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POINTS & DOTS FORGED IN HISTORY AND THE FABRIC OF SOCIETY
Kuwait and France have enjoyed solid bilateral ties rooted in friendship and mutual understanding and an appreciation of each other’s history and culture. HE Anne-Claire Legendre is the Ambassador of France in Kuwait. An expert in Middle Eastern and North African affairs, Ambassador Legendre, is a career diplomat. Throughout her career, she has broken glass ceilings while serving the cause of France and strengthening its place in the global context.
Ambassador Legendre began her career in Yemen at the height of the Houthi crisis, and before being appointed to Kuwait, was the Consul General of France in New York – the first French woman to do so. In an interview with the Arab Times, Ambassador Legendre speaks about choosing diplomacy as a career, her interest in promoting gender equality, and the increasing number of French women becoming diplomats. She speaks of President Macron, a ‘feminist President’ who has made gender equality a fundamental principle of governance. She discusses the changing nature of diplomacy, especially after the Paris Accords, the relationship between the Middle East and Kuwait, the unifying role of Kuwait in the Middle East, and the significant bilateral relations between Kuwait and France.
AT: What drew you to diplomacy, Ambassador? I know that you graduated in Political Science from Science Po and studied Arabic and Modern Letters. Your journey with education shows that perhaps you were getting ready for civil service. Am I right?
Ambassador Legendre: Frankly, I didn’t want to be a diplomat when I graduated from high school. That came much later. I’m an avid reader. And this drove me to study Comparative Literature and Francophone literature from the Middle East. That’s how I became iinterested in Arabic, which led me to get a grant and study in Egypt for a year. That’s where I realized that literature is wonderful. Books became an essential part of my life, but they didn’t explain all the modern complexities of the world. I wanted to understand more. I tried to understand, especially in times of trouble, what makes the Middle East so complicated. I studied in Cairo in 2000 at the time of the Second Intifada. I would see people demonstrate on the streets, and I would not understand. That’s when I started reading and learning about diplomacy and international relationship. This brought me to SciencePo. That’s where I got convinced that I wanted to become a diplomat. I think what’s interesting in diplomacy is that you are a bridge, a bridge between cultures, and a bridge between different worlds and interests. And I was interested in this because I faced prejudice on both sides when I went to Cairo.
AT: What kind of prejudice did you face?
Ambassador Legendre: I faced prejudice because people didn’t know much about this part of the world. They assumed it to be very dangerous. As a young woman of 20, why would you go and study in Cairo? On the other hand, I also faced prejudice on the streets of Cairo regarding what Western women are supposed to be like. So I think it’s interesting to be the one to bridge the gap between prejudices and make people understand better the culture of the other, and to find room for understanding and agreement.
AT: How has the field of diplomacy in France changed? I mean, do you find more women in diplomacy compared to before?
Ambassador Legendre: Yes, there’s a significant change, actually, in France. It’s a change that touches both the public sector and the private sector. We have made considerable efforts in the last few decades in transforming gender parity at work. Around 2000, there were approximately 20% women on executive boards in companies and high civil service positions. And now, that percentage has increased to 40%. That’s a huge change. It’s impressive that in 10 years, because of the laws adopted in 2011 and 2012, we went from around 20% to almost 40%. It is a significant change. There’s a real political will on the part of the French government. And I think it has changed the scene for all of us diplomats. It has opened up opportunities. For me, it’s a personal thing because I want to support women around me and try to help as much as I can. But it’s also been something that I’ve also been doing officially because my president, President Macron, declared himself a feminist. And I think for the very first time, we can claim to have feminist diplomacy, which is very good and very inspiring.
AT: At a lecture you gave at your alma mater, you spoke about how the workings of diplomacy have changed with time, especially after the Paris accords. What did you mean by that?
Ambassador Legendre: People think that diplomacy is only about state to state affairs. Of course, that is the core of diplomacy. We are dealing with state interests. We are trying to build an agreement between states. We try to bridge the gaps or bridge the differences between different states. With the Paris accords, we moved from diplomacy based on state actors to a more comprehensive range of actors because the Paris accord is a climate agreement, as you know. It not only includes states who are significant players in reducing CO2 emission but also civil society and the business sector. How can you have an efficient climate action if you don’t include essential players, such as the business sectors because we have to change the business to reduce co2 emissions? We also need to change the way people behave daily to change our societies for the better. For the first time, this accord manifested that state actors sat in the room with business leaders and representatives from the civil society to unite on one goal, which was to save our planets and try to mitigate climate change.
AT: Engaging civil society is essential. You began your foreign service in Yemen in 2005. This was the time when insurgency was at its height in Yemen. Was it almost like baptism by fire for you?
Ambassador Legendre: It was a little bit, but it was also a moment when in a way, I confirmed my interest in diplomacy. That was the first time I worked in an embassy. And, of course, it was a very challenging moment for Yemen. It was not a full-blown Civil War yet, but you could hear the sound of fighting. Then there were terrorists setting base in the south, etc. Usually, people see diplomats at cocktail parties in very easy settings. But in reality, diplomacy can be very challenging. It can put your life and security in danger. It would help if you thought about our colleagues in very demanding environments. This is something we need to remind ourselves when we speak about diplomacy. It’s not just, you know, about cocktail parties.
AT: That’s yet another stereotype. Over the years, you specialized in North Africa and Middle Eastern affairs. How critical is this region to France? We know that France has been very active with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in Lebanon. It has been involved in Iran and Syria, trying to bridge relations, not forgetting the historical ties there. So how important is this region to France?
