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France’s Printemps Européen on the Security Council

A screen grab of Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière of France participating in a videoconference of the UN Security Council on Syria, April 29, 2020. As president of the Council in June, he intends to speak only in French in public sessions, as multilingualism in the Council, he said, has suffered collateral damage during the pandemic. 

Even if Belgium’s presidency took place in February and Estonia’s, in May, is over, the European Union just held a virtual press conference from its mission in New York City to say that this spring was a European one in the United Nations Security Council.

The goal of the briefing, on May 29, was to show European unity in the middle of the pandemic and the global economic crisis, which are both challenging multilateralism globally. As a further display of unity, France and Germany held a joint press briefing on June 1. Germany leads the Council in July, and though its agenda is not finalized, the ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, said that it wants the Council to meet in the UN by then.

“France is happy to be just in the middle of this European spring, and we will make sure that the interaction with both Estonia and Germany will be as good as possible,” France’s ambassador to the UN, Nicolas de Rivière, told PassBlue in an interview.

Last year’s French-German dual Security Council presidency — in March and April — is now a trio, even a quartet; at least that is what the European Union wants to portray. The European members of the Council, elected and permanent (France), first scheduled a press conference in mid-May to announce the “European spring,” but it was postponed because of political infighting. Still, when addressing a pandemic seems to require prioritizing global needs over national ones, multilateralism remains at the heart of the European members’ talking points.

The “European spring” public relations effort aims to show cooperation among the European Council members, without Britain, and is important messaging for the Élysée, France’s presidential palace, and the rest of the continent. (In mid-May, Germany and France announced a $545 billion Covid-19 recovery program for the European Union bloc.)

“The truth is that there are a number of obstacles and adversaries to the UN and to multilateralism,” de Rivière told PassBlue. “There is a resurgence of unilateralism. Countries are pushing a very national agenda, national priorities, and in a way, the multilateral system can be jeopardized and it will be a disaster.”

At the UN and outside it, France has been an outspoken advocate for multilateralism around the world, most specifically within Europe, before and after Brexit. The message is getting more difficult to get across, however, as the political battles between the United States and China intensify.

For the Council right now, that battle has prevented it from adopting a French-Tunisian-led resolution addressing the effects of Covid-19 on international peace and security and endorsing the plea on March 23 by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a global cease-fire.

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“We have not given up, so we will continue to see if there is space for an agreement, but it’s very slow,” de Rivière said. “It’s very painful. It’s very frustrating. And again, on this one, the Security Council is not fulfilling its mandate.”

For June, France’s priority is to preside over the Council methodically, with many agenda items prescheduled on Africa — Mali, the Sahel and others — and the Middle East — Syria, Yemen and Palestine/Israel. At the end of the month, the Council will discuss the Iran nuclear deal, prompted by a regular update from the UN Secretariat. (In the briefing, de Rivière said there had been “no indication” that any moves have been made on the arms embargo or the snapback mechanism in the deal.) In addition, there will also be a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter on June 26.

But France will bring its own touch to the Council: la langue de Molière.

“France, really, when taking the presidency of the Security Council, has already announced in a very French way, that . . . we’ll do it in French,” Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the UN from 2009 to 2014, said in an interview with PassBlue in May.

Despite technical challenges to the Council’s meeting remotely during lockdown in New York City, France is adding more complexity: it is planning to lead the Council’s public meetings, all online, in French. Closed meetings will be held in English.

“It’s very simple,” de Rivière said, explaining that the statements he will read in public sessions will be distributed in English to all Council members beforehand and that he will conduct basic business in French, starting with “bonjour” for each meeting.

“I must say, New York has not given the best example; other organizations, whether it’s Unesco, the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization], we see that many others have been able to use interpretation for video meetings already long ago,” de Rivière said.

The coronavirus pandemic will remain an overarching issue for the Council, regardless of what language is spoken, although France does not have a meeting lined up on the topic.

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. To hear more details on France’s goals in June, with insights from Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the UN from 2009 to 2014 and to Washington from 2014 to 2019, download the latest episode of PassBlue’s podcast UN-Scripted on SoundCloud or on Patreon. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.)

