As we gladly bid farewell to 2020 and cautiously welcome 2021, French Ambassador to Denmark Caroline Ferrari talks Covid-19, the American media’s attack on French laïcité and the highs and lows of living in Denmark, all at a time when Europe is rapidly changing.
Photographs: Laura Ioana V
Text: Conrad Egbert
It’s half past two on a Tuesday afternoon in what could only be the middle of a Danish November. It’s already beginning to turn dark and the pavement outside Thott Palace, which draws heavy footfall all year-round, is now cordoned off by Danish security forces. A large bulletproof van blocks the main entrance of the palace, while two armed police officers stand guard outside its enormous wooden doors. But this 17th century Copenhagen landmark is no ordinary building. It houses within its walls the Embassy of France – a country that has suffered some of the deadliest Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe.
We ring the doorbell and wait. The mood is grim and anxiety hangs in the air. There’s nervous shuffling behind the huge arched doors. A few moments later the intercom crackles to life and an eager voice demands who we are and why we’re there. In light of recent events, this reaction would be considered a warm welcome at most embassies. It had only been a few weeks since France suffered a couple of Islamist terrorist attacks, including the gruesome beheading of French history teacher Samuel Paty in a suburb of Paris and only two weeks later, another one at a church in Nice, which claimed three more lives including that of a 60-year-old woman.
Once inside the palace, we’re escorted up a grand staircase and into a beautiful Louis XIV-styled double salon. We’re asked to make ourselves comfortable on a set of old bergères by a large window overlooking the Danish Capital’s main square Kongens Nytorv. But while Thott Palace is one of the oldest buildings in Denmark, it hadn’t always been a palace and had even changed hands several times over the centuries. Originally built as an hôtel particulier for Danish naval hero Niels Juel in the 1680s, it has been sold, extended, resold, renovated and even rented out to Russian diplomats for some 90-odd years. In the late eighteenth century, the Thott family, after whom the palace takes its name, hired French architect Nicolas-Henri Jardin to redesign it. It was finally purchased by the French state in 1930 and has housed the French Embassy ever since.
It wasn’t long before the creaking of the old oak and beachwood floorboards announced the arrival of French Ambassador Caroline Ferrari. This was my third attempt at an interview with her; she’d been forced to cancel twice before on account of the terror attacks.
“I’m so sorry this has taken so long,” she says, apologetically, in that delectably accented English that the world so loves about the French.
There are no handshakes, definitely no Danish hugs and the mood, though warm, has a touch of melancholy to it. We sit back down. A tray, with glasses of water, is brought out and set down on the coffee table before us.
To readers of the international: "Mes meilleurs vœux de bonne et heureuse année 2021 à tous lecteurs." [My best wishes for a happy New Year 2021 to all readers]
Ferrari was appointed Ambassador of France to Denmark in the summer of 2018. While she served in a variety of diplomatic missions across the world, this is her first position as an ambassador. So how has it been so far?
“Firstly, I must say that I divide my time here into two parts,” she says smiling wryly, “before Covid and during Covid. I was very lucky to take up my mission at the end of August 2018, just after the state visit of President Emmanuel Macron. His visit was a great success, which in turn made my work easier in furthering our Franco-Danish relationship here. So, really it was a huge privilege for me to start my mission in such favourable conditions with bilateral relations at their peak.”
But then Covid-19 hit and everyone’s lives changed overnight, including that of the Ambassador who lives with her daughter in Denmark, while her husband lives in France.
“It has certainly increased distances,” she says with an air of yearning. “Usually, when you’re in Copenhagen, Paris is not far, but now with all these travel restrictions, it’s not the same. I know many of my nationals, like myself, haven’t had the chance to visit their families in a long time; it’s very tough. And on top of that many of us face economic difficulties, some of us have even fallen ill, so these are indeed hard times. But my team and I do our utmost to help our French nationals here in any way we can. After the lockdown last year, I tried my best to convince the Danish authorities to reopen borders with France, which they did. But of course, now the situation is different and I respect the decision taken by the Danish government to restrict travel between our countries, however, I do hope they will reopen soon.”
