Sir Peter Westmacott was appointed UK ambassador to France in 2007. At his official residence, near the presidential Elysée Palace, he greets top figures on the world stage, among the 14,000 who pass through its doors each year. Connexion’s Oliver Rowland paid a visit
THE ambassador’s residence next to the British Embassy is an imposing 18th Century mansion – but not at first sight. Its on-street entrance is unremarkable but through the courtyard (and security checks) is a building worthy of several centuries of diplomatic power-brokering.
I was ushered through a marble hall, up a grand staircase to a sitting room whose décor could grace a royal palace. Sir Peter, 59, joined the Diplomatic Service in 1972 and is the former ambassador to Turkey. He is married, with four children.
What is it like to live in a house like this?
It’s fabulous, though it isn’t always easy to make it a home as well as a grand residence where you do the job. It takes time to get used to, but there are bits where we feel very much at home. It earns its keep – we have 12-14,000 people a year through the doors.
Were you always interested in France?
I liked languages as a schoolboy and I worked in a bank in Lyon for six months when I was 18. Then I joined the Foreign Office after university.
A Paris posting was suggested, which appealed to me. I worked on trade and industry and energy policies in the early 1980s – then I went to other parts of the world for 20 years and didn’t come back very much.
Were you struck by changes since the 1980s?
When I arrived in France, Britain was regarded as going through a really bad patch economically and there was a sense that France was doing well – it was the end of the trente glorieuses [prosperous post-war period].
Even those who could speak English, especially in meetings with visiting ministers and officials and businessmen, as a matter of principle would only speak French.
Fast-forward 25 years, the UK had had a good run and was by no means regarded as a “problem child” of Europe. We have had our differences – President Chirac and Prime Minister Blair did not see eye to eye over Iraq – but the UK’s “Anglo-Saxon model” was held up as something to emulate.
It was a good time to arrive. I noticed almost immediately there was no hang-up about English. The assumption was if there was a meeting with someone from the UK, it would be held in English, and everyone was able and willing to speak it.
However, almost all my dealings here are in French – I think that is normal and proper.
How would you sum up your role?
I am a civil servant – the job is non-political, so I serve whatever government the people elect. I run a team, mostly recruited in France, who are the British government’s representatives in France, on behalf of my employer the Foreign Office and also the whole of the government as well as British organisations – business, industry, banking, media and non-governmental organisations with interests in France. We promote trade and investment in both directions.
We also organise consular protection for Britons living here or visiting and we issue visas and passports.
The consulates, in Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille and Lille are all part of our network. They help Britons in difficulty and they have officers who work for UKTI, the government’s overseas trade and investment arm.
Lille is also very much involved in immigration work – operations designed to protect our borders from illegal migration.
Technically the embassy is considered British soil – it is sovereign British territory. During the Paris Commune of 1871 a lot of British people took refuge here.
You also have “diplomatic immunity” – it means you are not subject to French law?
It does. It allows representatives of a foreign government to do business regardless of the state of relations between the countries or the laws.
That said, in a country like France we apply local law in almost every respect. If I get a parking fine, I pay it.
What does your day involve?
The fun of the job is that every day is different.
Last week for example, every day I had an official breakfast with someone I invited or who was staying overnight – a minister or an official. We can put them up here so they don’t have to go to hotels.
One was with a cabinet minister who wanted to discuss immigration and national identity issues.
One day I had two official breakfasts – though I didn’t actually eat twice. Sometimes I go to see someone in the French government, or a business-person might call.
Visitors from London might want to discuss climate change or defence sales. Last week I met people from the Elysée to discuss where No.10 and the French presidency are on a raft of European issues following the Lisbon Treaty.
I had a reception for military contacts – with defence budgets coming under real pressure, the British and French want to do more together. We are together in Afghanistan, with our soldiers, but we want to look at common strategies and whether we can save money by making equipment together.
In the evenings I’m often giving a dinner around business, banking, politics or media figures or I’m out being entertained. I might talk to a group concerned with European issues or a chamber of commerce. I do regional tours and meet the newspapers and mayors. I prepare for radio and television interviews, and I have strategy meetings with my team to plan our work and the reports and analyses we need to do for London.
