Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

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

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.

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.

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 first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.