Antonin Baudry is the French government’s Cultural Counselor, based out of New York City. He is the author (pseudonym of Abel Lanzac), with cartoonist Christophe Blain, of the graphic novel, “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy.” This is a work of fiction that provides an insightful look at how, amid what can appear as utter chaos, great things can be accomplished. Baudry was part of the staff of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and helped in crafting speeches including the French position to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As a work of fiction, this book provides a unique window in a similar spirit to “The West Wing” and goes it one better with its distinctive vision, timeless quality, and wry sense of humor.
During our conversation, Baudry was quite generous with his responses and spoke to the mutual interests shared by France and the United States. He describes how committed he and Blain became to this graphic novel, a story that can now be shared with Americans. At first, it had all seemed like a little joke to try to carve a work of fiction drawing upon his experience at the Quai d’Orsay. But a need to stay true to one’s passion won out. Writer and artist ended up working very closely together.
As a war in Iraq becomes imminent, it all comes down to one last plea for reconsideration by de Villepin in a significant speech to the United Nations. It begins with: “Here we are meeting today a few hours before the weapons break their silence. To express the firm beliefs underpinning our respective commitments, but also to outline together the paths that must allow us to recover the spirit of unity.”
Henry Chamberlain: Let me begin with the speech that French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin gave on February 14, 2003. He went up against great odds and yet the speech was given and it lives on. Can you speak to the spirit, and the thinking, that went behind that speech?
Antonin Baudry: It was a very important moment. We thought it would be the last meeting at the U.N., at the Security Council, before a possible war in Iraq. The minister thought he really had the role, the necessity, to take a position, whatever happens.
It was a difficult moment. He wanted to present a message that would not be mistaken. Basically, the message was that we are ready to go with the U.S., shoulder to shoulder, to a war in Iraq, if there is evidence that there are weapons of mass destruction there. And, secondly, beware because, even if we have the ability to set that country free, we won’t be welcome once we’re there. So, that was basically the two messages to that speech.
It was a very dramatic moment. Everybody knew that there were a lot of interests, reasons, different points of view, leading to the war and he may not be listened to.
HC: The speech is relatively brief. It begins poetically, it moves on to practical matters, it advocates for a U.N. disarmament body. It’s a speech everyone should read. I wonder if you could speak to the scope of recent history, and your expressions of that time, through the book, as well as the movie based on the book. They are both now available in the U.S. Could you speak about them as a form of testimony?
AB: The book and the film are both fiction. I want to be very clear on that. It means that I took the freedom to give my point of view. I saw some of the things that happened there. I didn’t see everything. I probably didn’t understand everything. But I wanted to give my point of view of mechanisms. And that’s why I gave imaginary names, for example, to the countries. I really wanted to indicate that it is not a documentary. It’s not a historic testimony. It’s a fiction.
My point was to show the mechanisms of the way that diplomatic negotiations can be handled. How all of this happens. How all these people work together. How some frantic elements of rivalry and jealously can intervene upon the decision-making, sometimes and sometimes not.
The real hero of the comic books and the film is someone who is never mentioned. He’s actually a German philosopher. His name is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The film and the book are really a way to show how a really messy and challenging process can lead to very rational decisions but you’d never know it when you are in the middle of it. Regarding the speech that you’ve mentioned, the way that the speech was created, the way speeches are created, was somehow “messy.” But, in the end, that speech said exactly what needed to be said.
HC: Would you say that despite everything, that somehow the pen is mightier than the sword, at least in the eyes of history?
AB: Well, in this case the sword was more powerful than the pen. And history shows that military power is more powerful than anything else.
HC: Could you speak to the creation of the graphic novel between you and Christophe Blain. How did you two come together to create the book?
AB: When I first arrived to report to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, I didn’t know anything. I’d never met a diplomat before. I’d never met a politician before. I was totally out of it. I had a bad memory so I had problems remembering who was who. I started to memorize names by seeing each person as having a special power like a superhero. I was a big comic book fan so it was easy for me to see all these people as superheroes.
Then a few years later, when I was out of France, I wanted to tell this story. I had these characters in my mind, already thinking in terms of comics, and so it made sense to create a graphic novel. And then I realized that Christophe Blain was the perfect guy for me to work with because his drawings are beautiful, the way he can capture the movement, the internal modes of the characters. So, at first, he said that he is used to drawing pirates and cowboys. He wasn’t sure about drawing guys in suits in offices. Finally, a few days later, he came around and we started working on this project. It really began as a joke. We really wanted to have fun. We went to see a publisher and the publisher said, “Fine. You probably won’t sell a lot of copies since it’s guys in suits in offices. But it’s fine. Do it.”