I broker meetings between different ministers and between the Prime Minister and the President. Since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister he has visited Paris 17 times and there have been hundreds of ministerial visits.
A great deal of time is spent organising visits and accompanying ministers to meet their opposite numbers.
Are there differences in the way things are done in government here?
Of course – our British head of state does not have the executive powers of a French president. Also, ministers here are not necessarily members of the National Assembly – the British government is directly and daily accountable to the Commons.
The French government reports a bit more to the president, though to the parliament as well.
The National Assembly’s power has been strengthened in recent constitutional changes, so the differences are a bit narrower.
Otherwise, broadly speaking the way things work is similar, apart from the roles of the prime ministers.
Do you find Sarkozy approachable?
Yes, he is always interesting to talk to – he does not do langue de bois [waffle] and expresses his views in a way that is very clear and often very amusing. He is extremely interested in strong relations with the UK.
We got off to a good start with a very successful state visit which allowed the British to see him for what he is. He made powerful speeches and we organised a summit of the two governments which has set the tone for a very substantive programme of cooperation.
Since the economic crisis he has made critical comments about Britain – is it part of your job to smooth things over?
Yes, of course. But I was struck at the time when the economic crisis broke, in late 2008, during the French EU presidency, by how President Sarkozy reached out to other leaders who had ideas, including Gordon Brown.
Though we were not part of the Eurozone that was no obstacle, and there has been close cooperation.
It is true there were some comments in France – that the Anglo-Saxon model might not be quite such a good thing to emulate as they had thought.
However, when it comes to the policies our governments have adopted on regulation, banker remuneration, the need to recapitalise the banks – there are no serious differences.
We agree we need a vibrant and well-regulated financial sector and the City still has a major role to play.
What is the picture this year in terms of Britons coming to France, or leaving?
We don’t have precise figures. We’re part of the same single market and people don’t have to register at consulates, though we encourage them to. The working figure is about 400,000-500,000 residents and there are around 300,000-350,000 French people in the south-east of England.
However, most of the French in the UK are of working age, whereas a lot of Britons who have settled in France are retired. We hear anecdotal accounts of people having sold up, but are not aware of a mass exodus.
What advice would you give to Britons thinking of coming?
If you want to work, check you have the right qualifications and learn French. While some multinationals may have English as a working language you have to be able to compete in French.
What about French vs UK qualifications?
It depends on the profession. Those who at the very top in business and banking usually have some qualification in France – they might have studied at the HEC [top French business school].
However, in terms of the EU internal market there are requirements for mutual recognition which I believe – I hope – are being adhered to here.
However, if you are thinking of coming it is best to make sure you have a job and have a legal entitlement to be employed before you uproot. There are thousands of Britons working in Paris – lawyers, bankers, property surveyors etc.
When it comes to people with small businesses, red tape is a concern – I think it is a little more complicated here, but serious efforts have been made to slash it so they can set up as easily as in other parts of Europe.
If the Conservatives get in, are the French concerned about their perceived Euro-scepticism?
I can’t comment on parties’ policies, but there was quite a lot of disappointment among fellow members of the centre-right EPP group when the Conservatives decided to leave and set up another grouping in the European Parliament, because they felt it would dilute the effectiveness of the British voice and weaken the size of the group. I can’t say if that was justified or not, but I heard it and the Conservatives heard it from their friends in France.
That said, it was understood to be a political decision taken by the party for its own reasons of principle, even if there was some disappointment.
Beyond that, each party sets out its own stall for the election and, whatever the choice of the British people is, we look forward to working with whoever will be in charge in years to come
How do you become an ambassador?
There are a number of jobs at the top of the tree in the diplomatic service, with some senior ones in London and also around 170 missions abroad – including embassies and consulates general.
If you are felt to be doing a good job and you stay the course there are good opportunities. It helps to join young, though we also recruit people with experience elsewhere in government and are also interested in people from the private sector, though we haven’t so much response – in the end the disruption to family or the pay didn’t quite work for them.
Do you need to be prepared to travel anywhere?
