The list of former Young Leaders is enough to make the most prestigious schools envious. It features two French presidents (François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron) and one American (Bill Clinton), two French prime ministers (Alain Juppé and Edouard Philippe) and numerous ministers, a mayor of Los Angeles (Eric Garcetti), dozens of CEOs, renowned journalists, and even an astronaut (Thomas Pesquet). A fine track record for a program launched in 1981 when Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand came to power, a time when France and the United States seemed further apart than ever.
The initiative owes a lot to the two presidents’ predecessors, Gerald Ford and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Realizing that the friendly ties dating back to World War II were beginning to fray between the two countries, both heads of state decided to support the recently founded French-American Foundation in 1976. This not-for-profit organization separated into two entities based in Paris and New York aims to foster dialogue between France and America.
Several years later with this goal in mind, the Foundation contacted Ezra Suleiman, a professor of political sciences at Princeton. As a revered expert in French elites, he was tasked with finding around a dozen promising candidates between the ages of 30 and 40 in both countries. “The idea was to find people we felt would become important in the future, and then bring them together,” says Ezra Suleiman. As part of the program, some 10 French participants and as many Americans are picked each year to spend five days on both sides of the Atlantic, meeting figures from the political, economic, and intellectual spheres.
From the very first years, the Young Leaders program welcomed a number of noteworthy individuals, including future French Defense Minister François Léotard, Alain Juppé, who went on to become prime minister and mayor of Bordeaux, and Bill Clinton while he was a young governor of Arkansas. At the time, the participants’ profiles reflected the differences in each country. Whether invited from the worlds of politics, media, or the civil service, the French Young Leaders were often Parisian and graduates of the same grandes écoles, generally Sciences Po and ENA.
The Americans quickly gathered a far more diverse crowd, both geographically and professionally, including soldiers. This was the case of General Anthony Smith, invited in 1981, who later worked as a high-ranking official in NATO before directing the French-American Foundation U.S.A. from 2001 through 2005. “When I joined the program, I was surprised that all the French participants knew each other. By contrast, I knew none of the Americans.”
Writer and economist Guy Sorman, former publication director of France-Amérique, was part of the program’s second year in 1982. “You have to remember that this was a time when anti-Americanism was rife in France. This experience profoundly changed the image other French members and I had of the United States.”
Increasingly Diverse Profiles
Four decades later, and while “transatlantic travel has become far more common,” says Ezra Suleiman, the program continues to teach participants about the lesser-known parts of each country. Mathematician and French representative Cédric Villani was part of the Young Leaders in 2012, and remembers discovering Atlanta. “We were welcomed by the mayor of the city, and also visited the head offices of CNN and Coca-Cola.” He sees this experience as “really interesting. It takes you out of your usual environment, and the discussions about our two countries and global progress are very rewarding.”
Today’s Young Leaders can be scientists, writers, movie producers, or work in the nonprofit sector. The current class, which travelled to Chicago in October 2019, includes the same number of men and women. “The program has become more diverse,” says General Smith. “It has opened up to figures from the arts, which was certainly not the case at the start.” Guy Sorman echoes this sentiment: “In the 1980s and in the years that followed, the civil service was far more represented in the French part of the program, and there were almost no business leaders. That says a lot about the recruitment of the French elites.”
Things have changed, even though the Young Leaders from France still generally come from Paris in an example of continued French centralism. They also already know each other before joining the program, unlike their American counterparts. Being selected is still seen as a sign of success and public recognition, particularly in Paris where former members often meet up at events organized by the Foundation’s French branch such as the annual gala or breakfasts attended by prestigious guests. However, the ties forged go far beyond the somewhat high-society reunions, according to Ezra Suleiman. “I remain convinced of the program’s relevance. As the trips made by the Young Leaders are intense in terms of content, they are one of the best ways of promoting communication between France and the United States.”
Article published in the January 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.