The US Ambassador to France is no grey-suited career diplomat. Among her previous jobs, she was CEO and co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club. She tells The Connexion of her long love of France (and cooking) and her hopes for the election
About the US Ambassador
Jamie McCourt, American ambassador to France since 2017, has a longstanding love for the country and its culture. She took her first degree in French and has studied at the Sorbonne and in Aix-en-Provence. She also has a law degree – she has worked as a lawyer – and an MBA. Another of her passions is baseball. She was the most senior woman in the sport in her former position as CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers. She co-owned the Dodgers, which she bought with her ex-husband Frank McCourt, owner of French Ligue 1 football club Olympique de Marseille, for €430million in 2004.
US ambassadors are often not career diplomats but are hand-picked by the president. Ms McCourt was a vocal and financial supporter of President Trump in the 2016 election. In 2020, she believes he is still the best candidate for the job. As she sees it, President Trump “stands for everything that is the American dream”. She says: “Without someone who understands it, lived it, believes it, supports it and is going to try to make it possible for people to have it, we will have a real problem with our country. That means a worldwide problem for democracy.”
She points to Mr Trump’s “day-to-day” experience in the business world and his “understanding of how to build things”. “We need a major infrastructure project to get people back to work,” she said. “And who’s the right person to do that?” Ms McCourt, who owns a vineyard in Napa, California, and studied culinary arts in Aix-en-Provence, says it is a love of food in particular that has influenced her love of France.
She said: “I’ve always loved to cook and I’ve always loved to eat and I’ve always loved to have people around the table. I was here at a young age and that just stayed ingrained. When I used to interview people [at the Dodgers], I would do it over a meal because I could tell everything about someone after one meal with them. It’s an insight into who people are. You can learn so much about people at your table, whether it’s through their conversation, or their habits.”
Inside the job
Becoming the US ambassador has been “the most amazing experience”, she says. Partly, she says, because President Trump has visited France several times. “A lot goes on and you get to see a lot.” Mr Trump’s visits include attending the 2017 Fête Nationale military parade, the Armistice memorials in 2018, the 75-year anniversary of D-day in 2018, and the G7 meeting in Biarritz last year. He often stays at Ms McCourt’s official Paris residence.
“We’ve had a lot of face time with this president and he is very direct. It’s always clear what he wants to talk about.” France is the foreign country Mr Trump has visited the most during his presidency, something the ambassador credits to two factors. First, “it shows how profound and important the Franco-American relationship is”.
Secondly, she says: “Trump and Macron have a wonderful relationship, and their wives have a wonderful relationship, which also makes it easy. From every standpoint, it’s probably one of the best relationships America has had in my lifetime.” This has only got stronger with the Covid-19 crisis, Ms McCourt says, “because the two presidents, who always spoke frequently, speak even more frequently about everything, given that there’s economic considerations, travel considerations, and everything that’s going on”.
Despite this, travel between France and the US has remained heavily restricted since March. The difficulties this presents for those with loved ones in either country and the uncertainty of the Covid-19 crisis are the predominant issue the US Embassy is dealing with.
“Nobody’s losing passports, as there’s no travel,” said Ms McCourt. Instead, the number one question being asked is “how can I get people to come to France?” It does not look likely that easy answers will be coming soon. “I’ve been living here so long that even I am saying c’est compliqué,” she said. “But it is.” This is something that the ambassador, who has four adult sons, feels personally.
“It’s so sad on a personal level for everyone. Whether people are having babies or have lost people, or have people in hospitals, or things that they really want to be celebrating, or sick parents… you name it. I find that to be devastating.” As for whether Americans in France should make plans to travel home for Christmas this year, she says: “Your guess is as good as mine... We can’t control who the French will say ‘OK’ to, or ‘not OK’ to [with regard to returning to France afterwards]. With Covid, what everybody’s allowing are humanitarian exceptions, business exceptions, people with visas, people who have jobs, or kids, and relatives of French citizens.”
If the ambassador continues in her role after the election, economic recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic will be one of her top priorities. The predominant focus of the US Embassy is on national security and the protection of American citizens, but she says: “Assuming that’s always there, what’s the next focus? It would have to be economics. Recovery is going to be a challenge. We all will make it happen but on both sides of the pond we have to figure out how to work together as quickly as possible.”
Beyond that, Ms McCourt’s “personal focus”, coming from a Jewish family, is on antisemitism in France, which she describes as “not in a good place right now”. She says: “Our job is to try to stem the tide on that and really keep it at everybody’s awareness level. Because it’s very easy to pretend it’s not important.”
However, first the American public must elect their leader for the next four years and Ms McCourt is a “political” ambassador, not a career diplomat.
When Trump took on the presidency in 2017, he replaced all of Obama’s political ambassadors with his own appointees. If the US president changes this November, the US Ambassador to France – one of the most sought-after diplomatic roles – can be expected to change too. As such, for Ms McCourt, November 3 holds political and deeply personal significance. Traditionally, the ambassador hosts an event in the residence to see in the election results. “It’s like football in America,” she said. “It’s an event to watch but with Covid I cannot see how this is going to be possible this year.”