“Merde alors!”: Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn says goodbye

“Merde alors!”
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn says goodbye

The then Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn is quitting his job. photo

© Omer Messinger/afp-pool/dpa

Jean Asselborn was the voice of Luxembourg for two decades. When he first started, the German Foreign Minister was still called Joschka Fischer. Now it’s over. What will he miss the least?

He is one of the best-known Luxembourgers abroad. And back home in the Grand Duchy, an entire generation cannot remember there ever being another foreign minister. Jean Asselborn (74), his country’s foreign minister for more than 19 years, is leaving his office.

There is no longer any place for the Social Democrat in the new Christian-liberal government of Prime Minister Luc Frieden. “I knew that after almost 20 years it had to end,” he says. “I think I can handle this.”

As of today, Luxembourg has a new foreign minister: Liberal Xavier Bettel, previously prime minister in Luxembourg for ten years, has taken over the baton from Asselborn.

Back to the start

When Asselborn became Foreign Minister in 2004, his counterparts were still called Condoleezza Rice (USA) or Joschka Fischer (Germany). Since then, his colleagues have calculated, he has seen 241 foreign ministers from other countries come and go.

“I’ve been to New York 48 times and Berlin 80 times,” he says. Eight weeks ago he had his photo taken with seven colleagues – only four of whom are now in office: “It’s moving so quickly.” He has been the EU’s longest-serving foreign minister since 2010.

Why he quits

In October he was re-elected to parliament, where he had been a member for 20 years – but he did not accept the mandate. Because Asselborn was also responsible for migration. For him, the fact that EU countries did not want to accept Afghan refugees after the fall of Kabul in August 2021 was “one of my biggest disappointments”: “That shocked me.”

And now there is again “this chaos” when it comes to migration: “That really bothered me.” He felt: “You mustn’t overdraw, otherwise the candle will go out.” So he renounced his mandate.

Esteemed politician

Asselborn, who left school early, worked at a tire company and later completed a second-chance law degree in Nancy (France), is valued – and feared – as a man of clear words. Especially when something is close to his heart:

When Italy’s then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said that he did not want to take in refugees, Asselborn lectured him about the former Italian guest workers living in Luxembourg, whom he addressed with the words “Merde alors!” decided – which can also be politely translated as “damn crap”.

Salvini’s attempt to discredit Asselborn with a video of the incident backfired: “Merde alors” was proudly marketed in Luxembourg on a T-shirt or coffee cup.

Asselborn has always been unbending when it comes to human rights issues. It is a weakness of the EU that Hungary and Poland have caused “very big problems with the rule of law”. “Russia shows where a country goes when the rule of law no longer works. We must not give in an inch.”

Foreign Minister with self-criticism

The Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 are two dates “where I am probably not the only foreign minister who says: What have we done wrong for such developments to happen ?” Now you have to try to make the best of the situation. Failures? The EU should have worked more forcefully for the two-state solution in the Middle East, “then there would be no Hamas in this form.”

He wouldn’t say that the EU is weak. “We see about eight or 10 countries knocking on our door to join, so it can’t be a sign that we are weak,” he says. And the fact that the EU still exists “is a positive thing.” After all, it has already survived many crises: from the constitutional crisis to the euro crisis to Brexit.

In the future, Asselborn will have more time for his racing bike, which he enjoys riding more than 400 kilometers every week to stay fit. But he also already has appointments for his time as a minister when he is out of office. And: “I have to make phone calls myself, drive myself and organize everything myself.” What he will miss the least is “the inside of airplanes: I spent months of my life there.”


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