AU REVOIR

Obama, Terror, and Trump: A U.S. Ambassador’s Parting Shots

U.S. Amb. Jane Hartley leaves France on Jan. 19, the day before Inauguration Day. On her watch: Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan, Le Pen, Trump and a still-very-popular Obama.

01.13.17 8:12 PM ET

PARIS—Jane Hartley is about to leave the American ambassadorial residence in Paris, which is just down the block from the French president’s palace, and every bit as ostentatious. The 18th-century décor of its receiving rooms, dominated by gilded mirrors and glistening chandeliers, might even appeal to Donald Trump if it were tarted up a bit, and Hartley has joked about it many times as her “humble home” since she took up her post as U.S. ambassador in October 2014.

But when we talked this week about these tumultuous days of transition, the most powerful memories that came back to Hartley were of two years fraught with danger—with terror, in fact—but marked as well by very close, very high level, and often very secret collaboration between the French and American intelligence services.

Hartley made it clear at the beginning of the interview that there were limits to what she could or would say, since she’ll be representing the United States government until the day she departs: “January 19, one day before my President.” (She didn’t wait for the directive “firing” political-appointee ambassadors, she said; she sent in her resignation in November.)

Hartley, formerly a CEO of international financial and political consulting companies, has worked on Democratic presidential campaigns and sometimes with and in the White House since the Carter years. Once the U.S. election results came in on the night of Nov. 8, she knew there’d be no reason to hang around, at least not representing the new administration.

“There seems to be a push for change almost at any cost,” Hartley said, reflecting on the rise of populism in Europe and, most surprising to her, the United States. She mentioned a poll she’d been shown last summer that asked American voters what they wanted more in their new president, experience or change, and 66 percent wanted change, while only 33 percent valued experience.

“I think that propelled Trump, and even though I think Hillary Clinton would have been a great president, ironically, the thing that she had—which was huge amounts of experience and huge amounts of expertise—unfortunately was something this electorate this year didn’t want,” said Hartley.

The whole picture in the United States is “contradictory,” said Hartley. President Barack Obama’s approval rating, in the low 60 percent range, is quite high for an outgoing second-term president, so it is hard to explain to the French how his successor could be, well, so very different.  Indeed, the French just love Obama.

“He is hugely popular,” said Hartley. “His numbers are topping 85 percent.”

I asked her why, and she said she thought the French have never stopped feeling the way she and so many others in the United States felt about Obama’s election in 2008: “It says wonderful things about America. It says America is diverse. It says America is intelligent; it says America has dignity; it has integrity. I think when the French look at Obama it’s all the things they believe at their most optimistic about America: his willingness to make change, his willingness to be fair and to be equal—how he cared about equal rights for all, how much he cared about the planet, how much he cared about climate change.”

“So, how do you think they feel about Trump?” I asked, and there was a bit of a pause.

“Listen, nobody knows how this president is going to be,” said the ambassador. “Usually there’s a little more of a track record that allows you to assume what’s going to happen.” In her political lifetime, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush had been governors. George H.W. Bush had been vice president and had spent his career in Washington on the Hill and in the CIA. All had track records.

“We don’t have that this time,” said Hartley. “And in a sense that’s what the public was voting for. They were voting for somebody who had no track record, who had never been in government.  So, I think we just don’t know, and we’ll have to wait.”

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Then there is the matter of Russian influence on the American elections. The U.S. intelligence agencies have deemed it significant, but President-Elect Trump, even as he grudgingly acknowledges the fact continues trying to downplay, sidestep, or harrumph it away.

Hartley chose her words carefully. Because of the fight against terrorism in France, the United States, the Middle East and Africa, all of which are concerns of the U.S. embassy in Paris, “I have had a huge amount of interaction with our intelligence agencies,” said Hartley. “Since I have been in France we have had three major terrorist attacks and France and the United States have worked so closely together to prevent many more.”

(French and U.S. officials say at least 17 major plots have been thwarted in the last year, 12 of them since July. In 2015, 11 were prevented.)

“I have huge respect for the CIA and FBI—huge— and from a personal point of view because of what we have lived through here— and when they say something I tend to believe it.”

Are the Russians interfering in the many upcoming European elections, including the one here in France that could bring far-right ultra-pro-Russian candidate Marine Le Pen to power?

Again, Hartley was cautious. It would be “common sense” to think so, she said, adding she had no specific expertise in the matter.

The ambassador’s views of her tenure in France have been shaped by adversity and, indeed, tragedy. She had barely taken up her post when the Charlie Hebdo attacks came in January 2015.

Then in November that year jihadists from the so-called Islamic State attacked the Bataclan theater, a sports stadium, and outdoor cafes, killing more than 130 people.

“I’ll never forget the morning after November 13, walking from here to the embassy. Paris had just put up its holiday decorations so the city was more beautiful than ever, but there were no people on the street. When I got to the embassy it was a hub of activity. There were cots in the hallways. Our key guys in these key areas had been up all night working with the French.”

Late in the next day day, a Sunday, Hartley decided to have lunch as conspicuously as possible in a café on Place de la Madeleine, and saw the city suddenly coming back to life. It reminded her of New York after 9/11, which she had lived. People were saying they would not let their lives be changed. “There was this spirit, there was this resistance, and frankly there was this edge in Paris: ‘We’re just not going to let it happen.’”

But what Hartley remembers as her “hardest day on the job” was after the truck attack in Nice last July, when 86 people were killed. She went there to observe a minute of silence alongside the French prime minister, then talked to the families of Americans who had died: one mother who had lost her only child, another who had lost her only child and also her husband.

As she leaves, Hartley already has plans to come back, but not as a diplomat. Her proudest project, and one she would like to continue fostering, is a public-private partnership called “Jobs for All.” It is, really, a seed program to offer internships for a talented few from the banlieues, the exurban ghettos of France, to show there is a way out and up. Several American and French corporations have signed on, and the State Department provided funding for two years to help get it going.

“We actually did a jobs fair here,” said Hartley, looking around at the gilded “humble home” she is about to leave. “You should have seen the kids walk in! It was fantastic.”