Home>Rivkin's love for France, and diplomacy


Rivkin's love for France, and diplomacy

On Wednesday, June 14, 2023, the Sciences Po American Foundation welcomed Sciences Po Alumni and friends for its 2023 Annual Benefit Dinner. We honored Amb. Charles H. Rivkin with the Stanley Hoffmann Award, recognizing his exceptional contributions to transatlantic partnership, both as a diplomat and as a cultural and corporate leader.

Amb. Rivkin was interviewed by special guest Vladimir Duthiers, Peabody and Emmy award winning journalist and featured host of “CBS Mornings”. During their discussion Duthiers and Rivkin evoked themes of terroir, diplomacy, and international collaboration that Rivkin has embodied throughout his career.

Rivkin’s public service career was long inspired by his father, whom he lost at a young age. He always admired his father’s career in diplomacy and took heed of his belief that “serving your country at the highest level is the greatest honor you could ever achieve.” From his high school yearbook quote on diplomacy to his college application essay on his aspirations to become an ambassador, he has always followed these ambitions- though he admittedly “never dreamed” as much as to be US Ambassador to France.

Rivkin’s love of France began early in his life, during his high school exchange year in Bretagne. It was during this stay that he discovered the concept of terroir- what he remembers as more than the soil, but the “culture, history and pride of a region”- on the road from Bretagne to Besançon, accompanying his host father on a trip to an artisan trade fair. It was also here that his appreciation for la France profonde began- what he saw during this exchange is what he describes as “the real France”, something that would influence his diplomacy and ambassadorship for years to come.

Rivkin regaled the audience with anecdotes from his time working in France, from giving French President Nicolas Sarkozy a signed Rita Hayworth poster to remind him of one of the self-proclaimed reasons he loves America, to inviting such stars as Samuel L. Jackson and Clint Eastwood on his visits to the Parisian banlieues in his constant efforts to engage all members of the French public.

One of the most important lessons Rivkin learned throughout his career came from his first boss after graduating from Harvard Business School, renowned thinker, puppeteer, inventor, animator, and filmmaker Jim Henson. Rivkin shared that, on one of his long nights working at the Jim Henson Company, he discovered Mr. Henson himself roaming through the basement halls to the boiler room, to brainstorm with one of the employees there. When Rivkin approached Henson about his patrol downstairs, Henson reminded him: “you know, Charlie, good ideas come from anywhere.”

As one of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s earliest supporters, Rivkin was also one of the first to see the influence President Obama would carry internationally. On one of their earliest calls during his campaign, Rivkin asked Obama- why now? His response rings true to this day: “the day I am elected president the world is going to look at us differently- and we’re going to look at ourselves differently as well.” The day of President Obama’s inauguration, popular approval of the U.S. in France jumped from 11% to 92%. During Rivkin’s time as Ambassador, he was able to convince President Obama to go on live television with President Sarkozy. Despite being surrounded by an entourage of hundreds, the President asked Rivkin directly what he should say on French television- another example of their shared value of the importance of the “man on the ground” and hearing directly from the people. 

Duthiers brought the conversation through to Rivkin’s current role, as Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association. The two discussed the importance of the MPA’s work to combat piracy through the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE), and the importance that the MPA lead by example with disruptive technologies like AI entering the market, and with new sustainability measures throughout the film industry.

In his current role at the MPA, Rivkin was able to welcome Frédéric Mitterand, then French Minister of Culture and Communication to the US- something that was likely only possible as the U.S. does not have its own Minister of Culture, though it is the only first world country missing this position in its federal government. Though Mitterand claimed this position is unnecessary for the American government, Rivkin could not disagree more. Media and film from the U.S. have been distributed internationally and are an integral part of culture not only in the U.S., but internationally.

Thanks to modern American streaming, we are able to experience French culture in our living rooms, Rivkin claimed. Long gone are the days, as was the case upon his return from French exchange, where you can’t access your favorite French shows or French news. The MPA’s member streaming services have helped Americans learn to accept subtitles, international film and TV, dubbing, and more.

Amb. Rivkin took inspiration from his earliest mentor, Jim Henson, who believed media, if used properly, could be “an enormous source for good in the world.” Throughout his career, he has extrapolated this belief to his work in government- if used properly, it too can be a source for good for the world and all of its citizens.