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At the Quai d’Orsay: Supplément au voyage

Isabel Hénin - French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris, France - 19 February 2015



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Three days after assuming my functions at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was already abroad on a trip to Vienna, and I found myself addressing an internationally audience: “France supports the German initiative...”
What had happened? How did I, as a German diplomat, end up in a French delegation to an international conference?

Let’s look back: 29 years ago, the French and German foreign ministers, Messrs Dumas and Genscher, inaugurated an exchange programme for diplomats from the two countries with the aim of strengthen cooperation between France and Germany, including in everyday diplomacy. That visionary initiative was a strong symbol of the mutual confidence between the two countries. Since then, diplomats and other civil servants on exchanges join the various partner ministries and are fully integrated into the institution’s work. They participate completely in the policy process.
So, back to my third day at the Département, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is known in Paris. Following my statement in Vienna, other diplomats asked me about the French position, surprised by my lack of a French accent when speaking English and even German. After three days of experience, my explanation had received a variety of reactions. Some were surprised, unable to conceive that a diplomat from another country could speak in their place, while others nodded. “Ah yes, the old Franco-German partnership! How is Ms Merkel?”

After more than three months of experience, I can confirm that practice does live up to the theory. I was warmly welcomed and fully integrated within the United Nations Directorate. I now stride more confidently through the corridors of the Ministry without getting lost (seeking to have my instructions for New York or Vienna validated). I am also more at ease in the complex world of the UN, and have even managed to adopt the jargon, with its PPs (preambular paragraphs) and OPs (operative paragraphs): “In preparation for the negotiation of resolution YZ, with the authorization of XY, you should make contact with the like-minded members of the Security Council in order to receive their support on points X, Y and Z.”

Of course, I cannot help but compare the different positions of the two countries, their negotiating methods and the day-to-day organization of work. Of course, certain aspects continue to surprise me, from the tailcoats of the footmen at the Minister’s palace to the flexibility of an absolute deadline, to the queue in front of the department head’s office for the validation of notes. Other aspects are reassuring, for despite major differences, there are many points in common.

My colleagues, friends and family ask me questions, wanting to know if the Ministry really resembles the film “Quai d’Orsay”, which has become cult viewing at the Auswärtiges Amt. I have to say, there is some truth in it.

The title is a nod to Alain Dejammet, former Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations in New York, who wrote the book Supplément au voyage en Onusie (Addendum to the Journey in UN-land).




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