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Florida and France: Travel, Climate Change, Caribbean and Space

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Space X Crew Launch
Aubrey Gemignani/AP
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched on NASA's SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station on April 23, 2021. Two Americans, one Japanese and one French astronaut were on board.

"Florida is a very important place for French investors," said France's Ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Étienne, during a visit for the launch of a French crew member from Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station.

The chance to see a Frenchman blast off into space is why Philippe Étienne came to Florida last week. Étienne is France's Ambassador to the United States and countryman Thomas Pesquet was onboard the SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station.

After a one day weather delay, it launched early Friday morning.

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France’s and Étienne’s interest in Florida go beyond the space industry, though. WLRN also spoke to Étienne about tourism, climate change and Haiti while he was in Florida.


France is an important source of tourists to Florida. It is the eighth-largest source of international visitors to the state, and the seventh-largest source to Miami.

France and Florida have had very different strategies toward tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, France is a country and Florida is a state so what each can do regarding foreign visitors is different, but while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned businesses from requiring vaccine certifications, France is moving in that direction.

After WLRN's interview with Étienne, the European Commission announced fully vaccinated Americans could travel to European Union countries, which includes France. While there was no timeline announced, it represents a significant change. Non-essential travel to the EU has been banned for more than a year.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

French Ambassadeur Phillipe Etienne flags - 04202021.jpg
courtesy: French Embassy to the US
Philipe Étienne has served as France's Ambassador to the U.S. since 2019.

WLRN: The subject of vaccine passports has been very controversial in the United States.

ÉTIENNE: The idea of vaccination certificates or passports in Europe is not easy, but for a reason which might be different from the situation in the United States. In Europe, the problem is that we lack the speed of vaccination.

The governor of Florida issued an executive order prohibiting businesses from having vaccine passports as a requirement for customers. What are your thoughts about those types of prohibitions that we're seeing in in Florida — a tourist-dependent economy?

While it is difficult for me to to make any judgment about what's happening here, on the European side, I think the idea would be rather to have as many people vaccinated as possible so that you can use this information without putting some people at a disadvantage.

Are you concerned about a scenario where Floridians who would like to visit France would be required to certify that they've been vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19 and French tourists who would like to visit Florida would not face such requirements?

For the time being, the system is already not completely symmetrical. European citizens living in the U.S., if they come to get back to France or to Germany, they are not necessarily allowed to get back to to the U.S. We have regimes where restrictions on both sides are not exactly the same. And I think we must be careful about that. Because I'm optimistic by nature, I think that the more our situations will converge in the direction of an improvement, the less of those differences of regulations will matter. It is not important only for tourism. It's also important for business and for culture.


Friday's early morning launch of a four-person crew to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center is French astronaut Thomas Pesquet's second trip to the orbital outpost. It also was the second time Étienne watched a space launch. He first saw a space launch in the early 1990s when he was a diplomat in Russia.

The international space race was becoming more collaborative after decades of national competition. With advances in technology and the development of the private space industry, including in Florida, the stakes over science and national security are ever-increasing.

How are these commercial partners like SpaceX helping agencies like the European Space Agency?

It is not like the competition we had before. I see two levels. First, there is a public-private [dimension] with many private companies getting into the business and pushing for innovation and inventing new models. But there also are more public stakeholders. Most of the financing of the space research still is public.

We'll see a lot of satellites making incredibly important research, for instance, against the climate change. And more and more countries are in this race. I hope that we will stay on the road of cooperation because the challenges are really common to the whole international community.

What kind of emerging threats in space are on the horizon as you see a country like China, for instance, become more aggressive with its space program?

We have a number of challenges in outer space — will we be able to collaborate, to compete, but also to cooperate because we have the same challenges. We need common answers to the earthly threats, especially the threat against the planet's climate. The danger of outer space, like cyberspace, [is] the new field of military or security competition. All of this must be monitored and followed carefully by our countries, especially from the security point of view.

How is the space race intersecting with the race to address climate change?

It's absolutely essential because the best place to observe those phenomenon is the space. Instruments [in space] are absolutely necessary to monitor climate change, to monitor the emissions, and also to measure precisely the level of seas, and many other phenomena which are absolutely crucial to the evolution of the climate.

Climate Change

It took the United States more than three years to officially quit the Paris Accord climate change agreement and one month to rejoin.

President Donald Trump made the announcement in June 2017, from the White House Rose Garden, that America would quit the deal to limit global warming. Because of the rules of the agreement, the U.S. officially filed its divorce papers in the fall of 2019. And the separation wasn’t final until the day after Election Day 2020.

Then, just hours after Joe Biden took the presidential oath of office, and steps away from where President Trump began the withdrawal process, President Biden began the process to rejoin the agreement and by February it was official — the U.S. was back in the pact.

