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The portrait gallery

Etienne Rolland-Piègue - Séoul, République de Corée - 27 mars 2014

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Opposite the ambassador’s office, in the waiting area or the corridor which his visitors pass along, there is usually a portrait gallery of all his predecessors. This was the case in Tokyo, where I was posted a few years ago, and it is the case in Seoul, where I am currently stationed.

It has become a habit to comment on these portraits, provided for visitors, by pointing out a few memorable figures, or narrating a few stories and anecdotes from their time in office. This is how legends form, alongside the official story, or in its silences : unverifiable anecdotes or glorious feats of arms, which are passed on by embassy staff over the years.

Portraits à l’ambassade de France à Tokyo | Photo : Service de presse de l’Ambassade de France à Tokyo

From Japan…

When asked “Who was the greatest French ambassador to Japan ?” it is tempting to paraphrase André Gide : “Paul Claudel – alas !” For according to the Embassy’s golden legend, the greatest French ambassador to Japan is not Paul Claudel but a certain François Missoffe.

His portrait, in which he is wearing sunglasses, indicates that he was in office from 1964 to 1966. All sorts of wild stories are told about him. It is said that, as a young officer in the Free French Forces, he was taken prisoner in Indochina, then freed in August 1945, as the Japanese occupiers surrendered. The camp commander, a Japanese officer, bowed to him and presented his sword, both arms outstretched, a broken man.

Many years later, Missoffe requested that this officer be in attendance when he presented his credentials to the Emperor. When they were introduced, it was Missoffe’s turn to bow, and to return the sword, which he had carefully preserved.

According to another story, although Missoffe was one-eyed, his sightless eye would still have worked if the optic nerve had not been irreparably damaged. Following an operation, he donated this eye to a blind Japanese child, whose sight was restored.

Other stories are less flattering. One ambassador continues to be known as an incorrigible womanizer : he would even force his attentions on women within the confines of his office. Another was allegedly rather fond of a drink. Another Excellency is remembered for gesticulating at traffic on a congested main road, in an attempt to clear the way for the car whose illustrious passenger, a former President of the French Republic, was growing impatient at being stuck in a queue.

Claudel himself is not above all suspicion. According to one recurrent rumour, during the great earthquake of 1923, his first concern was to leave in search of his daughter, who was visiting the Izu Peninsula, instead of worrying about the fate of his compatriots. Claudel’s official biographer in Japan, Michel Wasserman, dismissed this claim, but the legend remains.

Portraits à l’ambassade de France à Séoul | Photo : Service de presse de l’Ambassade de France à Séoul

…to Korea

The corridors of the French Embassy in Korea are also rich in stories. Collin de Plancy, the first French Chargé d’Affaires in Seoul, unwittingly became the hero of a novel : the writer Kyung-sook Shin recounts in Li Chin how he married a court dancer and brought her back to France, where she attended Parisian salons and became friends with Maupassant. The story is mainly fictional, and there is doubt as to whether the character of Li Chin really existed.

Roger Chambard, meanwhile, certainly deserves his reputation as the greatest French ambassador to Korea. He remained in office there from 1959 to 1969 and fostered a close relationship with General Park Chung-hee, the current president’s father, who ruled with an iron fist over the country’s rapid economic growth. He can be seen in the photos that show the first stone being laid to build the Paldang dam, which was constructed using French funds and technology. Chambard requested that his ashes be scattered at Haein Temple in Gyeongsang province when he died.

One of the heroes in the Seoul gallery suffered a mishap that had nothing fictional about it and was recorded in the sober annals of administrative case law. According to the description beneath his portrait, Georges Perruche was Chargé d’Affaires in Seoul from March to July 1950, which is when the Korean War broke out. He was taken prisoner by North Korean forces and left to rot in jail throughout the entire conflict.

When he was released, a legal problem arose : was he entitled to the salary that was cut off when he went missing ? The French Council of State ruled in his favour and his rights were restored. The Perruche case was invoked after the release of the hostages Marcel Carton and Marcel Fontaine, civil servants at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs who were stationed in Lebanon in 1985.

What ambassador has not dreamt, on arriving in Seoul, of witnessing a reunification between the two Koreas ? They have all been disappointed, and even though President Park talks of a peaceful reunification that could occur “from one day to the next”, most experts believe that this could still take years, or even decades. In the meantime, France has no embassy in North Korea.

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