The Prime Minister is in the lift, being carried to the restaurant to which he has been invited by his counterpart from a Persian Gulf State. It will be a simple dinner, with a dozen guests, in a restaurant that hasn’t been booked exclusively. It’s a way of breaking the ice and allowing free discussion. As the form influences the discussion itself, our hosts have chosen a venue that aims to be convivial. We weren’t able to visit the restaurant during the preparatory mission for the Prime Minister’s visit, which took place two or three weeks earlier, because our hosts had not yet chosen the venue for the meeting. And so I discover the restaurant at the same time as everyone else, which means improvising as I haven’t been able to prepare – or anticipate.
The lift is small and there are only four or five of us, including the Prime Minister. Part of the delegation is in another lift, which will arrive a few seconds later.
No problems: only solutions.
When we reach the restaurant floor, the Prime Minister’s counterpart welcomes him. He then has the good idea to "go and wash his hands". This is an excellent initiative on his part, giving me two free minutes to enter the restaurant and check that the seating plan is acceptable. And notice that the communication adviser has been forgotten – even though I’m sure I have mentioned her name. Never mind whose mistake it is. It could have been me, or the Embassy that passed on my instructions, the host’s Protocol, or the restaurant. What matters is that the problem – albeit minor, although the ego of an adviser is not always a minor affair – is solved before the meal begins.
We are guests and I don’t know the restaurateur, who has never seen me before, but I have no choice but to tell the staff near the table booked for this official – if informal – dinner to add a seat, before checking quickly that this addition will not bring the table to thirteen diners. I need to be convincing enough that the staff immediately proceeds with the requested addition, after checking that my counterpart has nodded his agreement.
When the Prime Minister arrives two minutes later with his counterpart and the delegation in their wake, everything is in order. Problem? What problem?
Giving one’s word: the key to protocol
Everyone takes their seat. I take a seat at a “technical” table nearby, along with the Prime Minister’s security staff, the doctor and a few other staff who must remain within eyesight.
Not three minutes have passed since the beginning of the dinner when a problem arises: the inauguration of a university is planned for the next morning. That’s not a problem in itself, but local security has decided that our whole delegation will go through a security scanner at the university, removing keys, telephones, sunglasses, belts and who knows what. Our delegation is a big one: in addition to the Prime Minister and a few members of the Government, it also includes numerous members of parliament, advisers, academics and various personalities. These are all people whose control by local security would be a national affront, in addition to the great deal of time – which is always precious with our precise schedules – lost.
Despite their efforts, our security got nowhere in – apparently tense – talks with its local counterpart.
And so I go to see my counterpart, who is seated at another table.
In a few quick words, I explain the situation.
“So, my friend, what can I do for you exactly?”
“I would be very happy if any control were to be cancelled.”
He looks at me, and with a wide smile, replies: “Done!”
Reassured, I return to my seat, sure to be able to finish my meal in peace and relieved by a decision which owes nothing to me and everything to my counterpart. This happy end would no doubt have been impossible if my counterpart hadn’t been in the same position as me, and in the same mindset: knowing that it is absurd to obstruct an important visit for both our authorities with blindly applied security procedures. I don’t know what he will do, when, how, and to whom he will say that the 40-odd members of the French delegation are not to be controlled. I take him at his word. And the situation at the university the next morning confirms to me that I was right to trust him: would I have preferred to doubt him, to pass an awful night, when hours of restoring sleep are numbered during official visits.
Like an orchestra conductor
The Head of Protocol, whether he is responsible for that of the Head of State or of the Head of Government, must always remain vigilant. Like an orchestra conductor, the Head of Protocol has no instrument to hand: he doesn’t book hotel rooms; he doesn’t write notes; he does not fly the plane; he does not interpret speeches; he doesn’t set the table; he doesn’t drive cars; and he doesn’t personally decide on room or motorcade arrangements. But he alone has the whole arrangement in mind and coordinates every member of the orchestra, soloists included. He is dependent on all the others, but all the others play in tune with him. And his only baton is his function – and the confidence placed by all the others in his ability to assume it with professionalism, to know what he is doing and to make the right decisions and choices.
But unlike the orchestra conductor however, he does not claim to be the maestro or the prima donna.
Perhaps he is more of a director than a conductor: like the former, he determines where the actors stand, how they dress, and when they will be alone on stage depending on the play, whose directions he writes taking into account the orders of the author and the need to adapt to a particular audience. Unlike the conductor, he does not appear on stage; he must melt into the background and be seen only by the actors, so that only the lead knows that he is there.
Perhaps he is also a prompt, cueing less the lines than positions, poses, silences and postures. Like the director, he allows the stagehands, decorators, costume designers and lighting engineers to know how to work and what result to aim for. The play can be excellent without us realising his work, because everyone has played fluidly; but if he has made them overact, if the actors find themselves with their back to the stage, he’s the one who will be booed!