The State Department From a French Perspective

Posted by Benoît Cormier
February 11, 2014
President Obama and French President Hollande Board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base

President Obama invited his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, on a State Visit to celebrate a renewed alliance between the United States and France.  Working for a year in the Bureau of Public Affairs at the Department of State, a French national tells us more about this special alliance and his experience as an exchange diplomat.  

As usual at the press office of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, the phone keeps ringing; it is an afternoon in late spring 2013.  Deputy to the Spokesperson in charge of European Affairs, busy drafting a text on the budget of the EU, I am surprised to receive a call from Washington D.C., forgetting for an instant that I am leaving soon for the U.S. capital to assume a new position.  The powerful voice on the phone congratulates me on being selected as a TDF. I have no idea what this actually means…

However, I soon realize that the TDF program, or Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellowship, is a golden opportunity:  established in 1995, this exchange program, formerly known as the Fellowship of Hope, was a diplomatic answer to then President Clinton’s wish to strengthen the partnership between the United States and a Europe emerging from the divisions of the Cold War.  Before joining the French Embassy in D.C. in the summer of 2014, I am spending a year inside the famous Department of State to familiarize myself with the way my American colleagues do things.

And I am not the only one: every year, a few Foreign Service Officers cross the Atlantic Ocean, also known as “the pond” because of the proximity between Europe and the United States, and spend a few months working at partner Ministries of Foreign Affairs, while the European fellows, including myself, travel the other way to Washington, D.C.  A few interviews over the phone later and I find out that I will join the Bureau of Public Affairs. Hard to imagine something more exciting for the young public affairs specialist that I am!

I land at Dulles International Airport on a very sunny day of August.  The Customs and Border Patrol officer does not ask too many questions in spite of the multiple visas in my passport.  Three visits suffice to find a nice apartment -- and I don’t need to worry about furniture as my stuff is on a boat somewhere on the ocean for another few months!  My new team is very welcoming and easy to work with, passionate as I am about news and international affairs.

It is fortunate, because September is busy: the United States -- with France’s help -- leads an international effort to dismantle the chemical weapons of the Syrian regime and engages in a public dialogue with Iran during the UN General Assembly.  Here I am in the Department of State as my team organizes a discussion between Secretary Kerry and the New York Times’ Nick Kristof on Syria and then takes part in the exchange between the White House, the Department of State, and the Iranian president.  When President Rouhani re-tweets the Department of State’s account, I understand how a small gesture can have a big impact.

Five months pass, and the news cycle pursues its endless and crazy course.  In the middle of it, I almost do not realize how easy my integration has been.  There have obviously been a few misunderstandings.  No one shares my passion for the qualification of the French soccer team for the next World Cup, even though each morning meeting in our office starts with a few minutes of discussion on football...American football!  A sport played with helmet and pads is not really football (European style) if you ask me, but I am trying to adapt.  On February 2, I spend my Sunday watching the Super Bowl with a few American friends, explaining everything.

As you have guessed by now, I am enjoying every moment of this exchange.  It allows me to better understand how the gigantic machine that is American foreign policy works, including in Public Affairs:  I knew all about the quality and efficiency of the spokesperson’s office, because of my previous job, but I had no idea of the many other public activities of the U.S. Department of State.  Among these, I am thrilled to be able to take a part in the Department's digital engagement on social networks, a future-oriented task for diplomacy and a real pleasure for the geek that I am.

Hopefully, there will be other occasions for me to tell you more about this, and my transatlantic activities in general, because what better place to speak about digital diplomacy than online?

About the Author: Benoît Cormier serves as a Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow from France in the State Department's Bureau of Public Affairs.

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