Press and communication office intern | French Embassy in the United Kingdom
You are just finishing an internship at the French Embassy in London. What did you do?
I was interning at the press office. It involved liaising with British journalists and organising high stake press events such as the 14th July reception at the French Residence in Kensington.
I also assisted my supervisor, who was the press counsellor and spokeswoman of the Embassy, when she was meeting with journalists.
Overall, my job was a mix of media communication and diplomatic protocol work. I had to draft diplomatic notes to be sent to Paris on subjects such as the election of President Macron: how it was perceived in the British press, what were the reactions of political journalists, etc.
You also worked on the Embassy's social media, and digital diplomacy is quite a big thing. What's the strategy behind it?
It was really interesting to be on the communication side of things, because I interacted with all departments within the Embassy as well as with external stakeholders. I had some experience working in the media back in Brittany, but this time I had to respect a specific line given by the government.
To some extent, we have less freedom for what we can tweet about, or put on Facebook etc. because we need to shed light on the official messages of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet we always try and do so with a twist from our location - our social media output often involved some reference to British culture. For example, when pupils went back to school, we tweeted about Harry Potter going back to school.
What were the most useful skills you gained?
The ability to synthesise ideas. At 7am every day, I had to read the British press and sum up in seven to 10 lines the main news of the day and key headlines. So that was my first exercise every morning for six months. This was sent to Paris, and the diplomatic network.
Drafting diplomatic notes involved reading multiple papers covering a specific topic and pulling out trends and highlights on policy, or on key arguments found in editorial comments.
It was fantastic training to read a vast array of content and grasp its main message. When I was studying at Sciences Po Bordeaux, I had trained for it, but the output was very different. At the same time as doing my internship, I am writing a 100-page Master’s thesis on Brexit which has to demonstrate in-depth knowledge on the topic. Here at the Embassy, I learnt that you can also convey a strong message in a short note.
What's a diplomatic note?
Paris asks the French Embassy in the UK about a specific topic. When the note goes to the press office, it means Paris is expecting to learn more about how such event or policy is perceived by the British Press. We then produce a roughly two pages document with the main comments in the press and our analysis of the topic.
You've mentioned studying at Sciences Po in France. What did you do there?
I had the opportunity to study in two very different academic systems for four years but came up with the conclusion that they were extremely complementary.
In the French system, you have more lectures and relationships with teachers tend to be more distant than in the UK – although this was not my case since I belonged to a small cohort of students with the same core group of teachers. One of the main strengths of Sciences Po is that it focuses on general knowledge and trains you to develop a structured argument on a wide range of subjects and areas including geography, history, languages, political science, international relations, development…
In Cardiff, it was a lot more targeted. The British system implies fewer hours of lectures but helps you to develop your ability to work independently and to select several areas you want to specialize in.
Here at the Embassy, I can see how things I learnt from both sides of the Channel helped me to grasp what was happening every day.
You were doing your internship whilst finishing your dissertation. How did you manage both?
I defined my thesis as precisely as I could before I left for London, because I knew it could quickly become a nightmare to stay on top of my deadlines! By January, I had an outline of the dissertation. I was working on Brexit, so I also knew the internship would be in line with my topic.
The writing process, in addition to a full-time job at the Embassy, was often tough to manage. I was working every day and as I could expect from an internship at the press office, media and communications never stop! I also participated in the organisation of the French elections which involved working on several weekends.
When getting home in the evening, I tried to do a bit of reading and research and then on the weekends, when I could, I would write a few pages.
This has been challenging but what substantially improved my research was the opportunity I had to discuss about my topic with diplomats. They were in the best position to apprehend and approach Brexit and they really helped me to have a fresh perspective on my thesis.
What was the application process for your internship like?
I applied through a website that incorporated all the offers of internships for the ministry of Foreign Affairs. I filled in my CV, what I did at university, why I was applying for this internship, my skills, etc.