"I’m thrilled to be posted in Denmark, an EU country, during such an important time for the union"
Born in Marseille and raised in Orléans, Ferrari was educated at some of Paris’ grandes écoles including the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce, the Institut d’études politiques de Paris, more commonly known as Science Po and the uber-exclusive Ecole Nationale d’Administration (L’ENA). Of course, she’s too humble to mention any of them, so a quick search on the Embassy’s website revealed her glowing credentials. Did you always want to represent France as an Ambassador or did you fall into this role by accident?
“A bit of both,” she says breaking into a reminiscent smile. “I chose to become a civil servant despite studying in a business school because I’ve always been interested in diplomatic and economic issues. But then by coincidence, when I was studying at L’ENA, I did an internship with the Permanent Representation of France to the EU in Brussels and I absolutely fell in love with the atmosphere there – nations working together trying to find different solutions to different problems, solving complex issues, just being in the presence of great minds – that’s when I decided this was my path in life.”
In the two years Ferrari has been French Ambassador to Denmark, she’s gained a rather unique reputation – that of being elusive – the exact opposite of her predecessor, François Zimeray, from whom she took over in 2018. Zimeray, who is still fondly remembered within the French community in Denmark as charming and outgoing, turned into a local hero overnight in 2015 when a masked Islamist terrorist attacked Krudttønden Cultural Centre in Copenhagen, where he was delivering a speech on blasphemy and freedom of expression.
Fun Fact: Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II and the late Prince Henrik hosted their engagement dinner in the Music Room at the French Embassy in Copenhagen.
Today, however, those close to Ferrari argue that it’s her love for simplicity that is often mistaken for nonchalance and disinterest. So then if attending swish soirées and ribbon-cutting ceremonies aren’t on the Ambassador’s agenda, what in the world does she do?
“Like every Ambassador, I have to represent my homeland and foster good relations with my resident country, which in this case is Denmark,” explains Ferrari. “Also, since France is a member state of the European Union, it adds another dimension to my work here. We try, to not only further bilateral relations between our two countries, but also within the EU and internationally. This aspect of my job is particularly interesting to me and I do love this part very much. I’m an EU diplomat at heart,” she confesses. “I joined the Foreign Ministry because I love working on larger EU issues; I’m thrilled to be posted in Denmark, an EU country, during such an important time for the union. It’s absolutely fascinating.”
After her stint in Brussels ended in 2001, Ferrari, who speaks German and is currently learning Danish, has held several key positions within the EU. These include deputy director for external relations at the EU Directorate, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of France in Berlin and most recently director of human resources at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And while Ferrari insists, “it’s not at all exceptional,” in 2013 she was awarded France’s highest honour – La Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur – making her one of the most decorated representatives of France in Denmark. In light of the ever-increasing number of women Ambassadors around the world, do you think there’s something special that women bring to the table in a role like this?
“There are 26 women Ambassadors in Denmark as of now,” says Ferrari with what may, or may not, be a glint of pride in her eye. “France has developed an active policy to appoint more women ambassadors around the world. In fact we are currently at about 25 per cent. But what I don’t know,” she continues thoughtfully, “is if I’d say women bring anything special to the table over men; of course being a woman is not being a man, that’s clear,” she jokes. “But, if you ask me, I’d say it’s one’s personality rather than their gender that makes all the difference. You can have tough women and you can have tender men, but you can also have the opposite. Being an ambassador is very much about what you contribute to the relationship between your home country and the one you’re an ambassador to, your personal experience, your outlook on life and your values. I’m the fourth French woman to be Ambassador to Denmark; I’m not a pioneer at all, so I’m sure there’s a reason why there have already been three women before me. Denmark is very open to gender equality. France’s perception of Denmark is very much a country of equal rights and it makes no difference in this country if you’re a male or a female ambassador.”
Ferrari, who prefers the title ‘Ambassador’ over ‘Ambassadress’, believes that the world will see more women leaders going forward and expressed her support for new US President elect Joe Biden and Vice President elect Kamala Harris. She called it a ‘wonderful moment’ for America. But while her enthusiasm for the new US leadership is strong, her faith in the US media seems to have been shaken by the “extremely unfair” French-bashing in the American Press.
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“The main problem in America is that not many understand the French concept of laïcité,” says Ferrari launching into an eager explanation. “Since 1905 the law of laïcité guarantees freedom of expression for all and at the same time the freedom to worship and to believe; but also the freedom not to believe. Laïcité also means that religious worship must be a private matter, plus a separation of state and religion. In France all religions are considered equal, but no religion is, and can ever be, above the law. This is key.”
