Only a few hours after returning from a White House meeting with President Obama, the U.S. ambassador raced out of his 19th century residence on chic Rue Saint Honore in a highly secured convoy, heading for a somewhat less fashionable address.
“I want to help those communities,” Ambassador Charles H. Rivkin said of low-income banlieues, or suburbs, such as La Courneuve. “I want to show those communities that the face of America is multicultural, that the face of America is Barack Obama.”
Surrounded by youths at La Courneuve’s cultural center, most of them of immigrant backgrounds, Rivkin didn’t necessarily present a picture of American diversity.
But the 48-year-old Yale alum and Harvard Business School graduate with Russian Jewish roots shook hands with everyone in the room, and asked in fluent French about their various projects. Rivkin, who left a high-profile job in the entertainment industry for the gig in France, also drew attention by suggesting an exchange between local artists and Hollywood.
“I headed a media association in the U.S., and I want to make an exchange between France and the American media, so why not do it with the banlieues?” he said. The room started to buzz.
“Please call us!” some shouted. (Less than a week later, Rivkin made good on one of his proposals by bringing actor Samuel L. Jackson, and a throng of journalists, to another suburb.)
Rivkin arrived in France eight months ago from Santa Monica, where he headed the animation and entertainment production company Wildbrain. Before that, he ran the Jim Henson Co., creator of the Muppets and “Sesame Street.” As he settles into his new job, Rivkin wants to take full advantage of the warm feelings for Obama in a country that saw protests against the Bush administration.
To the ambassador, that means several trips to the banlieues, which are known abroad mostly as the center of riots in 2005 and ’07.
“I want to go to places that no American ambassador has ever been,” Rivkin said.
Or presidents, for that matter. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has famously struggled to return to the banlieues, where he is deeply unpopular after calling residents “hoodlums,” among other perceived insults.
When asked by French journalists, Rivkin denied wanting to put any pressure on Sarkozy to do more in the area, but the issue is a delicate one. Rivkin has had to deal with reports of a rocky personal relationship between Obama and Sarkozy, a conservative who got along famously with President George W. Bush.
“It almost seemed as though, because things are going so well, journalists are looking for some indication that it wasn’t going so well,” Rivkin said. “And they were trying to pull up anything they could pull up.”
But even after a recent state dinner at the White House for the Sarkozys, French pundits were not convinced that the two leaders were friends.
“He’s doing his job as ambassador,” Philippe Moreau Defarges, a senior researcher at the French international relations think tank IFRI, said of Rivkin’s dismissal of any serious differences.
Obama’s visit last summer to Paris, in which he reportedly rejected several invitations to spend time with the Sarkozys, is the example most often cited of the alleged disregard.
Rivkin hopes to “shake things up” in France.
With a packed agenda that has him skipping to and from events, and an ever-vigorous handshake, he can come off like a ball of enthusiasm amid the traditionally demure French officialdom often on display at stately cocktail parties.
Rivkin believes he can use his familiarity with American entertainment to help stimulate job growth and ties between the two nations.
“I do feel I understand the power of media,” he said, a lesson he says he learned from Jim Henson.
Henson “once told me that media, if used properly, can be an enormous source of good in the world,” Rivkin said. “I happen to think that he lived that philosophy. The programs that he made made a positive difference, such as ‘Sesame Street ‘… a program that raised the level of literacy in America.”
Speaking of his business background, Rivkin said, “I am inexplicably drawn to David-and-Goliath battles, and I’ve always sided with David.”
Rivkin describes his early backing of Obama in similar terms.
“I believed that whether or not he would be president, he should be president, and those are the causes that I like, and that’s the way that I tend to manage a business, which is never accept the impossible.”
Yet Rivkin’s habitual smile fades when he defends his political appointment, which some saw as payback for raising a reported $500,000 for Obama’s campaign as California finance co-chair.
“I didn’t ask for this job. How could you? How could anybody bet on Barack Hussein Obama, before the entire world knew who he was, and expect he would be president and give you some kind of a reward?” he said.
Rivkin talks about his ambassadorship as a kind of unimaginable gift, to which he attributes the greatest importance, even referring to it as a family “legacy” he now has the opportunity to fulfill.
His father, William R. Rivkin, was President Kennedy’s ambassador to Luxembourg and later envoy in Senegal and Gambia, before he died at age 47, a year younger than Rivkin is now.
In Rivkin’s college application to Yale, where he studied political science and focused on international relations, the subject of his essay was becoming an ambassador, “in a way that a kid that loves the New York Yankees would dream of being the manager of the Yankees,” he said.
On the anniversary of his father’s death, he was thoughtful.
“I dreamed as a child to maybe one day serve the country the way my father did, but I wouldn’t have dared to dream that I’d serve here, so this is an example of living beyond my wildest dreams.”