Karine Jean-Pierre was appointed spokesperson for the White House by Joe Biden on Thursday. She had already made history in May 2021, becoming the first openly gay woman – and the second black woman – to take her place, facing journalists, on the podium of the official press room of the presidency. During an exclusive interview with France 24 in October 2021, she returned to her childhood, the crisis of Haitian migrants in the United States and the recent diplomatic crisis with France.
Journalists covering the White House know her well. She regularly briefs the media, whether aboard Air Force One or from the podium in the White House press room, as deputy spokesperson for the Biden administration.
Karine-Jean Pierre, 44, will be from May 13 and the departure of Jen Psaki number 1, thus designated by Joe Biden, Thursday May 5. She is the first black and openly lesbian woman to hold this position, as her predecessor pointed out. She embodies the diversity promoted by the Biden administration.
She was already the first openly gay woman – and second black woman – to take her place on the podium in the “James S. Brady” press room.
In 2016, then national spokesperson for the organization MoveOnshe said: “I am everything that Donald Trump hates: woman, black, gay and mom.”
Karine Jean-Pierre was born in Fort-de-France, Martinique, to parents from Haiti who fled the Duvalier dictatorship. She spent a few years in Paris, then arrived with her family in the United States at the age of 5. The daughter of a taxi driver and a home health aide, she grew up in Queens, New York.
>> To (re) see: Reporters – Immigration, Joe Biden’s challenge
In her Memoirs “Moving Forward: A Story of Hope, Hard Work, and the Promise of America” (2019), she confides in her difficult adolescence. Sexually abused, she suffered from depression for a long time and attempted suicide. She also looks back on her political commitment, from the New York local elections to the Barack Obama campaign.
In an exclusive interview granted to France 24 in October 2021, she returned to her journey, to the recent crisis of Haitian migrants between Mexico and the United States, as well as to the diplomatic crisis with France.
France 24: Your story reflects the American dream, how does that inspire you? ?
Karine Jean-Pierre: I think that’s what the United States represents: the possibility of arriving here as an immigrant and achieving the American dream. It is part of the DNA of this country. My parents were born in Haiti, I was born in Martinique. They arrived here with nothing. So, to see where I am, thirty years later, to be able to say to myself “Wow, our child has succeeded!”, is really something special. It’s something I think about every day at the White House.
In “Moving forward”, you talk about your psychological problems, the fact that you were sexually abused as a child, that you attempted suicide and you also mention your homosexuality. Why was it important for you to address these topics? ?
I wrote this book at a time when things were really tough, not just in the United States, but around the world. It was a moment when I said to myself that it was important to be honest. I wanted to use my voice to help people.
Why did you decide to go into politics ?
I wanted to change things, to make a difference in the world. I originally studied to become a doctor. A lot of immigrant parents and families think that’s what makes you successful, and that’s what I thought too. Then I realized it wasn’t for me. And when I was in college [Columbia à New York, NDLR], I was surrounded by wonderful people, extraordinary mentors, who said to me “if you want to make a difference, why don’t you get involved in politics?” I realized that was what I wanted to do. It was also during this same period that I went to Haiti for the first time. A lot of things happened at the same time. That’s why now I always tell people: “Follow your passion, don’t listen to those who try to decide for you! Do what makes you happy.”
Are you proud to be one of the first black women and the first openly gay woman to hold the daily press briefing at the White House?
To be honest, I don’t think about it that much. There are many people before me who got me to where I am today. I wouldn’t be here without my parents, and without so many other people. There was before me Judy Smith, the spokeswoman for the White House under George W. Bush [elle a été la première femme Noire à ce poste, NDLR]. I want to do everything to honor him.
But I have to say, and I said it the first time I stood on the press room podium: Representation matters, and that’s something President Biden understands. He acted very quickly to ensure that he not only had smart people in his administration, but who also represented the country.
>> To see : The Debate – United Nations General Assembly: the Biden doctrine
Why did you decide to join Joe Biden’s campaign ? When he announced his candidacy, many Democrats were quite critical of him, especially because of his age?
