'Welcome home, Tony': A French-raised top US diplomat in Paris
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in accentless French that France was 'a second home' for him Andrew Harnik POOL/AFP

For the first visit by a top official from President Joe Biden's administration, France got not only a top diplomat committed to Europe but one who considers Paris a second home.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on a mission to Europe to revive ties frayed under Donald Trump, grew up in Paris and speaks native-level French, quickly endearing him to his hosts for reasons beyond policy.

"My dear Tony, I'm really very happy to welcome you to Paris," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in French as he welcomed Blinken in an ornate room of the Quai d'Orsay.

"It's expected that you would visit Paris because you're at home here. I would even be tempted to say, welcome home!"

At a news conference, Blinken told Le Drian in accentless French, "Allow me tell you how happy I am to be back in France, a second home for me."

The 59-year-old with a mane of salt-and-pepper hair, who has a modest side career playing rock guitar, also recalled his youth discovering American music in Paris.

Pointing to the cultural links between the two countries, Blinken joked that he stays up late watching French television series.

"If I have circles under my eyes, it's because I stay up too late at night binge-watching these programs," Blinken said.

- Shaped by France -

The New York-born Blinken moved to Paris as a child with his stepfather Samuel Pisar, a well-known international lawyer, and completed his studies through high school in France before heading back to the United States for university, law school and a career in Democratic Party foreign policy circles.

Soft-spoken and famously even-tempered, Blinken's ease with a foreign language is unusual for the international face of the United States.

Former secretary of state John Kerry, under whom Blinken served as deputy, also spoke French thanks to his time at a Swiss boarding school -- a point readily used to paint him as elitist when he unsuccessfully challenged George W. Bush for the White House in 2004.

Conscious perhaps that most of his own staff do not speak French, Blinken politely demurred at his press conference when encouraged by a local journalist to answer a policy question in French.

But Blinken had no reticence about his French when speaking for 45 minutes at a forum with young people broadcast by the youth-oriented network Brut, taking up issues from institutional racism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to his own experiences in France.

"I've kept my ties and my friends here," said Blinken, who will take personal time Saturday in the midst of an action-packed trip.

Blinken said France and the United States shared the "same values" although he declined to be drawn on a question about French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Blinken's classmates in Paris included Rob Malley, who would go on to serve with Blinken in Bill Clinton's administration and after Biden's election was put in charge of delicate diplomacy with Iran.

His longtime friend, speaking to AFP after Blinken's nomination, said that the future top diplomat's own American identity was shaped by his time in Paris, the years just after the Vietnam War.

"Tony believed strongly in his values and identity as an American but was living in a foreign country and therefore forced to see the world through the eyes of that foreign country at a time when the US was not the most popular," Malley said.

© 2021 AFP