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article imageAmerican moves to reach out to French immigrant communities Special

By Michael Cosgrove     Dec 17, 2010 in Politics
France has been busy this week discussing the implications of an American embassy outreach strategy aimed at France’s Arab-Muslim communities. Here is an in-depth explanation of the reasons for this policy according to an American diplomat in France.
From “serious and intolerable interference” and “they should look after their own minority groups before poking their noses into our affairs” to “the USA is right, they understand the incredible amount of racism there is in France” and “they wouldn’t need to do this if our own governments did their job correctly”, many of the reactions to news concerning efforts by the U.S. to foster improved mutual understanding between France’s immigrant population and America have been impassioned and they are often polarized.
The outreach strategy hit the headlines in France following the publication of a cable sent by the American embassy in Paris to Washington which discussed it in some detail. The cable had been given to the press by WikiLeaks in the context of the ‘cableleaks’ affair.
But what exactly are American intentions here? When and why did the United States embark upon this initiative? What does it consist of?
To learn more, I interviewed an American diplomat based in France by phone. The diplomat asked for his identity to be kept anonymous, as he is not in a position to speak officially on behalf of the government of the United States.
"First of all, this cannot really be termed as being an initiative," he said. "It’s not as if some policy-maker somewhere suddenly decided one day that that’s what we would do. This is just a natural evolution in our relations with France that has been going on since the middle of last century.”
The diplomat explained that, as is the case for other countries, American policies have changed over the years in reaction to events and that the Cold War saw America trying to cement relations with countries around the world in order to combat the spread of Communism. The resulting fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led many people to believe, wrongly in his view, that there were no more wars to fight.
"That changed on Sept. 11, 2001, however, and policymakers realized there was a lot we could do in terms of our relations with the Muslim world and that includes Muslims in France," he said. "However, it's not true we sat down on 9/12 to adopt a specific policy. We have always been naturally interested in French society, that interest has never ceased, and it is ongoing, as are shifts in our approach due to world events.”
On the subject of the goals and objectives of what the cable calls the outreach strategy, as well as its content, he pointed out that the United States believes in French democracy and that America is naturally interested in helping to preserve it in any way it can by using “people to people diplomacy.”
“Diplomacy isn’t only a matter of contact between diplomats and politicians, it also exists on a people to people level and that includes getting out there and contacting the population," he said. "All countries do it, and France, with its well-known and centuries-old policy of promoting its cultural values around the world, does it too. Our current interest in France’s Arab-Muslim communities takes on many forms and in many areas, with exchange visits being an important factor. We facilitate two-way exchange visits in a large number of fields, from public health and crisis management to journalism, business, renewable energy and cultural issues just being a few examples. We also seek to identify potential future key players in all areas of French society in order to help them to understand the United States. The United States is after all a great friend and ally of France and we would like things to stay that way. Getting to know people and fostering good relations and mutual understanding is just one way of doing that.”
I wonder aloud about how the French authorities view these exchanges.
“They see them in a positive light and, moreover, they cannot happen without their cooperation," he said. "We can’t just wander into a high school or college here and invite students over to America. We maintain close contacts with the French education authorities and any other bodies with which we need to keep in contact in order to organize our activities. We need the cooperation of the authorities and we need networks to help make things happen.”
He is candid on the subject of the criticism that this outreach policy sometimes elicits, particularly accusations of foreign interference. “They are right. Who are we to interfere? But we are not interfering, and we are not trying to re-engineer French society or foment change. Our goal is simply to engage all sections of society in dialogue. Again, France and America are friends and allies so it is only natural that we should work towards maintaining that relationship. Also, our work is appreciated out in the field by those people we organize exchanges with.”
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