Washington will miss Gérard Araud, but Gérard Araud will not miss Washington. The capital has too many squirrels, he says, not to mention a squirrelly president.
In his exit interviews, the departing French ambassador blithely blasted Donald Trump as a whimsical, unpredictable, uninformed Sun King. He also blasted politicians and the media for hyperventilating about Trump.
"You have a city that feels frightened and personally attacked by Trump," he told me. "At every dinner, you have anecdotes about Donald Trump. And you leave Washington DC, and you can spend two days in Seattle and Chicago and nobody says the word 'Trump'."
I had several long talks with the charming and bracingly blunt Araud as he packed his belongings, including his cherished Tintin collection. At 66, he is starting fresh in Manhattan. He's writing a memoir and may be joining Attias, a communications firm.
The diplomat, whose career spanned Reagan to Trump, played de Tocqueville for me, analysing our Trump hysteria: “I’m using the Chinese saying, ‘When the finger is showing the moon, the fool is looking at the finger and the wise man at the moon.’ In a sense, Trump is the finger. I do think Washington DC is much too obsessed by the finger and should look at the crisis” revealed by the 2016 election.
He said he pointed out to Democrats in the whiny wake of that election that their own statistics should have shown them that many Americans felt economically shaky. “I do think the genius – and I’m using the word genius – of Donald Trump is to have felt the crisis,” he said. Araud noted that Republicans are now “Trumpified”.
"You had a Republican Party that was really free trade, interventionist in foreign policy, connected to budgetary restraint," he said. "And suddenly you have a Republican Party that is shifting to protectionism, nationalism, defence of the identity. Exactly the same thing is happening to conservative parties across the western democracies. Social democracy is in a coma in Europe, so I do think the elections in 2020 will be totally fascinating in America because the Democratic Party will be obliged to answer the question, 'What does it mean to be on the left in America?'"
Macron and Obama
Like Democrats in 2016, Emmanuel Macron underestimated the resentment bubbling under the surface, he said: "He has been largely elected by the included against the excluded. And he has not been able to widen his appeal beyond basically the people who feel comfortable in a global world."
He sees similarities between Macron and Barack Obama. "I think they are hyper-rational and it can be seen as patronising by a lot of people," he said. "In a sense, even, they despise passions." Smiling, he said both men are "too slim" and "too elegant" to relate to the man on the street.
I talked to Araud about the awful sight of Notre Dame on fire. "Frankly, if you had asked me before the event, what was Notre Dame for me, I wouldn't have had a particular answer," he said. "It's a nice cathedral but not the most beautiful cathedral in France. But after five minutes of seeing the flames, I was crying, suddenly realising that it could vanish."
After five minutes of seeing the flames, I was crying, suddenly realising that it could vanish
He said he was “overwhelmed” by the piles of flowers at his embassy in Washington and the ambassador’s residence.
Araud calls Trump “a big mouth”, but, as he once told me about himself, “I have a sort of big mouth, I guess.” He had to delete his tweet on election night, keening, “A world is collapsing before our eyes. Vertigo.” And yet, as the first ambassador in DC to make waves with Twitter diplomacy, he empathises with Trump’s itchy Twitter finger.
“The press, to be frank, is so anti-Trump that I do understand that the natural reaction of Trump is to go over the head of the press,” he said.
It was during an interview with an American reporter when he first arrived in Washington that Araud suddenly outed himself, emboldened by his disgust at the backlash to marriage equality in France. Before Mayor Pete normalised being gay on the presidential trail, Araud normalised the idea of a gay French ambassador living openly with a partner.
“In my country, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell,” he said. “In France, private life is private. So I was not hiding, but I did not speak about it.”
In an era when the president scorns parties and dinners around town, Araud played the host, with his love, Pascal Blondeau, a photographer, designing the set. They had a masquerade ball and glamorous Christmas parties featuring a tree hanging upside down one year and a tree festooned with plush polar bears and pearls another. Last Christmas, Blondeau, dressed as an elfin lumberjack, reclined on a tree placed on its side.
They had a masquerade ball and glamorous Christmas parties featuring a tree hanging upside down one year
Steven Mnuchin and Louise Linton came to parties, along with Wilbur and Hilary Geary Ross and, in what may be their last joint appearance, Kellyanne and George Conway. Araud even wooed immigration tyrant Stephen Miller to the chateau with good French wine.
“I asked about the chaos of the administration and his answer was interesting because he said it is, in a sense, desirable,” Araud said. “Because the president is not a traditional conservative. So if you want to govern another way in this city, you are obliged to break china.
“The deep state is real, not in the sense of plotting. But when Trump arrived here, basically without a team, without experience, people were convinced that they would manipulate him. But no, you can’t manipulate him.”
Araud also goes against the grain on Jared Kushner, calling him "a smart guy, really".
He is excited to leave the city of provincial early-bird dinners, “sad” baggy suits and awful jeans. He and Blondeau, toting his plush tiger, giraffe and polar bears, have rented a place on East 73rd Street. It is a neighbourhood, Araud says with a grin, “where I feel young”.