By Michael D. Mosettig
For two top officials of a beleaguered French government, their mission to Washington had multiple purposes: to reassert their country's central role in the war against the ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorist networks and to reassure opinion leaders that the European Union can rebound from the shock of Brexit.
A gathering of foreign and defense ministers from 60 nations, called to review and reinvigorate the war on terrorist groups, drew the French officials to Washington. They used the occasion, even as their nation is reeling from the third devastating terrorist attack in less than a year, to reach beyond the official meetings to sympathetic think tank audiences.
In the U.S. capital, where flags have been at half-staff for much of the month to mark a series of murderous assaults, the words of the French ministers fell on receptive ears: to fight terrorism while preserving liberties. And while steering clear of U.S. politics or specific references to Donald Trump, both ministers referred to populism that is surging throughout the West.
"We are determined to preserve what we are," Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We must guarantee the security of our citizens while preserving our life and liberties," Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said to another gathering at the Brookings Institution.
The ministerial meetings in Washington and at a nearby military base focused on the campaign against ISIS, specifically the military effort to roll back the group's hold on territory in Iraq and Syria.
But as Le Drian emphasized, the struggle is multi-layered, beyond taking the fight to the terrorist groups to throttling their propaganda campaigns which have drawn hundreds of French and European citizens to the fighting in the Middle East. Even as progress is being made in the Middle East, Le Drian is supervising the deployment of 10,000 French military in his country's cities to help defend against home-grown terrorist attacks, most recently in Nice that killed more than 80 people.
Both ministers also tried to assure Americans still in disbelief about the June 23 Brexit vote. For Defense Minister Le Drian, the message was that France and Britain would remain allied as the only nuclear armed powers in Europe and capable of projecting military force beyond their borders.
More of Ayrault's talk was focused on Brexit, which he acknowledged "poses the image of a Europe in crisis." While calling for open and transparent exit negotiations, the minister insisted a single market had to include goods, services, capital and people.
"You cannot have one without the other," he said.
And he asserted that Europeans have to fight the temptation of an introverted Europe that is now doubly posed by terrorism and Brexit.
While offering few details, Ayrault said one of his priorities at the Quai d'Orsay would be to strengthen ties between France and Germany "in the service of the European project."
As if there were any doubts in his audience about the somber challenges facing France and Europe, Ayrault ended his talk with references to two of the darkest moments in his country's 20th century history: the 1938 Munich negotiations that sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany and France's submission under Marshal Philippe Petain to Nazi occupation in 1940.
"France is threatened," he said. "We cannot put democracy in parentheses."