She continues: “Laïcité is the protector of religion within the French Republic. You can be Jewish, Muslim, Catholic even an atheist and you will have equal rights; it was extremely unfair that the American Press attacked the French model. You can call it a lot of things, but to call it anti-religious or anti-Islamic is ridiculous.”
Unlike all American presidents, French ones aren’t sworn into Office with a hand on the Bible. In France, this would be laughable and considered contrary to the secular values of the French Republic.
“Even in Europe there aren’t many secular countries,” warns Ferrari. “In Denmark, for example, Queen Margrethe II is the head of the Lutheran Church and Danish citizens pay a ‘church tax’ irrespective of their religious affiliations. In France, due to our history, this is not the case. Another very important element to this entire fiasco is that in France we don’t believe in separate communities. In America this divisive idea of separate communities exists, but in France there is only one community – the French community. The French Republic is one and indivisible; it is written in the French Constitution. This most beautiful aspect of our constitution seems to have got lost somewhere over the past few decades and we need to come back to this.”
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Ferrari goes on to explain that it is this very notion of ‘indivisibility’ that brings religious communities in France together and it is the school that inculcates these values into French citizens.
“This is why France was so deeply hurt by the terrible assassination of Samuel Paty,” says Ferrari, now fraught with emotion. “The school is the very heart of the French Republic. This is where citizenship starts, where the values of the state are taught and where they are transferred from generation to generation. And to then have a teacher lose his life for responsibly imparting these very values, these freedoms and rights, over a few cartoons of Mohammed, is absolutely despicable.”
But the subscription-hungry US media has conveniently shifted its eye of Sauron away from has-been Donald Trump and its falling readership and locked onto laïc France in search of its next click-bait newsmaker. In the guise of ‘opinion pieces’ one particular media house even went as far as to accuse French President Macron of pushing ‘radical secularism’ and ‘shifting to the right’ in order to win support from the hard right in the French presidential elections next year.
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“As a French citizen I can tell you that when you want to practice your religion in France you will have absolutely no problem doing it. However, there is a clear distinction between the private sphere and the public sphere. Some of these arguments about ‘radical secularism’ by the American media refer to President Emmanuel Macron’s speech about separatism. But fighting Islamist separatism doesn’t make you a radical secular advocate; it merely makes you a defender against those forces fighting against the French Republic and in fact, the entire world, to put religion before the law. And this is never going to be accepted.”
But while Denmark came out in full support of France during the recent terror attacks last year, the Danish newspaper that originally printed the Mohammad cartoons in 2005, Jyllands-Posten, chose not to reprint them in fear of a reprisal.
“Danish authorities haven’t said the cartoons cannot be reprinted, so to me that is what is important – Denmark as a country is not opposed to it”
“When Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons in September, it was basically to honour the nine cartoonists who lost their lives in the Islamist terror attack in 2015,” argues Ferrari. “It was a way to pay tribute to those men and women who died expressing the fundamental freedom of expression given to them by the Republic. But even though Denmark suffered similar terrorist attacks over related things such as freedom of expression, at the end of the day, the Danish press is free to do, as it likes. This is exactly the strength of our democracies, which are in fact, under attack. As far as I know, Danish authorities haven’t said the cartoons cannot be reprinted, so to me that is what is important – Denmark as a country is not opposed to it; the Danish press is and the press is free.”
Now that 2021 is here and with the promise of a functional vaccine there seems to be renewed hope. Can one expect life to get back to normal?
“In America this divisive idea of separate communities exists, but in France there is only one community – the French community. The French Republic is one and indivisible”
“Of course, I hope that we will overcome the Covid-19 pandemic as soon as possible and that the world will recover quickly, but I’m not sure we will ever get back to normal,” cautions Ferrari. “Perhaps only to a certain extent; 2020 has been a turning point in the 21st century, but we need to continue our fight against this virus by joining our efforts across the world and to keep our trust in the future. I also hope that our global cooperation within the EU and at the international level will be stronger and closer thanks to lessons learned from this crisis. We need more solidarity, common actions and innovation to cope and leave no one behind. What has happened this year has taken its toll on our societies, especially the young, but at the same time it is also an opportunity to create an even better future for the next generation. Let’s roll up our sleeves and do it together.”