In first Alaska visit, French ambassador talks climate change, Russia and the case of the missing French sled dog

French Ambassador Philippe Etienne (Embassy of France)

France’s ambassador to the United States is in Alaska, with a stop in Anchorage before flying to the village of Quinhagak to visit the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center, which is led by a French archaeologist.

It’s Ambassador Philippe Etienne’s first trip to the state, and, on his first day in Anchorage, he had not yet seen any of the city’s charismatic mega-fauna. But Etienne has been meeting with state and local leaders and the local French community.

Etienne says he’s been discussing everything from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, his diplomatic post in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed and, of course, climate change.

Listen:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Philippe Etienne: Well, we all feel (climate change) very acutely. I mean, on all continents. We had just, in Europe, two heat waves already this summer. And we are also affected by drought, by fires, wildfires like the United States, but like many, many other parts of the world. So it’s really important for all of us in the world, reaching our goals, limiting the global warming. It’s really important to have the U.S. on board. It was good for us to have the U.S. back to the Paris Climate Accords, and also the U.S. as a leader in this global negotiation.

Casey Grove: Kind of changing gears, I had seen on your itinerary that you’re heading to the village of Quinhagak. And maybe you could tell me about that. Why are you heading out there?

PE: Yes, indeed, after Anchorage, we will visit with my colleagues in Quinhagak, because we have there a cooperation between the local community and a French archeologist, which is being supported by our government. This cooperation is about excavations in their region, in the old village of Nunalleq. It’s really important, because it’s about finding objects, artifacts, which would disappear if they are not looked for, because of the global warming, because this, the permafrost, is now unfrozen. And the objects, which have been kept under the previous conditions, cannot be kept anymore.

CG: Where are you expecting? I mean, have you seen pictures? Do you know?

PE: Yeah, I’ve seen some pictures of the result of the investigations, artifacts, which has been found. And I must say, this morning, we were also very lucky because we could visit both, here in Anchorage, the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Anchorage Museum. And we, I, learned quite a lot this morning, visiting those two places.

CG: Yeah, that’s great. We have a nice museum here, don’t we?

PE: Yeah, you can be proud of your museum, certainly a great museum.

CG: My wife drags me there on occasion. She’s also the one that helps me with the French words in the crossword puzzle.

PE: OK! Well, I thank her!

CG: I do too, all the time!

I should ask you about Russia. And I know that’s a broad question, but as a diplomat, do you feel like there’s any hope that diplomacy will help resolve the situation in Ukraine? And I say that sitting here in Alaska, where we are close to the other side of Russia, right? What do you think about that?

PE: We, especially our president, we tried very much to prevent this war, this invasion by Russia. Maybe you remember our President Macron traveled to Moscow some days before, to try to convince the Russian president that there was a negotiation which was possible, because we all need to rethink the security order in Europe, once Russia has started its very brutal invasion of Ukraine. And while France had the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, so had the responsibility for the direction of the whole of the European Union. We were very clear in our determined, you know, support of Ukraine. But to come back to your initial question, of course we we want to resolve these issues with diplomacy. We have always been saying this is a reason why, also, our president kept in touch with not only with the Ukrainian president all the time, but also with the Russian president. For the time being we see the war going on, with many losses, many human losses and even crimes, war crimes. So we have to, we cannot accept this. We continue to support the Ukrainian people in their courageous fight against this aggression.

CG: You mentioned that you had held a post in Moscow about 30 years ago. And I was trying to do the math, if that was just before the collapse of the Soviet Union or just…

PE: At the time of the end of the Soviet Union.

CG: What was that like? I mean, to have seen that for yourself?

PE: Well, it was history in the making, and of course it was not easy for the Russian people. We must understand that better. It was also a period of a freedom, for opportunities, for everybody, including the Russians, also for countries in Central Europe and other countries from the previous Soviet Union. So a difficult time, a transition a time of opportunities, but also of hope.

CG: Yeah. That’s interesting. So many of us just watched it on TV, you know, and I was just a boy. So it’s interesting to meet someone that was there.

PE: It was really impressive. Impressive, yes, to be there at that time.

CG: Well, I wanted to ask you, and I don’t want to say that this is a more lighthearted question, because there was some seriousness involved, but there are a couple French dog mushers that compete in the Iditarod. And last year, I think he was a rookie, one named Sebastien dos Santos Borges, who lost a dog on the trail, Leon. And there was a search for Leon, I think three months went by. Had you heard about that? And, I mean, do you think that that situation could have been helped by some diplomacy?

PE: I heard about that only as I arrived in Alaska, I’m so happy that Sebastien found his dog again. We have here (in Anchorage) an honorary consulate. And we have our General Consulate in San Francisco, which is competent for the French communities here in Alaska. (There) are very, very nice people active in many, many fields, including tourism and sport, but also education or business or art. So I don’t know whether diplomacy would have helped find the poor dog more rapidly, but of course, we are available whenever necessary if French citizens need some help. Again, I don’t know how far we would have been able to help but we are available for any any issue.

CG: So that was a good answer to a silly question.

PE: No, no, there is no silly question. And I understand the emotion caused by the fate of this dog. Those are beautiful and really nice dogs, how do you say, who are drawing these sledges?

CG: Yep.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.