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French Ambassador To The U.S. On Syria And America's Trade Disputes


A closed door - that is how France's Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is describing the Trump administration when it comes to trade talks. The U.S. has slapped new tariffs on more than $7 billion worth of European imports, from Italian ham to Irish butter to - of particular interest to France - French wine. Visit your local wine shop, and you will find Bordeaux and Sancerre now cost up to 25% more than they did at the start of the month. These tariffs are the latest twist in a long-running trade dispute between the U.S. and Europe. And we are going to talk about that and other matters at stake between the U.S. and France with France's new ambassador to Washington. Philippe Etienne is in the studio with me now.

Welcome. (Speaking French).

PHILIPPE ETIENNE: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: I do hope you were able to stock up in advance. You're not running low on fabulous French wine at the embassy just yet.

ETIENNE: No, no, no. We have plenty of good wine to offer, and we will continue to do that.

KELLY: This is very reassuring. Thank you. Not to make light of a very serious situation, I mentioned your finance minister. He has called this latest round of tariffs an economic and political error on the part of Washington. How so? Just explain where France stands on this.

ETIENNE: Well, yes. Economically, for us, it doesn't make sense to have tariffs and counter-tariffs, and we don't need that for - we need jobs. We need growth. The - French companies, for instance, are the third-largest investor in the U.S. by the number of jobs created. American companies are the first in France. And it is really something which we are proud of, and we must continue that. And tariffs and counter-tariffs will harm this positive evolution. It's also politically difficult to understand for small wine growers in France which are hit because the American market indeed is important for them. And we appreciate that American consumers...

KELLY: Yeah, we drink a lot of your wine. Yes.

ETIENNE: ...Appreciate our wines. So politically, we must recall it's about a dispute which has to be settled in the aircraft industry.

KELLY: Yes. This is a Boeing-Airbus...

ETIENNE: And so no...

KELLY: ...Dispute that's been going on for years.

ETIENNE: Why should very small companies and farms have this very, very detrimental consequences? Politically, it's a bit difficult to understand. All the more that - Airbus and Boeing face big challenges. They are not anymore the only producers on the markets. They have to face common challenges from potential competitors in other continents. So my conclusion - the best thing is really to settle these disputes through a negotiation as soon as possible and to avoid tariffs and counter-tariffs.

KELLY: You're talking about tariffs and counter-tariffs, and this prompts my next question because economists here are watching what might come next. We mentioned this is a long-running dispute. The next round will play out next year. This World Trade Organization ruling is expected to go Europe's way next time.

ETIENNE: Exactly. I meant that.

KELLY: So will France and the rest of Europe be hitting back with counter-tariffs? And then we get involved in this whole tit-for-tat trade war between allies.

ETIENNE: Yes. It doesn't sound very logic, and it doesn't sound very, very positive for our economies. This is a reason why we say, we Europeans - we must negotiate now and have rapidly an agreement.

KELLY: When you say you want to negotiate, you are here as France's...

ETIENNE: On the aircraft industries, on subsidies...

KELLY: Right.

ETIENNE: ...On the issue which was...

KELLY: To avoid more tariffs.

ETIENNE: ...At the core of this dispute.

KELLY: Do you feel you have in the U.S. a negotiating partner that you can trust? You feel that your government has influence on the Trump administration.

ETIENNE: Well, on trade to the interlocutor is the USTR on the one side and the European Commission on the other side. Things are pretty clear.

KELLY: Speak more broadly, though. Do you feel that France - that your president, Emmanuel Macron, has any influence over President Trump and what he decides to do, whether it's regarding trade or anything else?

ETIENNE: Well, what I can tell you is that the two presidents have a very close relation. President Trump came four times to France. Our president made a state visit to the United States. They had many meetings in New York and - on the margins of the different international meetings. They have many calls. They talk one to the other quite often. That's sure. And they talk about the most important and most sensitive issue - for instance, right now on Syria.

KELLY: On Syria - and that raises recent developments in Syria. Allow me to ask a pointed question that flows from recent events in Syria, which is, do you feel - does France feel it can trust the U.S. to keep its word?

ETIENNE: Well, the real issue for us now, following the latest developments - and in particular, the Turkish military incursion into Syria - is really - is that we are worried about whether we can continue to fight against terrorism. I don't know whether you remember 2015, November 13 in particular. The terrorist attacks against Paris plotted from northeastern Syria, from Raqqa.

We consider - indeed, we have succeeded in having no more caliphate, no more territory controlled by Daesh ISIS. But ISIS still does exist under another form as a clandestine network, and they commit, still, terrorist attacks. So we must continue the fight against Daesh, against ISIS. This is a priority. We must also care for the people, for the populations. There are humanitarian issues, and we must also, of course, build a political solution in Syria.

KELLY: We should note that France has been very involved in the coalition against ISIS, have special forces on the ground in Syria.

ETIENNE: France is the second-largest contributor to the enforcers in military means to the coalition against ISIS after the United States, of course, which leads the coalition.

KELLY: So I have to circle back to my question with President Trump saying he wants to pull U.S. troops back out of Syria. That's a - he keeps changing his mind or changing what he's saying in terms of exactly how many and when that might happen. But do you still find the U.S. a reliable partner you can work with in Syria and the Middle East more broadly?

ETIENNE: Well, we have to work together because we have the same issues. And I'm confident we will continue to work together for this reason. We think this coalition against Daesh, against ISIS, remains absolutely essential. And for this reason, our foreign minister called for a meeting of this international coalition, which will take place in Washington on November 14. And it's very important here to reaffirm the - not only the importance of the fight against terrorism - against this terrorism, but also to have the U.S. and the other members of the coalition reaffirming their commitment.

KELLY: You mentioned a meeting in Washington, which leads to the last thing I want to ask you in the minute or so we have left. What is it like to be the French ambassador in Trump's Washington in 2019? Is this still a plum assignment for you, or would it be, I don't know, easier to be assigned to Damascus?

ETIENNE: No, really not. For once, we have - for one thing, we have no embassy right now in Damascus. But anyway, it's fantastic to be ambassador to the United States. I was in Los Angeles, in Boston the last days and, of course, in Washington. It's obviously a marvelous assignment. The conditions are changing, but the relations between the U.S. and France remain such important. And starting with the history...


ETIENNE: ...I have a beautiful portrait of Lafayette and of - another Washington in my residence.

KELLY: Well, we thank you. That's Philippe Etienne, France's ambassador to Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.