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France’s ambassador sounds off on everything from climate change to Chinese poetry

By Kristen Shane      

Nicolas Chapuis is determined to talk about policy, but his career and love of literature are just too interesting to pass up.

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Arriving to speak to a head of mission newly posted to Ottawa is, in the words of Forrest Gump, like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.

In a newspaper so full of policy, the Diplomatic Circles column tends to focus on the people who push it behind the scenes: who they are and what they bring to the job.

But new French Ambassador Nicolas Chapuis, 57, sitting down after a whirlwind morning of presenting his credentials to the governor general and hosting a reception to mark his arrival on Feb. 18, makes it immediately known he doesn't want to be the subject of a personal profile.

“People change, the issues remain,” he remarks, seated in his embassy’s unique birch room whose walls are covered in tree bark.

So, much of the next hour is spent on just that: the issues. The two countries have strong and long ties. Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson visited France on his first trip abroad in the job last week.

Whip-smart, with four degrees and a Harvard University fellowship under his belt, Mr. Chapuis is a tad intimidating as he leans toward a reporter at the edge of his seat speaking animatedly with wide eyes and expansive gestures about climate change. His voice rises and falls like a rollercoaster.

“We have a rendezvous with history because climate change is the challenge of a century,” he says slowly and deliberately.

Other issues dominate headlines: the war in Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, North Korea and foreign aid. But, he stresses, “Peace and war make no sense if we cannot breathe.”

And it’s his job, as a representative of the host country, to be one of the voices talking to Canadians to ensure the success of the conference.

Mr. Chapuis says the idea that climate change is not on the Canadian agenda is a misconception. The country is on board with the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21) meeting that France is hosting in Paris this fall. Countries around the world are set to use the conference to conclude an agreement to keep global warming to under two degrees Celsius.

Mr. Chapuis noted that Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq was at a lead-up summit last December in Peru, French President François Hollande and Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke about the topic at length when Mr. Hollande visited Canada last fall, and when Mr. Hollande spoke to a joint session of Parliament on the Paris summit, he was applauded by both the opposition and government.

“So Canada is on board,” says the ambassador. “The question is: how will Canada contribute to the success of the Paris conference?”

He says he wants to see the government play a “positive, dynamic, [and] a leadership role that is at the core of Canadian identity, which has always been in the past a leader of innovation and environment.”

Participants have been asked to suggest their “intended nationally determined contributions” by the end of this month, to start the ball rolling on negotiations toward a successor agreement to 2009’s Copenhagen Accord, the Canadian Press reported this week. Environment Canada has been gathering information from the provinces on greenhouse-gas reduction measures in the lead-up to that deadline, CP reported.

The Harper government has committed to cut emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, but it’s fallen behind being able to meet that target. And it has yet to set new regulations for the oil and gas sector, Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Trade and investment

Besides making that summit a success, Mr. Chapuis’s second priority this year is to boost Canadian investment in France.

Investment is different from trade, he explains. And on that note, he tackles concerns about the Canada-European Union free trade agreement. While negotiations have ended, voices on both sides of the Atlantic have spoken out against sticky parts of the deal: Newfoundland has a funding beef with the federal government, Quebecers want to be compensated for giving Europeans a bigger slice of the cheese market, and some in France and Germany have expressed concerns about the deal’s investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, or ISDS, especially given that the Canada-EU deal is set to be a model for an EU deal with the United States, and the armies of lawyers that come with dispute settlement in North America.

“There is a worry because of the differences of the legal systems that the settlement mechanism might be abused,” he says.

France and Germany worked with the European Commission, the negotiating body, to try to come up with ways to reduce those concerns about ISDS—in general, not specific to the Canadian deal, CETA, says Mr. Chapuis. 

Ministers of the two countries have published a release “saying that there is a need to modernize the system, not to change it, not to renegotiate anything with Canada, but to make sure that the system will not be abused,” he says on Feb. 18.

In love with Du Fu’s writing

He falls back into the stuffed leather chair as he moves on to another subject.

Sometimes he pauses between phrases to allow them to sink in, or even takes on a professorial manner, asking the reporter “what is diplomacy?” before answering himself: “diplomacy is the art of connecting.”

Despite his protests, Mr. Chapuis’s career and interests outside work are just too interesting not to mention.

Married with two grown children, his diplomatic career started in 1980 and has largely focused on China. He has had four postings in Beijing and one in Shanghai.

He came into the foreign ministry with degrees in Chinese and Mongolian studies as well as world history. He soon put his studies to good use on postings as well as by acting as desk officer for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia, and later deputy director for East Asia, ambassador to Mongolia and deputy chief of mission in Beijing.

Besides Asia, he was his foreign ministry’s chief co-ordinator of a WikiLeaks Taskforce in 2010-11 when the website was releasing thousands of United States diplomatic cables filled with the unvarnished observations by American foreign service officers posted around the world.

More recently, Mr. Chapuis helped start his foreign ministry’s first internal social media network to share diplomatic notes in real time, as chief information officer.

In his spare time while he’s in Canada (if there is any; now, there’s none) he hopes to continue his longtime hobby of translating the poems of 8th century Chinese writer Du Fu into French. His first volume of about 100 poems, with translation and comment, is set to be published this spring in France. But given that there are 1,300 more and it took 10 years to translate the first 100, Mr. Chapuis expects he’ll be busy well into his retirement, “possibly after my death,” he says with a snicker.

Du Fu is “the greatest Chinese poet who ever lived,” he says, comparing him to France’s great author Victor Hugo.

“You cannot understand China if you’ve never read Du Fu,” he says, leaving no room for argument. “So as China has become the new ‘big kid on the block,’ you’d better understand it.”

With a hearty laugh, he says when he does finally get some free time after his first few weeks, “I will have to arbitrate between Canadian invitations to go to provinces, skating on the canal, Stéphane [Schorderet, his press counsellor in the room while he’s being interviewed] wants me to play soccer, whatever, you know, golf parties, my own health, my wife who says ‘Where is my husband?’ and my love for poetry, in French and in Chinese and in English. I love poetry.”




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