Ambassador Legendre: It is crucial to France. I learned Arabic, which led me to specialize in this region. I worked on many issues, starting with Yemen, then Algeria, followed by the Middle East, at the United Nations and the minister’s office. For France, it’s a very strategic region because it’s so close. We are neighbours, and so anything that affects this region will affect Europe. Take the example of Syria. When you think of Syria and the Syrian crisis, its political impact on Europe is enormous. In a way, the influx of Syrian refugees, which is tragic, has had a lot of influence on politics in Europe. Think about the UK. Think about the debate that happened around Brexit. And then you see the interconnection of all these points and dots between the Middle East and Europe. So for us, it’s critical in terms of stability of security. It is also an area where historically, as you mentioned, we have had solid ties for a lot of time. We have this colonial history, and that’s not always an easy heritage to work with. I think we’ve made a lot of effort to be very transparent about our colonial heritage. It’s an effort that is continuing. This region is emotionally significant for us. For instance, in the case of Lebanon, you saw that President Macron went twice on the ground just after the explosion on the fourth of August. Lebanon is critical to the French people, and I think the reverse is true. We will not give up on Lebanon because we have this friendly, deeply rooted friendship with Lebanon and other countries in the region. Many French people have roots and ties with this part of the world. It’s not only part of our history, but it’s also part of the fabric of our society.
AT: You arrived in Kuwait at a very challenging time. And how do you think Kuwait has dealt with the pandemic so far?
Ambassador Legendre: The pandemic has been such an unprecedented phenomenon. You can see all the countries adjusting with the knowledge they are getting. For a very long time at the start, we didn’t even know the virus very well. Now we have the science, and countries are adjusting to help their populations cope with the pandemic. I arrived in a time of lockdown, but I left New York City in a time of lockdown as well. It was peculiar and bizarre to leave New York without bidding farewell to everybody after four years and then arrive in Kuwait and not be able to meet as widely, you know, I as I would love to. I haven’t seen the French Community. We haven’t been able to do a big gathering. So this makes it very challenging for diplomats. The vaccination is well underway in Kuwait. And I want to thank the Kuwaiti societies, and especially, you know, the front liners because I know they’re on the ground every day providing us with the best services. We’ve been all imppressed with the way the vaccination process has been going. This will help the country get back to normalcy. Now we can see that France is precisely the same way. The whole focus is about vaccination as fast as possible.
AT: There have been reports of protests and against the vaccination and COVID restrictions in France. How challenging and essential it is to reach out to people who refuse vaccination?
Ambassador Legendre: We have seen this phenomenon in France and other places across the world. It is worrying because this anti-vaccine process can slow down the recovery. It’s also more concerning, I would say, about the way science is seen. There’s a new way of looking at science, which is also linked to social media. There is a lot of fake news circulating, which is very difficult to fight against. So I think to go back to your question, I think that’s why it’s so important to be transparent and to be transparent about figures, about any new scientific elements about the vaccine. That’s what we’ve tried to do in France. We have tried to explain as much as possible both the scientific process and the decision-making process. We have tried to explain to people that they need to be vaccinated to have access to restaurants, coffees and museums, etc. And this is not a restriction of liberty. The idea is to create a momentum for vaccination that will allow us to get back to our full freedoms and independence and the fact that the faster we get vaccinated, the sooner we will go back to exercising our rights and freedoms fully.
AT: French Kuwaiti diplomatic relationship goes back 60 years. How has this relationship evolved over the years?
Ambassador Legendre: It has grown more robust, and we hope it will grow even stronger in the future. It’s been, you know, an intense friendship from the beginning. And a sign of this is the number of Kuwaitis who travel to France and the number of Kuwaitis who speak French or are interested in French culture. It’s interesting that very soon after independence in 1966, the Kuwaiti education system integrated French as one of the languages being taught in the public system. I think there is a lot of intellectual connection between the two countries. And, of course, the liberation of Kuwait. Thirty years ago was also a critical moment for the relationship because France participated in the liberation of Kuwait. We had 19,000 troops involved in the fighting. And after the war, we also helped the country recover with mine research, etc. And so, since then, we have had this solid partnership. We have a firm defence agreement that was signed just after the liberation. And the relationship is multifaceted. It includes culture, with the French Institute here in Kuwait, research, student exchanges, plenty of cultural projects, cooperation between the two countries, and investments on both sides. There is a solid economic relationship that we hope to enhance. On top of that, there’s a remarkable convergence of us when it comes to the region. Politically speaking, when it comes to the stability of the area, Kuwait has always been one actor who can talk to everybody and enter into dialogue and mediate and reconcile. So this is key in this region. It is so important to have friends like this that can play this kind of role. And we’ve seen this very recently with the GCC agreement. I mean, we were pushing and supporting all the efforts that led to this reconciliation, but this is critical.
AT: Looking back at your life, Ambassador, you still have such a long way to go. I think it’s too early a question, but I’d still like to ask you that. What advice would you give to young women thinking of a career in diplomacy?
Ambassador Legendre: I would say go for it. It’s fun. No, frankly, I think there are not many job opportunities in the world that offers such a varied array of experiences. What I like about diplomacy is the fact that you learn every day and because you know, every three to four years you change your location. You have to keep being curious and open-minded, and learn new languages and meet new people. That’s the best way to spend your life because you’re meeting fascinating people, discovering new cultures, etc. I couldn’t imagine a better job. So I’m very happy with what I’m doing. And I think I’m fortunate because not everybody can wake up in the morning and feel lucky to do whatever you have to do during your day.
By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times