When Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, landed in New Orleans this week, he was moved by the nearly 300-year-old city’s French flavor.
Perhaps that would be unsurprising, if Araud were a typical visitor to the former French outpost in the New World. But it’s astonishing for the 62-year-old international diplomat to feel much beyond a passing interest in the places he visits, he said, given that, ironically, he hates to venture outside his home.
“Every time I leave my residence, you know, I’m more or less moaning, saying, ‘Why? My God,’ ” he joked, sparking laughter from officials gathered in a cozy meeting room at Arnaud’s Restaurant in the French Quarter.
But, he said, “In New Orleans, the difference is, you are real. It’s a real city.”
Araud, a native of Marseille, is visiting Louisiana for the first time this week.
He and local officials used his visit to highlight the strong ties between the state named for a French king and its founding country, with Araud seizing on the chance to praise one of the city’s French-immersion charter schools, Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans; to tout French businesses’ contributions to the local economy; and to highlight France’s role in New Orleans’ past and future.
He did all that while expertly working the room Monday, flashing a winning smile at TV cameras and repeatedly pronouncing Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s name as the French do — “Laundry-oo” — while declaring himself unable to say it any other way.
Araud has emerged as one of his country’s most intriguing foreign diplomats, displaying a snarky candor that has alternately fascinated and irked those he interacts with, according to multiple reports. He’s been unafraid to spar online, notably with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whom Araud called a “vulture” on Twitter hours after terrorist attacks in Paris left 130 dead.
He took the job just months before terrorist attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in which assailants killed 12 people. He also is the first openly gay French ambassador to the United States.
In yet another example of New Orleans’ and France’s partnership, the French helped lift up New Orleans through its own tragedies, said Landrieu, who joined Araud at the restaurant. French nationals came to the city “very, very quickly” after Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, he said.
He also highlighted his own visit to France last year to discuss climate change, and he touted the state’s 250,000 French-speaking residents.
“We would not be who we are as a people without the country of France,” Landrieu said.
Araud noted Louisiana’s commitment to French-language education, and he praised the enrollment gains and student diversity of Lycée Français, which he said has grown to 700 students in just five years of operation.
Also drawing praise was French-owned businesses’ commitment to the nation and to Louisiana, with Landrieu touting businesses such as Sodexo, the food services and facilities management company, and Transdev, which manages the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority’s operations.
Araud, for his part, pledged to encourage more French businesses to invest in the area.
“In a sense, my job is easy, because when you tell the French — when you speak about New Orleans or Louisiana — it’s something, of course, which has an echo in them, where they listen to you,” he said.
The future for New Orleans is bright, he added: “France was part of the past. France will be part of your future.”
Araud will conclude his Louisiana visit on Tuesday after a speech at LSU in Baton Rouge and meetings with Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state officials.