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7 September 2017

Sylvie Bermann’s Diary: London farewells and a new start in Moscow

The French ambassador reflects on three politically turbulent years in the UK.

By Sylvie Bermann

When I first confided that I was going to be appointed French Ambassador to the UK, I remember being told that it would be “boring” after my time in China. How wrong that turned out to be!

These past three years have zipped by. When I arrived in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2014, my first journey was to Edinburgh.  And so it was fitting that my final official trip as ambassador took me back there. It was a pleasure to attend the world-famous Fringe and International Festivals: I was welcomed by the lord provost of Edinburgh, Frank Ross, and attended some remarkable performances. Theatre Re’s The Nature of Forgetting, an exploration of dementia through mime and music, was innovatively and dynamically staged, and very moving. I was delighted to see the French play La Maladie de la Mort, by Marguerite Duras: this year France had a strong presence at the Fringe.

Performing arts have been a central aspect of my experience of the UK, and they’re something I will miss. London is arguably the world’s drama capital. One of my favourite plays was The Audience at the Apollo Theatre, starring Kristin Scott Thomas as the Queen. She portrayed the monarch in a strikingly measured and dignified way. The play, like other works by Peter Morgan, had much to say about British politics.

Some of my memories of the last three years still make me laugh. In 2015, I was falsely accused by the press of snubbing a British official’s biscuits during a meeting. Since then, I don’t take any risks, and eat all the snacks I am offered.

Of red and of bleuet

At the start of July, I attended the service commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, on the outskirts of Amiens. There an expanse of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of poppies and French “bleuets” or cornflowers intermingled below the Thiepval Memorial, which honours the soldiers who gave their lives in the battle. I was also deeply impressed by Paul Cummins’s art installation “Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London back in 2014. The image of those 888,000 poppies forming a pool of crimson blood remains one of the most powerful tributes to the scale of the British sacrifice.

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I remember too all the Second World War veterans to whom I have presented the Légion d’honneur. More than 5,000 of them have received this prestigious distinction over the past three years, as promised by the French government. Commemorating the two world wars is a reminder of the historic Franco-British alliance and of how, today, we are thriving together.

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My longest night

Having announced my departure, I am often asked about the most memorable moments of my posting in London. I generally mention three experiences.

The first is undoubtedly 23 June 2016. I often describe it as my “longest night”, as the reality of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union was not made official until 7.20 in the morning. Having worked throughout my career in close co-operation with the UK, be it in New York, Brussels or elsewhere, I regret the result and consequences of that poll. Britain’s role and weight, internationally, will undoubtedly change. Only time will tell whether this change will represent a reinvention or a diminution of the country. Brexit has come to dominate my work: it’s been fascinating seeing how it has come to underpin almost every aspect of British politics.

All the queen’s horses

My second and third most memorable moments, on the other hand, are a source of happy recollections. They also, coincidentally, represent the opening and closing chapters of my ambassadorship. I shall never forget the day I presented Her Majesty the Queen with my letters of credence after arriving in London. As per tradition, I was escorted from the French residence to Buckingham Palace in a regal, horse-drawn carriage for this unique ceremony – it felt like a moment in history!

And I was recently granted the honour of receiving the Freedom of the City of London. I am looking for a blacksmith to forge the sword I’m now allowed to carry through the city. If you know a good one, send them my way!

Isle be back

I leave London to take up my new post as ambassador in Moscow. During three lively years in the UK, I’ve witnessed two elections and as many referendums. I’ve had the honour of overseeing the Franco-British relationship for the past three years, a strong and thriving one that will stand the test of time. I’m happy that this relationship will be nurtured by the new Young Leaders programme, which I was proud to launch a few months ago with my British counterpart.

As I reflect on my time in the UK, I am humbled by the privilege it has been to represent my country at such a turbulent time in British history. Many things are uncertain when you lead the life of a diplomat, but of this I am sure: I will be back before long to visit the UK. 

Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the United Kingdom

This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move