INTERVIEW:Dublin will always be home for French minister Hélène Conway-Mouret, who took a haphazard route to French government – beginning with an au pair’s job in Ireland 25 years ago, writes RUADHÁN Mac CORMAIC
IT WAS JUNE 21st this year, less than nine months after Hélène Conway-Mouret had left her job as a college lecturer in Dublin and returned to France after a 30-year hiatus to begin an improbable career as a member of French senate. Those first, frenetic months at the heart of national politics had passed in a blur; she had barely begun to absorb how much her life had shifted course. And how, on that summer’s evening, she found herself standing on a Métro platform as Parisian commuters rushed past, having just been offered a post in the cabinet of President François Hollande.
“I was left there with my phone, having just agreed to become a minister in the government,” she recalls with a disbelieving shake of the head. “I just sat down. It was, like, boom.”
Today, Conway-Mouret – Minister for the French Abroad – is sitting in her sparse, modern office at the foreign ministry in Paris, the obligatory French tricolour alongside the blue-and-yellow EU flag at her shoulder and the window framing a wide esplanade where hundreds of staff come and go in the mid-morning sun. This is the heart of what insiders call la maison – the second-biggest diplomatic network in the world, and one of the most powerful arms of the French government.
“Intense is the word,” she says, reflecting on it all. A year ago, Conway was working on plans for Dublin Institute of Technology’s new campus at Grangegorman; now she is preparing for a diplomatic visit to China.
“It was just so sudden. I realised that becoming a senator had changed my life, but this was a step above that, and without knowing exactly what was involved, I kind of sensed it was huge,” she says of the day she was offered a place in cabinet. “And it is.” Less than 24 hours after she took that call, Conway was at her first cabinet meeting at the Élysée Palace.
Nicolas Sarkozy used to say he would dream of being president while shaving in the morning. Conway-Mouret’s route to government was more haphazard. It began with an au pair’s job in Dublin more than 25 years ago.
Originally from Lyon, she came to Ireland with a friend to improve her English after finishing college. The plan was to do some child-minding for a few months and return home, but gradually her links to Dublin tightened. She applied for a Master’s in linguistics at Trinity College Dublin and never left. Most of her career was spent at DIT, where she helped set up, and then led, the school of modern languages.
Politics had long been a sideline – a hobby, as she describes it. A member of the Irish Labour Party, she was involved in setting up a Dublin branch of the French Socialist Party, and in 2000 was elected the representative of Ireland’s French community in an assembly of peers from around the world. That body – the 155-member Assembly of French Citizens Abroad – advises the government on issues of concern to its nationals living overseas, and its members elect 12 of their own to the senate, France’s upper house.
Conway-Mouret made one unsuccessful attempt at claiming one of the 12 seats. Then, last September, after an 18-month campaign across her global constituency (“Skype,” she replies when asked about her canvassing method), she finally won it. “What started as a hobby has somehow turned into something bigger, but I’m not a politician,” she told me after that win.