François Zimeray, the new French ambassador, has a curious habit of starting every phase of his career in the seventh year of his life-decades.
At the age of 17, he founded an association to support Cambodian refugees; at 27 he became a mayor; at 37 he was elected as the youngest member of the French socialist delegation at the European Parliament; and in the year that he turned 47, he began a six-year stint as France’s ambassador for human rights, accomplishing nearly 100 diplomatic missions to places he doesn’t recommend for holidays.
Now he is 53, not at all OCD (as this trajectory may suggest), and also not the youngest in his post. But the youthful fervour with which he talks about freedom suggests he has not lost his optimism about making a difference in the most turbulent parts of our world.
We caught up with the ambassador to shed more light on his illuminating career, although it was clear as the conversation went on that some things were going to have to wait for another occasion. Like the reason why Zimeray was thanked in the closing credits of Roman Polanski’s film ‘Carnage’.
You boast a rather versatile political career.
Yes, but one common link appears in the back mirror: a human rights commitment. And passion. I am a passionate person. I put a lot of myself into what I am doing. At the same time I am not obsessed with my career, and that makes me feel free.
You seem attracted by faraway causes. In another interview you said that human rights also have to be defended at your doorstep.
It is true I started out being attracted by faraway causes – in a French teenager’s mind they are more romantic. But then I decided to go into local politics. Most importantly, one should show It is true I started out being attracted by faraway causes – in a French teenager’s mind they are more romantic. But then I decided to go into local politics. Most importantly, one should show consistency. It makes no sense to be only attracted to faraway causes if you are egoistic in your life; one should do and show generosity around you.
It must be strange to be wearing a suit at the UN one day and spend the next one with child soldiers.
There is a difficult conflict of temporalities. You cannot say to a child soldier or to a person in a prison: “In three years we will have adopted the convention and then it will be over.” But for state negotiations, three years is nothing. It’s like the mechanism of a watch: you have the big wheel that goes slowly – the institutions, state, UN – and small wheels that go very fast: people.
That doesn’t seem like a problem that can be solved.
No, but it would help to inject more courage and more sense of urgency into politics. I think, sadly, what is most lacking in our world is courage. That is why I consider it my duty as ambassador here to remain militant and activist. Everyone fighting for human rights and dignity should know that they have their place at the French Embassy.
Any insights to share from your extensive travels?
Our societies have invented something, which is revolutionary and subversive, and that is the idea of an individual. For us it’s as clear as the air we are breathing, but I realised that being treated as one’s own consciousness is not obvious in many parts of the world, where people are treated as part of a group and are not allowed to show independence or distance. One has to fight to defend this very demanding conception of the individual.
Although it might also be the cause of alienation and depression in Western societies …
I agree that our societies create a lot of solitude that is endemic of modern times, but I support individuals, not individualism or selfishness as an ideology. And though Europe is an impressive framework for human rights, history teaches us that everything is more fragile than we think …
Within Zimeray’s circle is the legendary Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: Wikipedia / Zimeray)
Considering where you have been for the past six years, Denmark is a contrast to put it mildly.
One couldn’t imagine a place more different. But everywhere I travelled I was impressed by Denmark’s involvement. Denmark aims for the highest level in terms of human rights, and Danish NGOs, development agencies (DENIDA) and diplomats are very active all over the world.
But you are here to represent France.
I want to promote France as a brand – in all directions: economy, culture, education, university co-operation. In the past our promotion was more reserved. I have no reservations about being open to any kind of culture even though the link with French culture may be non-obvious.
So an open door policy at the French Embassy.
Yes, I would be ready to give carte blanche to designers and creators to make events here – to appropriate this house. This is a very nice venue. My idea is to give the key to, let’s say, a DJ, a painter, a florist – any creator in his or her field. This place is yours tonight; do your thing!
That should help to increase France’s visibility.
France is often seen as a country of holidays and good wine, but complicated. Few Danes know that the first foreign company in France is a Danish company, ISS. So it is possible for Danes to make business and profits in France. We have quite a heavy administrative context, but we are working on making it more open and simple for investors – for example [President François] Hollande is introducing Flexicurity.
So France is becoming more Nordic.
Yes. Some things make me feel very different – it is still a source of mystery to me why they don’t cross on red lights when there is no car – but I like the sophistication and simplicity that you can find in Danish behaviour, character and style. France has to show curiosity and openness to other’s experiences and pick up good recipes where they work. In many fields one can find inspiration in Denmark.