Interview with the Ambassador in the Ottawa Citizen

France and Canada: connected by heart and head

By Keith Spicer, Citizen Special February 12, 2010

Lean, lively, eyes twinkling behind rimless glasses, France’s man in Canada both feels and thinks his mandate. "Canada and France have a two-faceted relationship," enthuses François Delattre, at 46 one of Paris’s rising diplomatic stars. "History has made us cousins, and common interests have deepened and modernized our friendship. Sentiment and ’Kissingerian’ realism: these make our collaboration natural, inevitable and highly useful to us — and even to the world."

Over a recent lunch at France’s dazzling art-déco Ottawa embassy, ambassador Delattre analyzed the past, present and future of France-Canada relations.

"Our sentimental links rest on two historic facts: the descendants of early French explorers and settlers, and Canada’s role in liberating France in the 20th-century’s two world wars."

Jacques Cartier laid claim to "Canada" for France’s king in 1534. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City — becoming de facto governor of New France. Delattre brings out a prize-winning new book called Champlain’s Dream by American historian David Hackett Fischer. "This book reveals that Champlain was more than a navigator and cartographer. Also a soldier and diplomat, he was a major historical figure."

The two world wars created an "eternal bond between Frenchmen and Canadians," assures the ambassador. "France and its people will never forget Canada’s sacrifices in freeing it twice from tyranny. Vimy, Dieppe, Juno Beach and many other battles will always remind us that Canada paid for our liberation in blood": Most of Canada’s 113,000 dead in both world wars lie in France.

From history came common values. "Both countries believe freedom implies other attributes of civilization. We both oppose the death penalty. We believe in law and social protections. We condemn bigotry and respect multiculturalism. These affinities sustain a broad understanding. Our president, Nicolas Sarkozy, often cites Canada as a model." (Including for its budget discipline, still eluding France.)

Strengthening these "soft" links are many hard-nosed political, diplomatic and military interests — the Henry Kissinger stuff. "Much, though far from all of this, derived from the Cold War," suggests Delattre. "As allies for freedom, France and Canada had to develop close co-ordination of diplomatic and military policies."

Militarily, both in NATO and UN missions, France and Canada often walk hand in hand — even though French strategic doctrine clings to France’s "nuclear sovereignty." High-level officers’ visits co-ordinate strategies and staff exchanges. Counter-terrorist co-operation engages all levels. One unspoken disappointment: France struggles to crack Canadian defence procurement: Ottawa routinely buys U.S. military hardware.

"Over recent decades," notes Delattre, "we have expanded trade and investment. Now France is Canada’s fourth-largest foreign investor ($18.5-billion in 2008) — heavily in energy, including Total in Alberta’s tar sands. But food (Danone) and pharmaceuticals also count. As do, in both directions, aviation and electronics."

Canada has made major investments in France — for example Alcan (bought in 2007 by U.K.-Australian Rio Tinto), Bombardier, McCain. Canadian firms have 180 French subsidiaries.

Culturally, France and Canada foster torrential exchanges of students, artists, musicians and writers. Common French language and history links pave the way. Both nations play key roles in la Francophonie, the worldwide organization of French-speaking and French-sympathizing nations. Ottawa and Paris jointly defend culture in trade negotiations.

High politics? President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Stephen Harper get along easily. Sarkozy, while respecting Quebec’s distinctiveness, clearly favours a united Canada. "Frankly," he said in 2008, "if someone would like to tell me that the world today needs an additional division, we do not have the same reading of the world." Au revoir Charles de Gaulle’s 1967 "Vive le Québec libre!"

Delattre, echoing Quai d’Orsay orthodoxy, tips his hat to France’s special relationship with Quebec. "This will always be a natural part of our broader Canadian relationship. It would be wrong to look for signs of indifference to Quebec’s people and culture. Ideally, we like to work simultaneously with Ottawa and Quebec City."

Delattre is too much the diplomat to mention Canadian negatives: clubbed baby seals, cancerous asbestos exports, and Canada’s dismal environmental record. He prefers to talk of "expanding relations with all of Canada — even at a time of retrenchment, we’re opening a consulate in Calgary. We can do much more together in Canada. And abroad: the UN, NATO, anti-terrorism, trade, investment, Francophonie."

How does Delattre see us? "Canada, a modern society of immigrants as well as aboriginals, may be the world’s best example of a major country reconciling dramatically different peoples. It’s an inspiring democracy, brilliantly balancing freedom, tolerance and social solidarity."

Heart and head underpin the deepest Franco-Canadian loyalties — perhaps liveliest in wartime remembrance. In Latin, Normandy’s Bayeux Memorial, where my soldier-cousin and 269 other Canadians lie, best tells the tale of interlocking English and French: "We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s homeland."

Keith Spicer, a former Citizen editor, lives and writes in Paris.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Last modified on 16/02/2010

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