As an exchange diplomat in France’s Foreign Ministry, our colleague Henrike Becker found she needs to know all about French law – and more. With the help of her French colleagues, she has now become familiar with typical figures of speech, birth certificates and France’s culinary delights.
“You will be sent to the Quai d’Orsay as an exchange diplomat”, the staff planner told me in the spring of 2013. Something out of the usual: one year away from the Federal Foreign Office, immersed in an entirely new working environment and, in particular, another language!
In July 2013, I started my year as an exchange diplomat at the French Foreign Ministry. While my workplace here is the visa section, my office is located not at the familiar address, the Quai d’Orsay, but in France’s former national printing office in the 15th arrondissement which houses not just the consular section (“Direction des Français à l’étranger et de l’administration consulaire”) but also many other parts of the Foreign Ministry.
Working life with cats and frogs
Unlike in Berlin, where as a rule you have an office to yourself, several colleagues often share a room here in Paris. While this took some getting used to, I was quick to see the advantages: with two colleagues within easy questioning distance, I soon felt at home. At the same time, working life is a never-ending language course, rich in figures of speech. The fact that in France you do not have a frog but a cat in your throat (“avoir un chat dans la gorge”) and that what we know as fickle April weather is already there in March (“les giboulées de mars”) is not something you usually learn in school.
A few days after I started work, I was given not just a badge to access the building, but also a French Foreign Ministry email address and business cards sporting the French national symbol “Marianne”. I was quick to realise that I was not just a German guest but a normal colleague fully integrated into working life, whatever my accent.
The difference between German and French laws
Of course I answer questions about Germany, the Federal Foreign Office and the work of our German consular sections on a regular basis. I also keep in constant touch with Berlin and our embassy in Paris. At the same time, I do the job of a normal French official, liaising with colleagues abroad, drafting reports, compiling statistics, etc.
Even beyond visa affairs, my consular expertise stands me in good stead. While the rules on short-term Schengen visas are laid down in a Visa Code that applies throughout the Schengen area, German and French law differ greatly on other issues.
Close family ties between Germany and France
One of the biggest differences between the German and the French consular systems is the law governing the civil status of persons. While French consulates also function as registry offices, issuing, for example, birth certificates for children born abroad, the consular sections of German missions abroad only receive such applications and forward them to Germany.
Our French colleagues also put up ballot boxes in their foreign missions. While Germans living abroad may vote by postal vote in general and European elections, French citizens may cast their vote at their missions abroad. Franco-German relations are so close today – also at family level – that such matters can keep both German and French consular sections around the globe busy.
Practical and cultural exchange
Through my work at the French Foreign Ministry, I have come to know Paris and France much better than would otherwise have been possible. My colleagues here are always ready with advice, be it on questions of French local elections, on where to spend a holiday or where to buy a good French white wine. At the same time, they are not shy about asking questions on Germany. From our school system to German reunification and German baking, anything can crop up. Before Christmas, for example, a recipe for German stollen (Christmas cake) was quite a success around here.