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.
During her nine-month spell as a senator, Conway-Mouret would return to Dublin, where her son Sébastien lives, every weekend. Her workload since becoming minister has made her visits less frequent, but she doesn’t hesitate when asked where she considers home. “Dublin is home, and will always be home,” she says. “I know every street. I was there for two-and-a-half decades. I really feel at home there.”
She never took Irish citizenship, but her reference points, her professional experience and even her speech, subtly Dublin-inflected in both French and English, are rooted in her adoptive country. The senate post was her first job in France, after all. “I’m rediscovering the country somehow. For instance, if you were to ask me who is the most famous young singer, I wouldn’t know who it would be. One finds that things have moved on. I saw a picture of Michel Sardou in some magazine recently. He has white hair now! He didn’t when I was young and listening to him.”
At the ministry, Conway-Mouret is responsible for France’s links with its estimated 2.5 million citizens living overseas. Her office handles everything that touches on their welfare or their dealings with the homeland – a wide brief that covers France’s consular network, its foreign schools and the security of citizens abroad. She also takes on tasks delegated by the senior minister, Laurent Fabius.
“You never stop,” she says. “You’re in overdrive. One has to be available all the time, and personal life becomes secondary.” By way of illustration, she lists the items in today’s diary – a visit to the Mexican embassy, lunch with the Chinese ambassador, two meetings at the office, a cultural reception and, if she can steal a few minutes between appointments, there is a stack of papers on her desk waiting to be reviewed and signed. Oh, and today is her 52nd birthday.
Much as she enjoys the job, she is also conscious of the trade-offs. She remarks that her life has become regimented, that she has to watch her every word.
She has already been the subject of two stories in Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical-investigative weekly, both concerning alleged rows over office space and decor at the ministry. “With the move here, some people were disgruntled. We had taken what they considered to be their space, so they wrote to the paper saying that I had lavish taste. When you look at this office, you can see it’s not exactly lavish.”
As a novice thrown into the mudbath of Paris politics, Conway-Mouret integrated quickly and built a reputation as a hard worker. She thinks her personality – committed, but warmer and less formal in manner than a typical French politician – helped win her acceptance. But men’s dominance didn’t escape her. There are as many women as men in cabinet (gender parity was one of Hollande’s campaign pledges), but in the senate foreign affairs committee, for example, Conway-Mouret was one of just six women out of 57 members. Did she have to fight to get on the committee? “Oh yeah,” she replies. “I was told it was a very serious committee. I said, so what? That’s why I want to be on it.
“As a reaction, I joined the delegation of women’s rights,” she adds, chuckling. “Even in the national assembly, the atmosphere is incredibly violent. When you have 200 people shouting at you, it’s unpleasant. The engagement is ferocious, and it’s a male thing, I feel.”
Like any successful politician, Conway-Mouret has had some good fortune along the way. She supported Hollande, whose chances were initially seen as slim, in the socialist primary, and then campaigned at his side during the presidential election.
“I’ve always liked him personally,” she says. “He’s a very warm, engaging person . . . and I saw him grow into the role. He’s incredibly smart. He understands things immediately.”
When the post now occupied by Conway-Mouret was created by then president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, the Socialist Party dismissed it as a manoeuvre to attract overseas votes for the right. But Hollande retained it, and Conway-Mouret says the president is fully behind her plans. Among them is reform of consular services, developing them in places – notably in Asia – where French people are moving in greater numbers, and keeping up with demand for places in French schools around the world. She is also drafting a security strategy for French people or companies based in dangerous parts of the world, a topical and sensitive issue given recent kidnappings of French nationals in the Sahel region of north Africa.
Given her strong links to Ireland, Conway-Mouret sees herself as a useful link between the two countries. When discussing France’s emigrants, she often draws comparisons with the Irish diaspora, and says she is quick to share her views on Ireland with colleagues in cabinet. “I really respect the people who are in government [in Dublin] today, working in very difficult conditions – the way we are here,” she says.
“It’s always easier when you have the means to put in place what you want to do. When you have an ideal – I’m thinking of my Labour colleagues – and you don’t have the means to reach it, it’s not easy.” Seeing the effects of Ireland’s economic collapse, in particular its impact on young people such as her 25-year-old son, has shaped her views on how France must act.
“Take my son Sébastien. Here is a young man who has finished his studies, and he managed to get a job. He is hanging on. He is one of these people in their early 20s saying, ‘Should I stay, should I go?’ He’s hanging on there, because it’s his home, his country. Out of his class last year, I think he was the only one to get a job. It’s very sad. I think a dozen of them emigrated, and the others are unemployed or have taken part-time jobs wherever they could get them – in supermarkets or whatever. For the dignity of these people, it’s not a good start in life.”
Hollande put young people’s issues at the heart of his election campaign last spring, and education is one of only two areas shielded from cuts in his budget (the other is security). “I believe, in Europe, if we’re all to get out of this big hole, we need to do it for our young people,” Conway-Mouret says. “That was one of the things that drew me to François Hollande – his belief that it is through young people that we will get out of this. And that we have to put everything into education.”
And what of her own plans? She may not think of herself as a politician, but she freely admits to having caught the virus. Is it incurable?
“I don’t have a plan,” she replies. “We’ll do our best. We’ll make a difference. I hope it’s appreciated. And then we’ll see.”