France’s Man in Baghdad Plays James Bond

I was very tempted to entitle this post “Sarkozy’s Little Arabs” for two guests that appeared at the same time on the popular French talk show Le Grande Journal. The first was Amine Benalia-Brouch, a Frenchman of Algerian-Portuguese heritage. A member of Sarkozy’s political party the UMP, he achieved minor fame when at a party event a fellow member said “He’s our little Arab,” to which Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux responded “All the better. You always need one. When there’s one, it’s OK. It’s when there are lots that there are problems.” Benalia-Brouch initially issued a video defending Hortefeux’s comments (out of context, etc). Later he reneged, left Sarkozy’s party, claimed to be under pressure (vague threats regarding the Interior Ministry) and is now peddling a book on his experience. Ho-hum… Hortefeux was eventually found guilty in court of “racial insults” but did not have to resign from his ministry.

The second is Boris Boillon, France’s man in Baghdad. Le Grand Journal presents extracts from a documentary entitled “Ambassadeur de choc” (apparently not a contradiction in terms, sadly I can’t find the full video). In the doc, we indeed witness scenes of an ambassador “between James Bond and Rambo”:

  • Boillon closing off the fortress-like French Embassy in “the most dangerous country in the world,” guarded by 30 gendarmes and elite GIGN.
  • Boillon being credited with freeing the Bulgarian nurses in Libya in 2007.
  • Boillon wielding an assault rifle in case, in his words, “of a force majeure“.
  • Boillon speaking in Arabic in front of the cameras, the documentary informing us he was raised in Algeria and is a star with Iraqi media.
  • Boillon doing pull-ups and jogging, 45 minutes of which for him is “simply vital”.

On the show itself, the handsome – if almost a little too baby-faced for 40 – Boillon seemed a bit star-struck. His talking points and bons mots initially came out a little awkwardly. He soon found his stride though expounding on French businesses helping Iraq rebuild, on the fact that the French and American presences are complementary not competitive, or on France’s reputation for scientific excellence in the country (perhaps due to historic sales of nuclear power stations and Mirage fighters in the 1970s and 1980s, inevitably to be later destroyed by the Israelis and/or American-led coalitions).

He calls himself “a pure Sarko product” who shares the Great Leader’s qualities, which he defines as “energy” and “the ability to see things as half full”. Indeed, when asked about Iraq’s rough shape and France’s relatively minor role, he responded (presumably memorized) that  “the bigger the field, the bigger the field of possibilities.” He also has Sarkozy’s goofy habit, which the President has since given up, of wearing sunglasses all year round, including indoors (“the trademark of the Elysée,” Boillon says).

The air of confident suaveness and elegant gravitas does seem rather put on and was greatly undermined when he was asked whether Sarkozy’s nickname for him really was “my little Arab”. Boillon responded that yes, “among other things, but it’s just affectionate.”

All this, while perfectly interesting, is very strange. It’s not normal for ambassadors to be portrayed as a real-life supermen. Nor is there usually any reason for a French ambassador to spend time appearing on French television or radio. But then, he is one of those “young wolves” plucked by Sarkozy and put into positions of responsibility ahead of the normal rules of promotion. The “foundation” of his position is thus fundamentally different, disregarding seniority and the esteem of his diplomatic peers, more dependent on Sarkozy’s whims and fortune, and, perhaps, a wider notoriety. Is Sarkozy’s “little Arab” being prepared for another role through these appearances? Perhaps, but Boillon should be careful. Sarkozy’s other idiosyncratic media-friendly picks – Kouchner, Dati, Amara.. – haven’t always faired well.

Other stuff:

  • Boillon appearing before the Sénat. Not a particularly good public speaker here, mainly deals with his role as ambassador for French big business (AirFrance, Total, Lafarge…) and the limited risks of doing business in Iraq, but also on creating rule of law, etc.
  • Boillon appearing on the RTL radio station, much more effective. Arguing for greater involvement in the vast, terroristic so-called “arc of crisis” from Af-Pak to the Sahel (!), praising a genuine U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (sounding like an U.S. government spokesperson in fact..), describing the first big reception at the French embassy celebrating July 14th (“Bastille Day”) since 1990 with some700 guests.
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