Posted by: sean | June 7, 2010

US embassy reaching out to French Minorities

US ambassador brings Samuel L. Jackson to the banlieues

When I lived in Paris, I was annoyed by American coverage of the suburb riots in 2005, which did its best to portray what was clearly a socio-economic problem into some sort of Muslim uprising. (Mark Steyn, for example, idiotically wrote of the “Eurabian civil war.”) In any case, given current attitudes about Islam in America, the nonchalance with which the country’s been calling for the assassination of Awlaki and the difficulty of getting a visa to the US from the Middle East, I’ve always assumed that the US Government has a monolithic attitude about Islam, Obama’s Cairo speech notwithstanding.

So I was surprised to see this article on the American network in Le Monde (quick and dirty translation mine):

The ambassador of the United States in France, Charles Rivkin, has been multiplying outreach to sensitive banlieueus for a year now. But these symbolic and media-friendly operations conceal the magnitude of the networking done over the last few years in France in order to  identify the elites of the banlieues and of ethnic minorities.

The American embassy has in effect created an exceptional rolodex — today the most complete, the most pertinent and the most up-to-date on the French banlieues. To the point that neither political associations or parties nor the intellectual or media scenes — always standoffish about questions of diversity — can rival the American embassy’s network.

Dozens of civil society leaders, educators, conservative and liberal local elected officials, artists and young researchers have been identified as future elites of French society. “It’s fascinating: each time I meet someone brilliant, he’s already in contact with the embassy,” says Ahmed El-Keiy, 43 years old, host of a talk show on France Ô who is one of the best informed when it comes to diversity networks.

The most promising are offered 2- to 3-week trips to the United States to work on their fields of interest. A program of “international visitors” with which the embassy used to target the most elitist backgrounds. Figures such as Nicolas Sarkozy or François Fillon benefited from these programs when they were in their thirties.

Since September 11, 2001, the Americans have partially reoriented their strategy of influence towards Muslim leaders in Western countries.

… The gap between American activism and French standoffishness is painful. Like another sign of French society’s disinterest. “The embassy is moving into virgin territory that no institution is working on,” notes Antoine Menuisier, editor of Bondy Blog. “We are identified by another country as potential leaders whereas we aren’t recognized here,” adds Rokhaya Diallo, 32, president of the Indivisibles, just back from the United States. “In the United States, we’re seen as a hope, as potential actors in the France of tomorrow,” exclaims Reda Didi, 34, HR consultant and president of Graines de France, a civil society group that focuses on the banlieues.

The article continues with other young leaders from France’s ethnic communities lamenting how France, where elitism is alive and kicking, doesn’t take the same interest in them as the US embassy.

This is the kind of outreach that the US should be doing, which is like a pro-active version of the Fulbright that seeks out young leaders instead of waiting for them to apply for scholarships. And this sort of networking is also smart in that it’ doesn’t limit itself to academics, as many similar programs do, instead forging ties with civil society groups that have roots in France’s ghettos.

Unfortunately, this sort of activity might be more difficult to do outside of Europe, where association with the US embassy can be more of a problem than a blessing. But nonetheless, this is the sort of smart public diplomacy that I was hoping to see after Obama’s Cairo speech.

If anyone knows of similar programs in Germany or the Netherlands, for example, I’d love to hear about it.



  1. Nice post.

    This kind of outreach has been theorized and conducted in European embassies for a few years but not well. I took place in a youth exchange designed to promote dialogue young Euro-Muslims to North American Muslims 3-4 years ago (partially put on by a US embassy); it included Dutch, Belgians, Americans, French and Canadians. I don’t know what happened to it after that. But I know there have been offices tasked with planning and setting up these kinds of things in the State Department and National Security Council. What exactly they’d been up to all that time, I’m not sure, but I’ve heard of them from friends and participated in some of them. I know that the State Department has put on some conferences for European and North American Muslim leaders as well.

    Hopefully we will see more like this particular program in the future.

  2. Great stuff brother. Fadi actually went on one of these programs to the US. They struck me like a cross between birthright tour propaganda and networking gig. What do you think is the exact rational behind them?

  3. Well, it’s hard to say what exact rationale is, although I imagine it’s along the same as the Fulbright or other exchange programs: exposing leaders abroad to American ideas in hopes that that will make them more receptive to US policies.

    It’s funny that you mention the birthright tours, because Israel has traditionally been ahead of the game on public diplomacy, or hasbara or propaganda as it were. Apparently, despite everything, they’re still managing somehow.

    The point, though, is that the US needs to improve both policy and public diplomacy, because despite what some people in Washington might think, the problem isn’t just a PR one. I think it’s a particularly smart move to target European Muslims, since US foreign policy is decidedly much less fucked up towards, say, France, than Iraq or Somalia, so it requires less of a sell, and European Muslims are coming from a very different context than people in the Mideast.

  4. ive always believed that travelling to places largely creates positive bonds and enhances understanding..

    segregation is a huge curse..

    one trouble is that peace organisations that mix kids get called everything from collaborators to normalisers.. discounting the huge benefits of simply showing both sides that the other is human.. and consequently building trust

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