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UK ambassador to France shares view on first ‘hectic’ months in post

Dame Menna Rawlings, the UK’s first female ambassador to France, talks to Connexion about Jubilee preparations, British residency rights, migrants and President Macron

Dame Menna Rawlings, UK ambassador to France

Dame Menna Rawlings, UK ambassador to France, plans sparkly Platinum Jubilee Pic: The Connexion

After nine months as the UK’s first female ambassador to France, Dame Menna Rawlings spoke to The Connexion’s Sarah Smith and Liv Rowland about the Platinum Jubilee and her hectic job.

The Jubilee must be an important occasion for UK-France links?

It certainly is, and, firstly, the connections between Her Majesty the Queen and France are incredible. She made her first unaccompanied visit at 22 in 1948 before she was Queen. 

We have brilliant photos of her at the British Ambassador’s Residence, walking down the street with crowds waving out of windows and balconies.

She speaks fluent French, having learnt as a girl, has made 13 official visits including five ‘state’ ones, and is thought to have visited in total 30-40 times. 

She represents the longevity and continuity of the relationship despite ups and downs over the years. 

She has known 10 French presidents and there’s huge affection for her in France.

Everywhere I go people want to know how she’s doing so it’s a great moment to celebrate.

How will you be marking it?

We have the Red Arrows performing at Le Touquet [editor’s note: this was on May 28], and our Queen’s Birthday Party (QBP) on June 1, the annual moment when we celebrate our nation and our Queen. 

Read more: Queen’s jubilee - Red Arrows to join French navy planes at Le Touquet

We’ve not been able to do it since 2019 and I want to make sure it’s sparkly and special this time.

Our team created a ‘virtual’ online version last year, but it will be nice to have a proper party and invite the full range of French contacts and key people from the British community.  

The next day, the French government has offered a ravivage at the Arc de Triomphe, to relight the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I will be involved, but it will be led by our defence team. 

Read more: France marks Queen's Platinum Jubilee with Paris flame revival

It will be a sombre but positive moment, remembering the shared sacrifices over her reign and the close relationship. I hope people will come.

We are also planning a Great British Tea Party for the British community on June 21. 

It will be in the gardens of the Residence and really traditional. There have been community picnics in the past so it will be fantastic as not everyone can come to the QBP.

Then, on June 23-24, there will be a Platinum Showcase in the Residence, led by our international trade team, showing the best of British design, innovation, business, start-ups… aimed at the business community and in partnership with the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry and big British companies, or French companies with an interest in the UK.

That’s the full sweep of events and we’re super-excited. 

I’m sure there will also be plenty of live Jubilee coverage from the UK that people can watch. 

The D-Day anniversary is also coming up around the same time so I will be at the British Normandy Memorial and commemorative activities.

It will be busy but it’s an amazing couple of weeks for the UK in France.

Has the Normandy Memorial been a success since opening last year?

It is moving and impressive and the fact it was delivered during Covid is fantastic. 

The downside was there couldn’t be a big ceremony. 

My predecessor, Ed Llewellyn, presided over an amazing event, but it was largely virtual in terms of veteran participation. 

Sadly, we are in a declining era in terms of getting them over, but it’s an opportunity we want to take. 

It is striking it took until now to have a British memorial, so it’s a credit to Ed and the memorial trust team, with support from the Elysée and French government.

We have been talking to a French boy who loves the Queen and understand he will feature on the Embassy’s Instagram

It’s great. I think it’s an example in microcosm of that wider affection I was talking about and it’s good to know a new generation is still interested in our countries’ relationship and has affection for the Queen.

Read more: French boy, seven, exchanges letters with the Queen

Read more: Platinum Jubilee - French boy delighted with second card from the Queen

Looking back on your last months, it must have been a hectic time?

Yes, there has been so much going on. 

The autumn was challenging with the Aukus submarines announcement and issues around fishing licences, which are now largely resolved.

Then we had the tragedy of a small boat going down in the Channel with the loss of 27 lives. 

We cooperate closely with the French and they do an enormous amount of good work but the volume of people trying to cross is an ongoing concern. 

More discussions are underway now we have a newly [re-]elected president. 

There are asylum routes for those genuinely fleeing conflicts but we also feel if people are in a safe country they don’t necessarily need to go to the UK. 

We want to stop people risking their lives in the Channel. 

Some 28,000 arrived in the UK last year and the French stopped another 24,000. 

Those numbers are not sustainable and those benefiting are gangs of traffickers.

Ukraine has also shot up our agenda and has been an important reminder of the values we share with France, our shared perspectives on the importance of democracy and freedom, and ensuring Ukraine succeeds and Putin fails.

That has brought us back together.

Is it too early to comment on Mr Macron’s idea for a new European political community?

It is early days and we need to look at exactly what he is proposing, but we are all looking at how we can build stronger coalitions of what our foreign secretary calls ‘the network of liberty’ – countries like the UK and France that value freedom, tolerance and equality. 

Our ideas might not all be the same, but we share core values. 

Some things in the international system need to shift to sustain our way of life and global influence.

I must add that I have now travelled all over the country and am on track to visit all of the regions in my first year.

I’ve loved getting out and meeting people from different walks of life, from business, culture and prefectures, not least to bang the drum on British residence rights. 

I find a lot of positivity about UK-France relations and enthusiasm for working more closely. 

I find willingness to do the best they can, notably so everyone receives their WA residency card, which has now largely been achieved, with 165,000 people having received cards.

Where do people still need help?

It is things like lost paperwork or where an appointment was not received and was missed – but our team say it’s a tiny proportion and usually the prefecture has a positive attitude to resolve them.

And with the Ministry of the Interior, the goodwill to fix things is there.

The overall picture has been positive. 

I’m proud of the role the Embassy has played because it’s important to us to keep support in the British community. 

We recognise it has been hard and people felt frustration and concern. 

We recently hosted the British Community Committee and they and other groups have done an amazing job. They are a critical partner for us and will be going forward. 

I am keen to work more closely with community groups, not just to grapple with difficult issues, but to celebrate the strength of our culture in all its forms in different parts of France, such as the collaboration in Brittany between the Welsh national orchestra and opera, and events at the Residence for St David’s or St Andrew’s Day.

Are you in contact with the French Embassy in London on visas and is there news on flexibility on the 90-day rule for second-home owners?

Yes, we have contact about visas with the Interior Ministry here and links with the embassy. 

We have a good and open dialogue when problems come up.

On the 90 days, I’m aware of it but it reflects the EU rule and it just happens that our rule in the UK is different. 

Over time, mobility between Britain and France is something I want to focus on, to make it easy to keep moving and working between the UK and France. 

I was in Australia until 2019 and there are schemes there for young Brits to do two-year working holidays.

Events

Portraits of the Queen will be shown from June 1 at the Ambassador’s Res­i­dence, 39 rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

The Connexion will publish details online of how to book for the Great British Tea Party on June 21 once they are announced.

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