When I heard back from the press office a few weeks later, they told me I was among the five final candidates for the role. Because I was then studying in California for a semester of exchange with Sciences Po Bordeaux, we scheduled a Skype interview for the following week but I was also tested on a situational exercise. I had to draft a communication strategy plan and produce a video or photo report on a chosen topic.
I chose to promote the university I was studying at in California, for students back in France. In three days, I created a bilingual website, a temporary Facebook page, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube accounts. For the video, I interviewed some French students in California and the vice president of the school. I went around and filmed the Monterey Bay area. I didn't get much sleep that week but I really wanted this internship!
Then I had the Skype interview. To some extent, it was difficult to reconnect with the British press because I was reading more French press to keep myself up to date with what was happening back in France. There were a few questions about British politics, my motivation about the internship and the overall approach to what I thought about diplomacy, communications, and how they could be interrelated.
My future supervisor called me within the hour after the interview had ended saying “you've got it”!
How has doing that internship helped you decide what you are going to do next in your career?
It has opened up options that I would not have considered otherwise. I was really interested in diplomacy before, languages, politics, international relations, European affairs. Here I found a cocktail of all these issues and it really incited me to give a thought to train in l’ENA, although I am conscious of how competitive the entrance exam is.
Talking with diplomats, I discovered the plurality of their careers. Witnessing their work every day encouraged me to try and prepare for the exams and see how it goes. It was a very fast-paced, very exciting every day, and I would love doing what they're doing on a daily basis.
What started your interest in diplomacy?
I became familiar with the idea of travelling and learning about different countries and cultures through my family. I've got two half-brothers – one has been travelling extensively for a French NGO, especially to Africa and Latin America, for years; the other one has been living in Brazil for 15 or 20 years now and lived in India and Turkey before that. My mother comes from Reunion Island, where half of my family still lives. We travelled a lot to the West Indies, the Indian Ocean, Brazil and different destinations. As a child, I already loved the idea of travelling per se. That was my first contact with diplomacy.
My studies reinforced this interest since I moved between Bordeaux, Cardiff, and California. I’ve been moving every year for the past five years. It can be quite difficult to reallocate frequently, but it has definitely made me more mature and more open-minded. I am aware that moving from one country to another is a central aspect of the diplomatic way of life that would not suit everyone but I think it’s a fantastic one.
In addition, my studies touched upon a lot of diplomatic topics. I even had a course last year with an American diplomat. What I loved is that he was being very upfront, and not selling diplomacy 100%. He told us about the challenging aspects of being a diplomat too, which anyone should be aware of before applying.
France had a change of government halfway through your internship. Did you notice any difference between the first and second half?
There was a massive turning point with the elections. In the aftermath of the election, the British press was very positive about Macron because he was saving France and Europe from populism and the far right of Marine Le Pen.
There was a wave of optimism brought by having a young president and what Macron was planning to implement. Yet because of Brexit, competition is starting to emerge between Paris and London about the financial centre of Europe in the next five to ten years. The press is starting to be more contrasted about whether France is going to steal jobs from the UK.
But Franco-British relations are strong and resilient, so the friendship is going to carry on no matter what happens in the Brexit negotiations. It's in the interest of both France and Britain to work in harmony for Brexit negotiations, and Macron made it clear it wasn't in the French interest to punish Britain or to steal jobs from the City.
You worked through four terror attacks during your internship. How does crisis communication work at the embassy?
The first terrorist attack, on Westminster Bridge, happened a week after I started at the Embassy. I took calls from journalists and redirected them to my supervisor, as she was the only one entitled to speak. As soon as people knew they were three French students among the injured, the calls kept on coming.
Since there are so many French people in London, we had prepared ourselves in case French people were involved in the attacks, because the probability of it was high.
After London Bridge, I was there for the Embassy's weekly meeting. I was writing the report every week for that, and so I witnessed the meeting the day after the attack. You could see that there was a weight on everyone's shoulders. That’s when I realised that the Embassy and the Consulate embody the French government acting here in London, trying to figure out the best solution for the French people among the victims.