they saw Liberty as a “Mother of Exiles”, welcoming Europe’s tired, huddled masses by lifting her lamp beside a golden door. What, I asked Étienne, did he hope this latest statue might unexpectedly come to represent?
“The success of our partnership,” he said, “the European and American partnership in the world we will face.” Success in giving answers to questions that we don’t even know now will be posed to us.
“Doing this,” he said, referring to the second statue, “is important to celebrate [our] history… and also to underline that it is important for the future.
“We cannot know exactly what is expecting us,” he added. “But we know we will have to work together.”