I have never been against President Biden. I knew him as vice-president. I met him when I worked in the Obama-Biden administration. I was able to realize his big heart and his very strong moral sense. Just before he announced his candidacy for the 2020 election, I had a chat with him and Jill Biden. He asked me if I could work on his campaign: at that time, I couldn’t, because I already had other commitments. But I told him, “Once you’re the Democratic nominee, I’ll do everything in my power to help you.” I held my promise.
How does it feel to be in the White House today, after so many years on the road, either campaigning or for your activism?
I have had the opportunity to live in many different cities and states. Activism has been a big part of my life for the past four years and now I have the opportunity to be part of history in another way. Speaking in particular of the work that we do here at the White House. An immense work, which will change people’s lives, which will lead to fundamental changes in the country for decades to come. Not long ago, I was like, “Would I do this job if I had other opportunities?” And the answer is yes. This is where I want to be because I am one of the spokespersons for the President of the United States. He is, in my opinion, doing everything he can for the American people, and that is what is important.
You are part of the first 100 communication team % female in the White House, what does that mean to you?
I think it’s not just a beautiful performance, it sends a message to the country and the world. It is important that our voices are heard. And there is diversity within all leadership positions. This is important because it sends a positive message to young women and young men. You can be in the White House and be a mother, an immigrant, anyone! I think that says a lot about President Biden, he makes every voice count.
You talk a lot about your Haitian origins in “Moving Forward”. How did you feel when there was the recent crisis of Haitian migrants at the border ?
I think we all felt a lot of pain when we saw what happened at the border with some border guards. It was just a few officers, they don’t represent them all, and it was heartbreaking. The president talked about it, the vice president talked about it, they denounced the facts and said that it did not represent who we were. I think for many people in this country, especially for African Americans, black people, it reminded them of a time that was incredibly difficult, that is part of our history. It’s reminiscent of the days of slavery, the years of Jim Crow law.
It was very hard to see and the president was very clear that it was not acceptable. The two people I work for came forward in very strong terms and said that’s not how we should be represented, that we shouldn’t treat migrants like that, that we shouldn’t not treat people like that. What we saw was extremely disturbing and we must denounce it. Joe Biden took responsibility, that’s leadership.
The Biden administration has taken the decision to send hundreds of migrants back on planes, they often return to live in misery, sometimes violence. What isdoes it remind you of ?
I would like to be clear on this: we have used “Title 42”, that has been our policy so far at the border. It is a question of public health, it is not an immigration policy that we are putting in place. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed over 700,000 lives in this country and millions of lives around the world. We are trying to do our best and the President is trying to do his best to deal with this. It is a matter of public health, it is to protect migrants and the citizens of this country. This would have happened, regardless of the country of origin of the migrants. This is a measure put in place since last year. We are trying to create an asylum policy, we are trying to fix a system that has been broken down for the past four years. One of the first things President Biden did was propose an immigration policy, and we will continue to work with Congress to encourage him to pass critical and important immigration reforms.
We want to make sure the immigration system is fair, decent and represents who we are. We talked a little earlier about my American dream and that’s what represents who we are: a country of immigrants, of people who come from all over the world.
>> To read: Before the G20, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron continue to repair their relations
What is waiting for president Biden of his meeting with Emmanuel Macron planned at the G20 in Rome ?
I think the meeting will go well. We saw them together at the G7, their meeting was very friendly, they got to know each other and have already had several phone calls. This new meeting will be an opportunity for them to have an honest conversation and talk about important topics for their respective countries.
Did the Joe Biden administration was surprised by the reaction of France during the submarine crisis ?
I’m not going to speculate on the subject. The President cherishes this relationship. France is our oldest ally, our most important partner. The Biden-Harris administration wants to ensure that this relationship is strengthened, that we continue to find ways to work together and face global challenges together.
Some observers in Washington assured that France had overreacted, was that the impression of the White House?
We have to move forward. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was in Paris recently, as was Secretary of State Blinken. I think the visit of these senior officials shows how strong the relationship with France is. And there will soon be the meeting between Presidents Biden and Macron. We want to move forward and deepen the relationship with France.
This interview was originally published on October 28, 2021 and updated on May 5 with the appointment of Karine Jean-Pierre as spokesperson for Joe Biden