“We think you’ve seen it all in administrative positions. It would be a good idea for you to move on to policy now.” This call from the human resources directorate left me thinking.
Early days in embassies
I joined the Ministry as a “Category B” staff member and was promoted to “Category A” following two experiences as head of Administrative and Financial Services (SAF). The first was in Tokyo, and then in Ottawa. That was during the 2000s, the good old days. The days of reflection then implementation in diplomatic posts of centralized administrative units responsible for administrative and financial affairs, human resources and estate issues. This was also the reign of the great semantic transfusion, with one acronym after another replacing each other as the years passed.
The SAF became the SAFU, with a U stuck on the end of SAF to describe it as “unified” (or “unique” – I admit I have never really known which name was correct...).
Then “AFU” disappeared, to be replaced by CG, bringing the acronym to its most complete form to date: SCG, standing for Service Commun de Gestion (General Administrative Service), until "General Secretariat" gains ground and takes its place.
Return to the Ministry’s Central Administration
I had participated in these changes over the years. I had prepared budgets and paid invoices. I had held job interviews, written notes verbales for local authorities and visited sites with a view to relocating offices. In short, I had left in my thirties and returned almost in my forties, and when I returned to the Ministry in Paris (known as “Central Administration” internally), rather like a sailor reaching terra firma, I had quite logically requested a position at the Financial Affairs Directorate or the Human Resources Directorate, where I thought I could bring a humble – potential – contribution.
Taking advantage of my thoughtful silence, the Human Resources Directorate continued: “There is a position available as a desk officer at the geographical directorate we are considering transferring you to. Covering Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are confident in your versatility.”
And so I arrived at the Continental Europe Directorate, in the Balkan Europe Department – now a Unit – and took my place as "Bosnia and Herzegovina – Regional Cooperation" desk officer. An abrupt step into a new world. Firstly, the environment: the long corridors of the Quai d’Orsay, the parquet on the first floor that creaks despite padding footsteps on the worn red carpet (since changed), a degree of sartorial standing, and a certain way of being that seems to leave no space for the slightest relaxation, or at least outwardly (I realised this later!). Then the content: “There’s a COWEB next week, we need to get in touch with our RB, the DUE RELEX and ASD for the draft conclusions." (Note to self: I need to update my whole dictionary of acronyms!). “Who is the current President of Bosnia? Is he Bosnian Croat, Bosnian Serb or Bosnian?" (Note to self no. 2: I should really brush up on all the Bosnian parties and personalities if I want to understand what people are talking (to me) about). “There’s a PIC in Sarajevo. It would be good to accompany the Director and prepare his files.” (Note no. 3: keep an emergency suitcase in my office in the event of sudden departure). “We just received a request: the Minister is meeting his German counterpart and Bosnia is on the agenda. Ah, I was forgetting: it’s for straight away." (Note no. 4: review my perception of time – “straight away” means “yesterday”).
I won’t hide the fact that the first six months were hell. My former life seemed long, long ago. I missed terribly my little LOLF (organic act governing finance acts), my dwindling staff, my exponential government chart of accounts account, my multitude of budget lines and my shiny clean Hygiene and Security Committee. These were friends of the “tangible” sort. Yes, most of my new friends had become “intangible”. And then time and experience worked their wonders. I gradually got used to it, even enjoying it sometimes. Regular work trips to Sarajevo left me with permanent memories and meeting new colleagues allowed me to forge long-term friendships (I have chosen the two terms carefully). And my mere ability to cite the name of the Bosnian Minister of Security of the time without hesitation won me unfeigned admiration during society dinners (such as at the kitchen table with my children).
Above all, I realised that there were two major spheres within the Ministry: administration and policy, which meet every day yet don’t necessarily know one another (three spheres in fact, if consular services are included). Above all, I realised that neither of these spheres could function (well) without the support of the other.
I have now rediscovered my "tangible" friends in Vienna. Like everyone (including myself), some have changed. The SGC truly merits its "general” qualifier here. We were pleased to be reunited and I apologised to them, quoting the singer Barbara: "Oui je vous fus infidèle, mais je revenais quand même, ma plus belle histoire d’amour, c’est vous" (Yes, I was unfaithful to you, but I came back all the same. My most beautiful love story is you – the quotation is unanswerable).
The irony now is that it is my “intangible” friends that I miss. It is often said that when we change country every three or four years, we cease to feel at home anywhere. Or that we feel at home everywhere, depending. When we also change jobs, this is all the more true.