France’s ambassador to the UN: Nicolas de Rivière, 56

Ambassador to the UN since: 2019

Languages: French, English, German

Education: LL.B., University of Paris; diploma, École Nationale d’Administration (ENA)

His story, briefly: Ambassador de Rivière, born in Paris, has taken the traditional path to diplomacy and public service in France, studying at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration — one of France’s most elite schools that President Emmanuel Macron has promised to reform to make it more diversified and meritocratic. (Macron himself studied at the ENA).

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His first posting abroad was in The Hague, where he worked as a press officer. He was then posted to Washington, D.C., and New York, where he was the political coordinator and then deputy permanent representative for the French mission at the UN from 2005 to 2010.

De Rivière then returned to Paris, where he worked as director-general of Political and Security Affairs at the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. It is here that he achieved what he considers one of his greatest career accomplishments:

“It is probably the nuclear deal with Iran, since I was a negotiator for the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], which is, now, a little fragilized,” de Rivière said. (The US withdrew from the Iran deal in May 2018.)

“It was a fascinating negotiation,” he continued. “It lasted basically 13 years or 20 years; I did the very end, the last two years. It was really a strategic negotiation; it was an issue of paramount importance; it remains an issue of paramount importance. We achieved a pretty good result in 2015, and the good thing is that this agreement was implemented and worked.”

Since he returned to New York City last year, de Rivière has been highly involved in the Iran file at the French mission to the UN. During last year’s opening session of the General Assembly in September, he tried, unsuccessfully, to organize a meeting between the US and Iran.

De Rivière is also proud of having taken part in the Council’s adoption of Resolution 1701, to end the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon.

“We spent a good bit of time during the month of July to negotiate an agreement,” de Rivière said, recalling the negotiations. “And while we were just adopting the resolution, the war stopped immediately. This is when you see the connection of your work in the Security Council and the reality on the ground — it can be extremely strong and efficient. I was proud to be part of that.”

De Riviere talked to PassBlue on May 21. His remarks have been edited for space and clarity.

You’ve announced that for June, you plan to make your statements as president of the Security Council in French. Why is that so important? I think in the Covid-19 pandemic, multilingualism has become collateral damage because moving to videoconferencing makes it difficult to use [simultaneous] interpretation. I just want to be clear. Everybody will understand that public meetings will be in French, private ones will continue to be in English, because we need to be pragmatic and realistic. I will chair in French, I will give the floor in French, I presume everybody will understand. Our statements will be distributed in English at the same time, so nobody will be able to say, I don’t understand. We will respect multilingualism during the month of June, while using French as a working language of the United Nations. This is what I intend to do, and I don’t see any problem with that.

Did you make sure that technically everything was going to be doable? It’s very simple. All private meetings and sessions will continue to be the way it is now; instead of saying, “Good morning,” I will say, “Bonjour”; instead of saying, Germany has the floor, I will say, “l’Allemagne a la parole,” and everybody will understand. My speeches will be in French, but people will receive them in advance in English. So, there is no problem with that.

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The Security Council has been criticized harshly across the globe in the last several months for its seeming inaction to address the pandemic, specifically Secretary-General Guterres’s call for a global cease-fire in March. How do you think the Council’s reputation will emerge from this unprecedented time? I must share with you much frustration. I’m very, very disappointed that the Security Council has not been able to decide on this pandemic, on Covid-19. At the end of the day, we are not asking much. We just want the Security Council to declare the cessation of hostilities on the Council’s agenda and make humanitarian access easier during three months. It’s not much. It’s 100 percent within the mandate of the Security Council, and I don’t understand why it would not be possible, and I don’t understand why the Council has not been able to endorse that a couple of days after the call of the secretary-general on March 23.

For obvious reasons, it has been highly politicized between the two permanent members [China and US], which have put their concerns outside this issue before this call for cessation of hostilities. I still hope we can overcome the deadlock and make a good decision soon. I’m working on that with Tunisia [an elected member] and the Security Council, and we have not given up. So we will continue to see if there is space for an agreement, but it’s very slow. It’s very painful. It’s very frustrating. And again, on this one, the Security Council is not fulfilling its mandate.

Head of State: Emmanuel Macron (President)

Foreign Affairs Minister: Jean-Yves Le Drian

Type of Government: Presidential constitutional republic

Year France Joined the UN: 1945

Years in the Security Council: One of the five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)

Population: 67 million

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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