Ambassador Gérard Araud’s column on New York City in L’Express
“I was happy in this city”
Ambassador Gérard Araud enjoys “the anonymity of New York streets where everything is possible.”
Before becoming Ambassador of France in Washington, Gérard Araud held the same office at the UN in New York. An expert on the megacity, he shared his very personal impressions with L’Express.
I had the honor, privilege and good fortune to spend five years as head of the French Mission to the United Nations in New York. Five very full years, with many crises that France sought to end by playing a key role at the Security Council. We saw successes, such as resolution 1975, which helped put an end to the 10-year political deadlock in Côte d’Ivoire and stabilize a country that could have suffered the tragic fate of Liberia and Sierra Leone; difficult decisions such as resolutions 1970 and1973 on Libya; France’s strong commitments in support of Mali (five resolutions) and the Central African Republic; and failures with respect to Syria (four Russian and Chinese vetoes) and Ukraine.
Five thrilling years, though they were largely spent in never-ending meetings where I desperately tried to get my colleagues to open the Security Council curtains so that I could see the East River and the New York sky. Lunches and dinners with the 192 ambassadors to the UN, whom I had to convince of the appropriateness of our foreign policy. Stranger still were my meetings with American philanthropists, who, after informing me of their very generous contributions to UN campaigns – as we stood next to a Picasso or a Rothko – would advise me to take a helicopter to get away for the weekend or a private plane to go on vacation. What would they have said if they had known that I had a subway ticket in my pocket?
New York for me was first and foremost the rectangle between 42nd Street and 47th Street and 1st Avenue and the river where the UN’s Le Corbusier and Niemeyer buildings are located. My office was also here at the corner of 2nd Avenue, on the 44th floor where I was able to see incredible metallic blue skies, picture-postcard sunsets and storms straight out of a disaster movie.
In other words, I lived in a bubble that happened to be in New York – a bubble with its own language, mannerisms and customs, where the only contact with the surrounding city sometimes seemed to be limited to the traffic jams caused by meetings, especially during the General Assembly every September, when more than a hundred heads of state and government gather together for more than a week.
French bakeries taken by storm
It’s no coincidence that this permanent meeting of leaders and diplomats, as well as journalists, NGOs and delegations from all over the world, takes place on the banks of the East River. I don’t know many cities that can conjure up, to such an extent, the world’s chaos – the cacophony of horns and sirens, the constant bustle of passers-by running and jostling each other, holding their coffee in paper cups, traffic jams at 3 a.m. and people of all nationalities who coexist, who are sometimes unaware of each other, but who all believe in the American dream. Just look at the list of restaurants and you’ll understand: I challenge you to find an international cuisine that’s not on it.
But luckily even the UN sometimes takes weekends off, and the ambassador can disappear into the anonymity of New York streets where everything is possible, where all manner of attire and appearances is accepted and no one ever judges or stares.
Life in New York included excursions to Brooklyn, where I’d suddenly feel quite old and a bit silly without a tattoo, although I was proud to meet its many successful young French residents. And it included the Upper East Side, where I’d feel quite young and relieved not to have a tattoo, and where I enjoyed meeting the many French people—in line at the French bakery, of course—who had lived there for ages. I can’t think of a single good French bakery in New York that wasn’t taken by storm.
It included restaurants – always full, regardless of the hour, always noisy, with always-smiling servers who would wax euphoric at each choice (“fantastic”; “it’s my favorite one”) and where one’s ego would get a nice boost when a raucous table of young women straight out of Sex and the City would sometimes buy you a drink. A word to the wise: Make sure never to ask the server who’s pouring your water for bread, and never ask the one taking your order for water, etc. You will have neither water nor bread and will discombobulate an eager and friendly team.
It included the Metropolitan Opera, with its 25 productions a year, where you can hear the world’s best singers (ah, Jonas Kauffman in “Die Walkyrie”!). The staging, on the other hand, is designed not to scare off the ultra-rich octogenarians that subsidize the house—which means that the boldest sets hark to the 1980s. So-called modern dance here hasn’t been modern for two decades in Paris, Berlin or London. Suddenly you see the up-sides of government intervention in cultural life.
And it included weekend trips to places like Shelter Island, in the Hamptons. There I met a generous Frenchwoman (with an accent still so thick you could cut it with a knife) who started out with nothing and – proving that the word “entrepreneur” comes from our language –went on to open a number of shops that have that little French touch that our American friends find so irresistible. Go see her!
I was happy in New York - happy to have this wonderful job at the head of a young, effective, enthusiastic team, serving France at the United Nations, but also happy to live in the city. And proud that my country is fully committed to convincing the Security Council to bring an end to the unspeakable atrocities that have been described to us. But I also owe my happiness to the city itself, to its big-hearted inhabitants and to all the French people I met there who are thriving, but who haven’t forgotten their country. And happy, too, that in my new job as ambassador to the United States, I will often have the opportunity to return to the city to further expand – in every field – the already deep relationship between the U.S. and France, particularly in the economic and cultural spheres.