The goals of the deal are to limit global warning to no more than one and a half degrees Celsius, with countries agreeing to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Last week at a White House virtual summit on the climate, Biden pledged to reduce America’s emissions.

It marks a return of the United States to the global effort to address climate change that is at the heart of the agreement bearing the name of the city in which it was negotiated — the Paris Accord.

As France's Ambassador to the U.S. since 2019, Étienne has had a unique perspective on the changing climate over climate change in the White House.

How would you describe the U.S. credibility today on addressing climate change?

Even during the past four years, many Americans continued to consider themselves in the Paris Accord. And then, of course, we have the new administration, which made very clear through the immediate decision taken by President Biden to come back to the accord. The U.S. wants to be again in the leadership as it was before and in the run up to the Paris Accord itself, together with Europe. We welcome this. I understand also that there is ambition by this administration to raise the the level of the policies which can lead to a strong diminution of the emissions. So I think we can take this seriously and consider that the U.S. is really back on the frontline of the battle against climate change together with Europe.

What role do local governments in the United States play, states like Florida for instance, in the Paris Accord goals? States that are vulnerable to the hazards of climate change?

A very important role, and not only in the United States. Local governments, cities, and big cities are actors on the ground that make things happen or not happen. Their role is essential together with the role of national governments. It's about public transportation. It's about housing. It's about fostering renewable energies which can be made nationally, but also at the state level.

FPL is the primary electric generating company and distributor in South Florida. About 75 percent of its electricity is generated via natural gas. Nuclear power is the next largest source, about 12 percent of its portfolio. Solar is less than 10 percent. How will what France wants to accomplish with the Paris Accords potentially impact how electricity is generated?

The logic of the Paris climate accord is that every country decides for itself a path. It's what we call nationally determined contributions. Each country has its own energy mix. What is important is not only that as many countries as possible join the commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050, but also take concrete steps to reach this goal. In France, civil nuclear energy accounts for two-thirds of our electricity [generation]. We intend to lower its share to 50 percent over the years through more and more renewables. But we consider nuclear energy as something which is really important for this transition, because it's a low carbon energy.

Critics of the Paris Accord in the United States point to China as the largest emitter of carbon in the world. Florida Sen. Rick Scott called the Paris Accord "a bad deal for Americans." He said it puts "American taxpayers on the hook for the real polluters." As a diplomat, How do you how do you build these bridges?

We have to solve this issue of so-called carbon leakage, because when you're fighting efficiently against climate change and others don't do it, how do you balance this for the trade to not disadvantage your own economy or jobs? We recognize there is an issue and we in Europe have made proposals for this. Every country has to take commitments. And, of course, the role of China is absolutely considerable. We agree they are not [doing] enough.

Considering France's presence in the Caribbean, what more can be done to help mitigate climate change in the region?

Those countries must be helped to mitigate the climate challenge. We owe [it to] them to do more, but also to adapt themselves to logical adaptation to increase their resilience. We see the problem is already there. France, being a Caribbean country through our departments and our territories, we work very much with those countries with Inter-American Development Bank. We have programs to increase the resilience. Our French Agency for Development has programs we try to use and money from the European Union. We try to use all possible funding, including French development assistance, to help them increase their resilience.


Étienne is a veteran international diplomat. Prior to becoming the top representative of the French government in America, he was advisor to the French President Emmanuel Macron. He also has served as Permanent Representative of France to the European Union.

Haiti may not be in his diplomatic portfolio, but France’s connections to its former Caribbean colony run deep. A French nun and priest were among the 10 people kidnapped earlier this month northeast of Port-au-Prince.

Kidnapping for ransom money, and violence has increased in recent months — some streamed live on the Internet. The prime minister resigned and the president is under increasing pressure to hold elections.

Should France be doing more to welcome more of the diaspora as immigrants from Haiti?

We have quite a sizable diaspora in French Guiana. Because of the proximity, we probably have more Haitian communities in Canada and the United States, especially in Florida. We have also Haitian communities in France. We also work with the diaspora here in North America. Of course, we we should all do more. But this protracted crisis, which has been lasting so long in Haiti, is a first a governance and a security crisis.

How does France approach the issue of reparations regarding its former colony, Haiti?

In the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is the only country which is considered a priority country for development assistance. We are also devoting much importance in this framework to policies related to education and to the future of this country.

Have those efforts been initiated because of the idea of reparations?

Because of the history, in general. Because this is a country which is, we feel, very close to our country. The population in France, not only a Haitian diaspora, but also the French population feels very strongly about cooperating with Haitian communities in Haiti. It probably is one that the country with which we have the biggest number of civil society organizations trying to help — from small communities to small communities, churches to churches. There is a huge network of solidarity between the French society and the Haitian society.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.