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Times of Crisis

Marc Fonbaustier - French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris, France - 28 July 2014



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I first entered the Crisis Centre (CDC), welcomed by its former Director, Serge Mostura, on 1 June 2011.

A mixture of apprehension and excitement

When I took up office as Head of the Emergency Operations Centre, I had concerns, questions and expectations.

I was concerned, quite genuinely, that I would not be able to handle the events with which I would be faced. We were reaching the end of an extraordinary six months that had been punctuated by several large-scale collective crises (the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, the evacuation of French nationals from Libya, the Marrakech bombing, the earthquake in Japan, the Ivorian crisis, etc.) and I was dreading a repeat performance. In some ways, I was well prepared for the stress of the job, but I was less concerned about whether I would have the intellectual ability to cope than whether I was humanly capable of shouldering my new responsibilities.

My questions concerned the precise nature of the work carried out by the Crisis Centre, which I was only vaguely familiar with at that stage. What exactly was involved? Could a diplomat with a conventional career path and, ultimately, little experience of managing emergencies rise to the challenge?

Lastly, I had expectations. Or rather, a sense of necessity. I needed to make myself useful, to contribute to providing a public service, to “reconnect” with the Ministry and with an active and modern form of diplomacy, after a brief hiatus.

A varied succession of crises

June 2014: three years already. Looking back, they have gone quickly. They have been busy and eventful, and each day has been different from the last. What is there in common between the “Costa Concordia” disaster off Giglio Island in Tuscany (I still remember the call from the watch unit at 5:10 a.m. one morning in January 2012, asking me what to do…), the kidnapping of Marie Dedieu on the Lamu Archipelago, a rail accident in Higuey in the Dominican Republic, an avalanche on Mount Manaslu in Nepal, the launch of Operation Serval in Mali in January 2013, the Ebola virus, the MERS coronavirus and the disappearance of flight MH370? In reality, nothing, but they all intersect in the same place: the Crisis Centre.

Working there is a source of pride, which is soon tempered by humility, for the efforts that we make are all too often surpassed by the reality of the situations facing us. We blame ourselves for having been unable to prevent a disaster or a tragedy. We hope to have contributed to preventing others (but in such cases, we must content ourselves with “non-events”, so to speak).

Warn, inform, plan, coordinate

In the Emergency Operations Centre, which is one of the four departments of the Crisis Centre (known here as the CDC), we spend each day trying to conjugate four verbs:

  • to watch / to warn, via the watch unit H24, which is of undisputable value to our posts and decision-making centres;
  • to inform, with 1300 updates in 2013 to the 191 files of Travel Advice, which are consulted by six million of our compatriots each year; and 456 warning messages sent in 2013 to the 150,000 travellers registered on the Ariane portal;
  • to plan, through regular updates to the 220 embassy and consulate security plans; meetings held at the Crisis Centre on countries that are in situations requiring "increased vigilance"; and CDC advice and assistance units at some of our posts which are at particular risk and where stakes are high;
  • to coordinate, with companies, in the context of economic diplomacy; with foreign partners, whether members of the EU or third countries; and with other ministries, when we organize interministerial crisis meetings.

A more accessible mission

Ultimately, it was easier at the Crisis Centre than in some of my previous posts to answer one of my sons when he asked: "Daddy, what do you do in your job?"

No doubt because the goals pursued here are more tangible, more accessible to the general public and have a shorter time frame than other aspects of our diplomacy.

No doubt because it is easier to say to a child "I protect and help people who travel or live abroad" than it is to talk to a child about political analysis, cultural diplomacy, support for businesses, soft diplomacy, and so on.

And without doubt because (too?) much of the news is focused on crises, so handling a stream of crises is quite simply…topical!

Short-term and long-term diplomacy

What have I learnt about myself, the French Foreign Ministry and the State during the past three years?

I have developed an interest in “short-term” diplomacy, as practised by the Press and Communication Directorate (DCP), the Directorate for French Nationals Abroad (FAE), Protocol, and other departments of the Ministry that will forgive me for not mentioning them here. This “short-term” aspect supplements the usual “long-term” diplomacy.

Having covered a broad range of countries and subjects, I have witnessed first-hand the richness and quality of our diplomacy, which relies on the men and women who bring it to life. Working at the Emergency Operations Centre has confirmed this to me.
I have learnt the crucial importance of interministerial work, building relations based on confidence and daily contact, with the General Secretariat for Defence and National Security (SGDSN), the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Health: there can be no anticipation, planning or crisis management without this essential cooperation.

My three beliefs

After three years at the Crisis Centre, I am certain of nothing but I have three firm beliefs.

My first belief is that we are never working alone. I have enjoyed my work at the Crisis Centre because it is a team effort, with men and women cooperating effectively and remaining focused on the job in hand, which takes precedence over all else. There is a very clear goal, which creates a sense of community. This shared goal helps to channel our energy and skills, thus increasing the collective impact of our work.

My second belief (or rather, observation) is that unfortunately, there will be many more crises in the future. In today’s diverse and conflict-ridden world, despite our country’s efforts, the Crisis Centre is unlikely to be deprived of opportunities for action. The legitimacy of this recently-established service, as part of the basic structure of our government, should therefore grow rather than shrink.

My third belief is that navigating crises and overcoming them requires a clear course and good steering, combining sangfroid, common sense and professionalism. We put these skills to the test daily.




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