And the rule was that we never worked without each other. He would never work without me. And I would never work with him. So we did the storyboards together. It was never like me writing stuff and sending it off to him and then him drawing stuff and sending it back to me. We were always in the same room. I was telling stories, imitating the characters, their moves, their eyes. And he was drawing directly.
HC: That would be the ideal way to work. In America, that would hold true for independent and alternative comics but not for the big publishers. The way that Blain draws people brings out endless possibilities. It’s fascinating to see. It’s not talking heads. There’s all this body language, all these expressive ways of how people talk. Was this a one-shot project or was it serialized?
AB: In France, it was two books. The first was released in 2010. And the second in 2012. In the American edition, everything is in one book, which is actually better. When I started the first book, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I knew it would be two books but, in spirit, it is one book. Our publisher wanted to do it in two books.
HC: In your position as the French Cultural Counselor, how would you compare the French reaction to the book and movie to the American reaction? I realize it’s too early to say for sure. But I would imagine it comes down to how each culture consumes comics. In France, and Europe, it is more common to consume a wide variety of comics and, in the States, we have more select groups that consume comics.
AB: In France, we sold 500,000 copies, which is really a lot for a comic book. And I think it’s because a lot of people, who don’t read comic books, read this one because of the subject. I hope it will be the same in the U.S. In France, and in Europe, it was a case of many readers who don’t normally read comics.
HC: I think that will hold true in the U.S. and you’ll have many readers who don’t normally read comics. And I think of the movie too. Everything has been fictionalized which does give it a timeless quality. It gives it more the theme of a person who needs to speak out.
HC: I know that you enjoy to read and reread “Passions of the Soul” by René Descartes. Now, that makes its way into the graphic novel, doesn’t it? That feeling of living up to your passions?
AB: Yeah, the basic idea of “The Passions of the Soul” is that you cannot fight against your passion. But you can use your passion against your opponent’s. And that was really the only weapon I had to fight with during that time.
I also think that sometimes this method can solve matters in international relations. When another country is humiliated, you cannot deny that. So you can try to create another passion or feeling or movement but you cannot deny that irrational thing. I think it really makes sense in the dynamics of human character, and countries, actually.
HC: What goes through your mind now, in your role as the French Cultural Counselor? I know you’re a big fan of Metallic. You’re a human being with your own quirks and interests. I guess I’m wondering what you do in your position. Are you trying to broaden the horizons of Americans on France? What would you say to Americans about France?
AB: I’m trying to create links and bonds between French and American society using culture, education, university partnerships, student mobility. I’m trying to raise money for these kind of programs so that the French and Americans can know each other better, can interact better, and can understand each other better.
What I would say to an American person is that France and the U.S. are very close, especially if you look at the rest of the world. When there’s a problem somewhere, we should really work together to solve it. And that’s what we do. I think it’s very interesting to have both the French and the American point of view working together on everything: on finance, the arts, the Arab Spring, literature. I think that the arts and culture are really a way to understand each other better. There are a lot of fresh, new, and interesting things coming from France. They don’t fit a stereotype of France. Each country has its stereotype. You always are different, not the same as any sterotype.
HC: Are there some examples you could give us of contemporary French culture that Americans should know about? I mean, any books or movies, or whatever comes to mind?
AB: There are many. Right now we have a dance festival in New York. We’re having a film festival in June and July, Films on the Green, which will be playing in every park in the city. There are a lot of great books, for example, the new book by Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century). His book is a triumph. There are so many. For novels, there is “Limonov” by Emmanuel Carrere. It will be launched in a couple of weeks.
I think the common point between France and the U.S. is that we both embrace the world somehow. We’re both interested in the whole world. In bookshops in France, you’ll find that a third of the books are translations of books from all over the world. We are really a very open country to any other part of the world. We share that. American books are also from every part of the world. We’re both not closed off.
HC: I totally agree. That was my experience when I got to visit France. Do you have other comics projects? I had read that you were planning on a graphic novel about globalism set in the Middle Ages.
AB: Yeah, it’s a project I have. But I’m not working on it right now. Honestly, I have much work to do with the embassy. When I can, I will return to work on it. It’s a project I want to do.
HC: I want to thank you for your time.
AB: Thank you. I appreciated all your questions.
You can listen to the interview as a podcast by just clicking the link below:
“Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” is a 200-page hardcover published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams Books, which you can visit here. You can also find “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” at Amazon right here.
“The French Minister” is available on Amazon right here.