"Lorris, are you up to date with your vaccinations?"
As a diplomat, you know where certain questions are leading. “You don’t mind heat/cold/antipersonnel mines?”
Such questions can only mean one thing: that you’re going to miss a fair few episodes of Game of Thrones in the coming weeks.
A little apprehensive…
“Perfect", said the boss. “You’re off to Bamako on a press relations backup mission. Our colleagues need you in Mali!”
I could already hear my mother’s questions in my head:
- Mali… that’s the warring country where the terrorists are destroying mausoleums, isn’t it?- Yes, mum.- and which just had a coup d’État?- You got it!- The country with the abductions…
I hadn’t even got to imagining the end of that conversation when the boss said:
“Anyway, thanks for being so flexible. And good luck, we’re going to miss you!”
I work at the Press and Communication Directorate (DCP) of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development (MAEDI). More precisely, I am “Deputy to the Spokesperson, with responsibility for Africa”.
My colleagues have affectionately nicknamed “the black cat of the DCP” because of my tendency to attract the worst telephone hotline shifts. You know, the ones where, in the middle of the night, you have to answer press questions following an earthquake in a Central Asian country whose name you aren’t sure to have heard right in your half-asleep state.
So given my record, I was a little apprehensive about this trip to Bamako in January 2013, just a few days after the French military operations had begun in Mali. Is the capital really stable? Will I meet everyone’s expectations? And for the love of god, have I listened to Amadou & Mariam’s latest release?
A year on, I look back and laugh about those concerns. Indeed, this trip turned out to be one of the best memories of my career. Bamako is certainly a wonderful city, with its majestic river, hills as far as the eye can see, and its incredible food. I was lucky enough to enjoy a bonus: the surprise visit of a President of the Republic, four Ministers and a good hundred journalists who had come to report on the event.
Anyway, where were we? What is a press relations backup mission exactly?
The press relations backup mission: definition
There is little need to recall that we are living in the era of instantaneous and continuous information. When a crisis occurs somewhere, the media are there within the hour. They need pictures, explanations and interviews. In short, they need to inform, which is a noble task.
All that means work for embassies, which are in daily contact with journalists. That contact is essential for the collection of information, transmission of messages, and for explanation of French positions on major international issues, for example. Ambassadors regularly give interviews in local media. They also sometimes receive French journalists visiting their country of residence, in liaison with the Press and Communication Directorate in Paris. They then give “off the record” interviews, where what they say is attributed to “diplomatic sources”. That is a very useful format, giving them greater freedom to discuss certain matters.
When a major event in international affairs crops up, the sending of staff for press relations backup can be useful to help colleagues cope with media pressure and the influx of journalists. And so, when I arrived in Bamako, I was put to work drafting press summaries, organizing the Ambassador’s interviews with journalists, writing draft replies to written interviews, and keeping an eye on the safety of journalists reporting from Mali, while giving the – very nice – team a hand as they sprung to action at the Embassy.
The event that changes everything
On 31 January 2013, everyone was working fast. But everything was to be turned on its head: I felt a particular agitation in the corridors of the Embassy. A euphoric, electric atmosphere was hanging in the air. I mentioned it to a colleague who was running past.
- You hadn’t heard he was coming?- Sorry but… who’s coming?- The President of the Republic, numbskull!
Forty-eight hours later, the President really arrived in Mali, accompanied by the Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs and the Minister Delegate for Development.
The mechanics that get underway to ensure the success of such a visit are impressive, involving all the services of the Embassy in liaison with the presidential teams. Everything is planned, measured and controlled down to the smallest details. The day was particularly intense, as the President was to visit Bamako and Timbuktu, talk with the transitional authorities, meet with representatives of the French community and give an important speech on Independence Square, all in less than 24 hours. I think it was also a success, and I am proud to have been able to contribute, in my own modest way, to the press aspect.
- Quand je rentre de mission....
A last memory of that visit? During his visit to Timbuktu, which had just been taken back, the President received an exceptional gift: a camel (or a dromedary – I always get them mixed up!). The President was surprised but clearly touched, and said that he would “use it as much as possible as a means of transport.”
The next day, I was present at a surreal conversation in the Ambassador’s office on how to bring the animal back to France. Together in that room, a team of diplomats and military officers were discussing – quite seriously – the veterinary examinations the camel would have to undergo, the flight plan to Paris via Bamako, and the prospect of it being taken in by a zoo. I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.
In the end, the repatriation was impossible (for the sake of the Élysée Palace’s lawns?) and I seem to remember reading that the animal had since ended its days in someone’s dinner. It’s a pity, for I am sure it would have livened up the presidential gardens!