Blinken Faces an Awkward Visit to Paris, His ‘Second Home’

WASHINGTON — The reception could hardly have been warmer when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken appeared in France’s ornate foreign ministry building on a late June day alongside his French counterpart.

Mr. Blinken delighted his audience by beginning his remarks in fluent French, which a local interviewer later called “absolutely perfect,” and reminiscing about the more than 10 years he spent living in Paris. He joked about how he binge-watches French television shows like “Le Bureau des Légendes” (“The Bureau”) and “Dix Pour Cent” (“Call My Agent!”).

Paris, he concluded, is “my second home.”

But the secretary of state will make an awkward return there this week, when he arrives for a meeting of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a trip that will conveniently provide a chance to further soothe French anger over a minor diplomatic crisis that erupted last month over Australia’s submarine deal.

French officials found themselves blindsided when news leaked in the Australian media that the United States and Britain would help Australia deploy a new fleet of nuclear submarines, replacing a $66 billion contract that Australia had signed with a French contractor for a dozen attack submarines. U.S. and Australian officials say that deal was already on the rocks, partly because France’s diesel submarines have a shorter range and are more easily detectable than the nuclear ones the United States and Britain can provide.

Despite that explanation, officials in Paris fumed about back-stabbing and betrayal. President Emmanuel Macron of France even recalled his ambassador to the United States for several days.

The anger has already subsided. Mr. Biden placed a contrite call to Mr. Macron last month, Mr. Blinken has conceded that the United States could have handled the matter more gracefully, and the French ambassador is back in Washington.

But the diplomatic row hit Mr. Blinken especially hard, according to people familiar with his reaction, given his deep attachment to France. Mr. Blinken’s mother still lives in Paris, and she hosted a dinner in his honor during his visit in June. He also retains an emotional investment in the ups and downs of France’s national soccer team, regularly watching major matches.

His arrival at the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom was greeted with elation in France and taken as assurance that Paris would be first among equals as the Biden administration vowed to rebuild Western European alliances that were corroded under President Donald J. Trump.

“I am sure that when Secretary Blinken was sworn in, he did not think that a diplomatic crisis with France was on his to-do list for the first year,” said Dan Baer, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official in the Obama administration.

Not long ago, the thinner French connections of John Kerry, one of Mr. Blinken’s predecessors as secretary of state, drew snickers from conservatives who implied that Mr. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was somehow less than fully American (or “looks French,” as President George W. Bush’s commerce secretary, Donald L. Evans, once quipped).

Compared with Mr. Blinken, however, Mr. Kerry — who learned French at a Swiss boarding school and spent summers at his grandparents’ home in coastal Brittany — was a tourist gawking at the Eiffel Tower.

After Mr. Blinken’s mother married her second husband in 1971, Samuel Pisar — a prominent Polish-born diplomat, lawyer and political eminence who had relocated to Paris years before — she brought 9-year-old Antony to live there with them.

Judith Blinken quickly made her own mark in the French capital. A former director of music at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she thrived as a kind of cultural ambassador in Paris, helping promote institutions like the American Center in Paris, which is now closed. A 1993 Chicago Tribune profile described her as a flawless French speaker and “impeccable hostess” who “dresses with the aplomb and confidence that is innate to Frenchwomen.” She frequently entertained at the family home just off the upscale Avenue Foch in the 16th Arrondissement, “a very modern, all white, bi-level apartment filled with major art pieces.”

Mr. Blinken attended the École Active Bilingue, a school in central Paris, not far from the Arc de Triomphe. His classmates included Robert Malley, a lifelong friend who is now the State Department’s special envoy for Iran. Mr. Blinken quickly picked up French and integrated into the culture while still finding ways to embrace his American roots: When the first McDonald’s opened in Paris, he raced there with friends and became a regular customer. He also fell in love with American rock music, playing guitar in a band that performed at his high school graduation.

As a teenager in Paris, he took an interest in international politics and parried hostile views of the United States from friends at a time when leftist critiques of the Cold War were common there. In an interview with The New York Times in June, during his first visit to France as secretary of state, Mr. Blinken called his time in Paris “a life-changing experience” that allowed him “to be able to see my own country from a different perspective. And that was a very powerful thing.”

Mr. Blinken left France in 1980 to attend Harvard University and Columbia Law School, then returned for two years to work at a law firm in Paris.

Though the French might have felt a particular sting that he did not warn them about the Australia agreement — France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Mr. Blinken did not mention it during his last visit to Paris, even when Mr. Le Drian brought up his country’s submarine contract — Mr. Blinken’s French connections were an asset last month, as Biden officials frantically sought to contain a row that undermined the administration’s talk of rebuilding alliances and drew questions about its diplomatic competence.

U.S. officials say that Mr. Blinken served as an invaluable mediator between the White House and Paris, including in numerous back-channel conversations that were never officially reported by either government and were often conducted largely in French. (Mr. Le Drian, for one, is not a natural English speaker.)

“There’s no one better to deal with that crisis, and to deal with it in a way that is sincere, heartfelt and aiming at rebuilding trust,” Mr. Baer said.

Last month, Mr. Blinken met with Mr. Le Drian on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly gathering. He also saw the newly returned French ambassador, Phillipe Étienne, on Friday, two days before his departure for Paris, where he will attend meetings with Mr. Le Drian and other French officials, potentially including Mr. Macron.

Some U.S. officials and analysts have questioned whether the public fury in France was more strategic than sincere, noting both that Mr. Macron faces re-election in the spring and that the French deal with Australia had been wobbly well before the United States and Britain became involved. Some also point out that France won its contract with Australia in 2016 only after bumping aside the favored Japanese contender.

Even so, Mr. Blinken is expected during his visit to offer the French new forms of U.S. support — perhaps including for their counterterrorism operations in the Sahel region of Africa, where Mr. Macron has sought to reduce French involvement.

Speaking to reporters in New York late last month, Mr. Blinken said he understood that fully repairing the breach “will take time and hard work, and will be demonstrated not only in words but in deeds.”

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