French ambassador in Charlotte: US, Europe must fight terrorism together

France’s ambassador to the U.S. called for cooperation between the U.S. and Europe to fight terrorism, during a visit to Charlotte that coincided with a series of deadly bombings in the Belgian capital city of Brussels.

“We’re engaged in a long-term battle with terrorism,” said Gérard Araud, who was on his first visit to Charlotte. “But life has to go on.”

Araud drew parallels between the rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and the surge of far-right nationalism in France and other European countries. He pointed to the decline of manufacturing jobs in the West, a fear of immigrants, distrust of “elites” and concerns about economic and physical security driving the upheaval in politics.

“Why in the Western societies is ‘Trumpism’ a trans-Atlantic phenomenon?” said Araud, who visited the city at the invitation of the World Affairs Council of Charlotte and honorary French Consul Laura Meyer Wellman.

“We have in our societies the losers of globalization, the blue-collar workers whose plants are closed and don’t have the training to work in the new economy,” Araud said during an interview with the Observer. “They are struggling, and I guess that’s part of the attraction of Trump or part of the attraction of our far right. Which means, instead of saying these guys are morons or fascists, we have to worry: If this new economy’s not creating enough jobs, or the right jobs, what does it mean for the future of our democracy?”

Much of Araud’s visit was focused on the challenges facing Europe and France: anemic economic growth, millions of migrants from Syria and other countries in the Middle East, a tense relationship with Russia, and terror attacks.

Terrorists struck Brussels on Tuesday morning, detonating bombs in the city’s international airport and at a subway stop. Belgian authorities said 34 people were killed and more than 200 injured, many seriously. The attacks were the latest in a series of terror attacks that have struck capitals from Paris to Ankara, Turkey, in recent months.

Paris was struck twice by terror attacks last year. In November, a wave of coordinated attacks killed 130 people, and in January 2015, terrorists killed a dozen people at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. France faces controversies around civil liberties similar to those in the U.S., where the FBI and Apple have tangled over encryption, and revelations about National Security Agency snooping have drawn outrage.

“The balance is shifting towards security at the expense of civil liberties,” Araud said.

Araud said greater cooperation is needed within Europe and between the U.S. and France, which have increased their intelligence-sharing capabilities. France has several thousand troops fighting terrorism in Africa, and it has participated in airstrikes on ISIS-affiliated targets in Iraq and Syria.

He said the destabilization of the Middle East over the past decade can be traced to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Araud called “one of the worst geopolitical blunders in the history of mankind,” because it upset the region’s balance of power.

But Araud also talked about the tension felt by those who still want to see the U.S. exercise significant leadership in world affairs, despite their opposition to the Iraq war. America’s reduced role and delay in responding to crises such as the Syrian civil war and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine are a break with the past, Araud said. On Monday, Trump also said the U.S. might have to reconsider its role in NATO, a cornerstone of Western security for decades, because of the alliance’s costs.

“Since 1945, we have never had such crises where the U.S. basically didn’t intervene,” said Araud. “You feel it, after the George W. (Bush) adventures. … I think in (the U.S.), there is a feeling we were engaged too much, and it didn’t work.

“It’s worrying,” he said. “We are complaining when the Americans are overbearing, and we are also complaining when the Americans aren’t there. … If you don’t have a gendarme of the world, the hooligans are much more dangerous.”

Araud said the U.S. finds itself in a situation it hasn’t faced since the end of World War II, when the American economy survived the war largely unscathed and other major countries were devastated. Since then, American influence grew until the collapse of the Soviet Union left the U.S. as the sole remaining superpower.

“The primacy of the U.S. is over. You’re living in a new world, a world where there is China, India, Russia, and they will not accept your primacy,” said Araud. “You have always been the big boy. … It will be a more nuanced world.”

N.C., Southeast attractive to business

One bright spot amid the global turmoil, Araud said, is the relative strength of the U.S. economy and the Southeast in particular. French nuclear power company Areva has its U.S. headquarters in Charlotte, and Araud pointed to Airbus’ jet assembly plant in Alabama as further evidence of French economic success in the Southeast.

“Considering the crises in China, Russia, Brazil, the American market looks very, very attractive for French corporations,” he said. “It’s a stable market. There’s a sort of general shifting back to the U.S … and if you want to invest in the U.S., you naturally go to the South.”

According to the Charlotte Chamber, 56 French companies employ 4,632 workers in the Charlotte region.

Araud said he’s also interested in seeing the changing political and social makeup of Southern states, as migration to the Sun Belt continues.

“It’s obvious the Southeast is a vibrant, growing part of the country,” he said. “The Americans are going South. … There is this sort of changing society.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo