Remarks at the French Grand Legion of Honor Ceremony With French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Quai d'Orsay
Paris, France
December 10, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m heavier now. (Laughter.) Jean-Marc, merci beaucoup, merci mes amis. I am so grateful to all of you for coming here, to all of the Ayrault family who’ve attended and gave us a wonderful lunch today which we’ve enjoyed enormously (inaudible).

To Madame la president of the COP that helped us so enormously to be able to pass the Paris Agreement, distinguished ambassadors, Your Excellencies, Your Highness, thank you so much, my friends. I am deeply appreciative for our friendship and for your efforts for peace around the world.

I am really humbled to receive this award. I mean that. This is one of the great distinctions and I’ve heard about the Legion d’honneur for years. Who hasn’t? It’s an incredible privilege to follow in the footsteps of so many fine people and some Americans who have been distinguished through the years – diplomats, scholars, artists – and in so many ways it contributes to the special relationship that Jean-Marc talked about which goes back so far.

For those of you who aren’t aware, there’s a play on Broadway now about Hamilton. And if you’ve been lucky enough to see it or listen to it, Lafayette is much celebrated in that play and a very funny character may I add. But everybody in America is rekindling this personal sense of the relationship between us.

I am deeply appreciative to Jean-Marc on a personal level. We are, I think, kindred spirits, if I may say. He is a man of enormous passion. Today’s meeting, in the meetings, he’s always saying we have to do something, we have to do something. It’s like that story he just told you about the bicycle. All the things he said about the bicycle are true, but the thing he didn’t add is that if you stop moving, you fall over. (Laughter.) You have to keep moving. It is like diplomacy. And we have kept moving together, and believe me, we are planning even in these next weeks to move together in ways that I hope can make a difference.

But Jean-Marc has been willing to confront every issue, and it is so wonderful to have a country and a foreign minister who see the same things happening and are moved in the same way to believe that we can make a difference.

Thomas Jefferson, as we all know, had a very special relationship with France. And he wrote in his autobiography, “Ask the traveled inhabitant of any nation,” he said, “in what country on earth would you rather live?” And then he said, “Certainly in my own,” he answered, “[But] which would be your second choice? France.”

And he said it would be the second choice for everybody. And many people have attributed him to saying (in French). He did not, in fact, say that. But it’s okay. It’s a good thing to say. He might well have said it.

Jefferson’s affinity for this storied country was very well known everywhere, but I think his statement – excuse me – actually conveyed something much more than just a mere affection. He argued than any true citizen can be a patriot in his or her own country and still harbor a sincere respect for the values espoused by post-revolutionary France. And that’s what he was really referring to, precisely because those values were universal in their application, and I might add formative really for the United States in so many ways – the belief in freedom, the belief in equality before the law, faith in democracy and the basic dignity of every single human being. In the immortal phrase “liberte, egalite, fraternite” – and I think my wife Teresa would respectfully add “sororite.”

We have stood together, as Jean-Marc said in his very generous and very eloquent comments which chronicled parts of my life I have to sort of pull back from, but together we have traveled this journey of peaceful pursuit of social progress, of continuing to try to respect the rights of man, to live an honest life in democracy where people really are respected and where we can do better, and most importantly where we live by rule of law. And we see the challenges for that in today’s world.

So I accept this really in a sense as an added reminder of the duty yet ahead to continue to work to live out those ideals and never stop working for the highest and best aspirations that we all share. And we have a lot of work to do in that regard because there are dangerous currents of authoritarian populism, and no part of the world remembers better what happens when difficult economies mix with sectarian exploitation with nationalism and fear. We really need to be careful going forward and think hard about the choices that we face.

So I’d just share with everybody here that we are pursuing diplomacy because the world needs the values that have been espoused by France and the United States since our inception and built on the experience of France. And we’ve done well together – all of us. We have worked so hard together, I can’t tell you, on the Iran nuclear agreement with Laurent at the time, Laurent Fabius with – it was unique, frankly, that six countries came together, seven countries in all, in this complicated world and actually found a path forward and worked together and sort of sorted through difficult contradictions.

And I think that for all of us that’s a dear daughter (inaudible). (Laughter.) I was talking to Jean-Marc’s daughter before, and I know how much she loves her dad and how much she tried to show through her film the real Jean-Marc, and I can appreciate because I’ve had those conversations with my daughter. And sometimes they’re the best political advisors and they tell you the truth. But in this day and age, folks, we cannot confuse national pride with national self-sufficiency or think that exclusionary policies are somehow going to solve the problems that we face.

So let me just be clear, and I’ll wrap up quickly here. In the 21st century, every country needs partners in order to prosper. None of us move alone. I grew up in an age that Jean-Marc referred to when, in the post-war world, most economies had been destroyed. And we came in with the Marshall Plan, which the people of the United States, by the way, did not support initially, did not understand how we were going to turn around and rebuild Germany and rebuild Japan. But look at the results of those investments, what they mean to this entity called Europe as well as to the world.

So thinking bigger, trying to provide a better vision for people of what the choices are, is not highfalutin, it’s not out of touch, it’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s what defines both of our countries, and it’s why we are who we are and it’s why we are where we are. And so I believe very, very deeply that we need to maintain our fidelity to those values. I know this is a very loyal man and he knows what fidelity means, and I know France understands that full well.

We’ve weathered great storms together. I know this is a time of uncertainty. I ask you not to be diminished by the crosscurrents that are flowing through the world today because I’m convinced – and I really believe this – I see the world – I see the glass as definitively half full, not half empty.

And I say that because for the first time in history severe poverty is under the 10 percent mark on this planet. We are curing diseases we never thought we could cure. If you are a young person born in some deprived place in the world, you are more likely to be fed and more likely to go to school than at any time in human history. If you are a mother giving birth somewhere in the world, you are more likely not to die in the bringing to life than at any time in human history. We have food and food product, the capacity to grow. But even as we do that – yeah, we’ve got climate change and all these other challenges – I am absolutely convinced that we know the choices we need to make. They’re staring us in the face. There’s no problem we face that doesn’t have a solution. And this will continue to inspire me to stay at it and continue to work in whatever capacity I can.

Jean-Marc kindly mentioned my mother and my affinity for France. It does date back generations in our family, and my sense of war dated back to then. One of my first memories was walking the beaches, of being at the beach at Normandy, right at about four years old. It was not too long after the war, and my mother came back to see the house that they had grown up in that had been used by the Germans and then bombed and burned when they left it. And I remember walking through the broken glass and holding her hand, and she was crying. And I didn’t understand why, but I do now. And that’s really when I began to understand the cost of war and the need for all of us to keep fighting for peace always.

Later on in her life, she became a nurse there and she was working in Montparnasse taking care of the wounded when one night she was told – incredible that she didn’t know – that the Germans were about to march into the city. So she ran home, got her sister, then they married, married a French artist, and they all got on their bicycles and they forged their way across France, found their way to Portugal, and got on a ship, became (inaudible) and married my father, and here I am. (Laughter.)

She wrote to her future husband at that point in time – they had met in Saint Briac – “It is a shock to find a country that one has admired and loved crumbling away.” So we will not allow great edifices, great institutions, great ideas, to crumble away. And I just say thank you to you for this extraordinary honor. I would also say thank you to Napoleon Bonaparte for creating it (laughter) and I just – this award will not just be a – not for me. This is an award about our relationship, about France and the United States, about the values that we cherish, and the enduring friendship that we have. So vive le frites, (laughter) French fries, vive la France, and vive les Etats-Unis (inaudible) merci beaucoup. (Applause.)