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When I was “secrétaire de chancellerie” (chancery secretary)

Thierry Vallat - Quai d’Orsay, Paris, France - 11 mars 2014

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What competitive examination should I opt for ?

According to the handbook published at the time by the Ministry’s Office of Competitive Examinations, my qualifications made me eligible to sit the Category A competitive examination (concours). Yet rumour and the information from most of my friends had it that I stood no chance at all of passing that exam as I had not been to Sciences Po (Institute of Political Studies) or to ENA (National School of Public Administration). Based on the principle of social determinism, I should even rather have sat the Category C exam as I came from a family where no one had had a higher education. After more or less successfully synthesizing all those contrasting influences, I finally chose to take the competitive examination for a post with the rank of Chancery Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Yet I did not know that, statistically, that competitive examination was one of the most selective at the French Foreign Ministry.

I did not know that the general knowledge test would be like the famous Grand Oral examination for admission to ENA, that the language papers were much more difficult than those of the Baccalaureate, and that the Conseiller d’État (Member of the French Council of State) who was going to examine me orally would ask me questions which, I think, could only be answered by a handful of holders of the Agrégation in public law. It was lucky that I was unaware of all this, or else I would not even have signed up for the examination.

A passion for foreign countries

At that time, as today, actually, successful candidates for B and C competitive exams included a good many older or younger men and women who had seen the world and had a good education. Many, like myself, had been National Service Volunteers (now known as International Volunteers) and spent several years abroad. Some had exercised a temporary professional activity or pursued their passion and, as they were nearing thirty, were starting to look for a more stable status that would allow them not to completely give up their dreams of travel and uncharted lands. The French Foreign Ministry was made for them and vice versa.
Like myself, most of them did not quite know what they were getting into. They would find out little by little.

At the time, we felt that Categories B and C on the one hand and Category A on the other were very far apart : we said “vous” to each other, did not lunch together and did not meet outside work. Among staff in the same category, however, it was just the opposite. This left us with great memories.

Many of us viewed the Category B status as a more or less long transition to the Category A competitive examination. At the same time, we did feel that a “secrétaire de chancellerie” career was something incredible that offered the possibility of being posted to the four corners of the world and involved huge responsibilities and an exhilarating way of life. The first “secrétaire de chancellerie” I met was a colleague nearing retirement. He had been posted to countless destinations and in his view Paris was a posting like any other. I found his career utterly fascinating.

This is surely why most of us embarked on this path without hesitation and I don’t know any one of us who regrets it today.

15 years later

Others, including myself, have continued to take competitive examinations and not regretted this either. It is not better or worse to be “secrétaire de chancellerie”, “secrétaire des Affaires étrangères” or “conseiller des Affaires étrangères”, it just means another career, another job, depending on one’s tastes and talents.

For my part, after two Category B postings, I wanted to change and work in the political arena. In the meantime, I had completely forgotten everything I might have heard about the real or alleged difficulties of competitive examinations for the Quai d’Orsay and the ontological differences between members of the various administrative corps. I was no longer having second thoughts, which no doubt partly explains why I was successful.

What is most ironic in this story is that if I count all those who joined the Ministry in Category B with me during my first three years there, I realize that, 15 years later, almost half of them have become Category A staff, either by taking a competitive examination or through promotion from within. This is something else I didn’t know, and it may seem like singing the praises of the Ministry, but it’s a tangible reality. The Quai d’Orsay, which is said to be so set on its traditions, is nonetheless also a real machinery for social promotion offering careers matching their ambitions to those who are the most capable, highly motivated and at times lucky as well. This is why its staff are so attached to this Ministry.

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