Yes, you can’t join because you are interested in foreign policy and stay in London. There is a transparent bidding system for jobs abroad and people apply for the ones they want. You can have a long list of applicants for great places and not many for the terrible ones. However, usually we do not have too much problem filling posts. People often don’t join the Foreign Office to work in a mini-Whitehall in another western capital – they might like to go somewhere remote, where they can really make a difference, in a small team, working for prosperity or democracy or the climate or governance or British exports. France is one of the bigger ones. If you put together the embassy plus our consulates we have around 240 staff. The usual tour of duty is four years.
Is there a special ceremony?
The British government must agree you are the right person. A recommendation goes from the Foreign Office to the foreign secretary and then the prime minister and the queen. Then you must be approved by the other country.
You go to Buckingham Palace for an audience with Her Majesty to receive instructions and letters of credence to take to the other country’s head of state.
The British do these things rather well – this is a beautiful document on fine paper, written in beautiful calligraphy, signed by the queen at the bottom, which you hand over – in my case to Mr Sarkozy – along with a letter recalling your predecessor.
Royalty, language and mad cows: French-UK spats and sharing
THERE is no denying that Franco-British relations have been strained throughout history from the Norman invasion through the Hundred Years War and, despite being allies in two world wars, a lingering animosity has hung around the Entente Cordiale.
1066 Norman Invasion William of Normandy is the first Norman king of England. French is the language of the English nobility and the mixture of Norman, French and Anglo-Saxon gives us modern English – words such as castle, baron, butcher, archer and chivalry. The Plantagenets govern western France from Normandy to the Pyrenées – an area the English have had links with ever since, with a longstanding fondness for “claret” and the enduring popularity of the Dordogne.
1337 - 1453
Hundred Years’ War
The king of France claims the Duchy of Aquitaine and the English kings reply with claims to the French throne. At the 1360 Treaty of Brétigny France agrees to leave Aquitaine (and Calais) to the English. War soon restarts.
Henry V leads the troops to victory on Saint Crispin’s Day. At the Treaty of Troyes it is agreed Henry will marry a French princess and he and his heirs will inherit the French throne.
1429 Joan of Arc
Peasant girl has visions telling her to reclaim France. She retakes Orléans. Charles VII is crowned. However, the Burgundians capture her and sell her to the English where she is tried and burned at the stake for witchcraft, heresy and wearing trousers.
1453 Hundred Years’ War Finally ends with the French taking Bordeaux; leaving the English with Calais, which gave important customs revenue.
13th to 16th Centuries
The French and Scots support each other in the Auld Alliance. Mary Queen of Scots lived much of her life in France and was briefly married to the French king, François II. A requiem mass was held at Notre-Dame after she was beheaded in 1587.
17th and 18th Centuries Conflicts over countries’ colonial territories.
1765 - 1783
France supports America in the War of Independence.
1800 Act of Union
Britain unites with Ireland. George III finally stops claiming the medieval title of King of France. Britain recognises the French Republic at the Treaty of Amiens, 1802 ending the French Revolutionary Wars.
Hostilities break out after Napoleon seizes throne. He is defeated by the Duke of Wellington near Waterloo, Belgium, then held prisoner at St Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic.
The last French king and queen of France, are overthrown and are smuggled across the Channel by the British consul at Le Havre as Mr and Mrs Smith.
France and Britain sign the Entente Cordiale (Cordial Understanding), ending a millennium of conflict.
First and Second World War French and British fight side by side. However, in 1940 the British sank a large part of the French navy at the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir to stop it falling into German hands.
General de Gaulle coordinates the Free French forces and the French Resistance from London.
President de Gaulle vetoes Britain’s EEC entry because he doubts the UK’s commitment. It reapplies in 1967 but de Gaulle vetoes again. The UK joins in 1973 (after his death).
1980s food wars
When British lamb undercut French prices farmers attacked meat lorries and British newspapers responded. France subsequently cut the number of ports of entry for British meat.
1989 – 2000s
Conflict over mad cow disease, with strict bans on UK beef which France refused to lift after the all-clear. French say it is a British disease – in 2008 British press gets its own back when it is found France had its own cases in the 1990s.
1994 Channel Tunnel
Queen Elizabeth II and President Mitterrand officially open the tunnel.
President Sarkozy visits Britain and he and Gordon Brown declare an Entente Formidable (Really Good Understanding). Asked if this relationship was a one-night stand, Sarkozy responds he will at least stay for breakfast.