Olivia Bernard

CV in brief Education: College of Europe in Natolin | Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Grenoble | Trinity College Dublin  Career so far: SGAE - secrétariat Général des Affaires Européennes | British Embassy in Paris | French permanent representation to the EU Find Olivia online: LinkedIn  Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, December 2016

CV in brief

Education: College of Europe in Natolin | Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Grenoble | Trinity College Dublin 

Career so far: SGAE - secrétariat Général des Affaires Européennes | British Embassy in Paris | French permanent representation to the EU

Find Olivia online: LinkedIn 

Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, December 2016

Former Local Staff | British Embassy in Paris

What did you do at the British Embassy in Paris?

I worked for 5 years as a political officer in the EU team. I followed what the French were saying about the future of Europe. Ahead of the referendum, I followed what they were saying about the UK in Europe. I report on it to colleagues at the Foreign Office in London. 

The second part of my role was to communicate the UK’s position on European affairs to the French government, to French diplomats and civil servants. This meant for instance meeting diplomats and organising public diplomacy events.

I left my position at the British Embassy at the end of 2016 to work for the French administration’s EU coordination unit called the General Secretariat for European affairs where I deal with public relations and communication issues. 

2016 must have been quite an interesting year for you.

It was fascinating! The first six months provided an intense piece of work, understanding who was talking about Europe in France and following the kind of comments that were made about the UK. It helped colleagues in London understand how the French were seeing the UK debate and to adapt our messaging ahead of the negotiations earlier this year. I was following press comments very closely as well as conferences that were happening in France and set up meetings with key contacts. The whole team did a lot of explaining of why the UK was having a referendum. 

How was working at the Embassy just after the referendum happened?

24 June was one of the busiest days I'd had ever had at the Embassy, reporting back on French political reactions, including the President and the government. Emotionally, a very loaded day as it really felt like it was the end of something as well as the beginning of the new era.

Immediately after the vote, we knew we had to accept the result of the referendum. It was the vote of the British people and we had to make it work. The Franco-British relationship is strong and has been for centuries. 

How did you end up working at the British Embassy?

I studied European Affairs in France, in Dublin, and for my last year of studies I went to the College of Europe in Warsaw. It provided me with an impressive network of contacts. Through this network, I heard of this position opening at the Embassy in Paris. 

When I applied, five years ago now, I was excited about working for another member state of the European Union. I was thrilled after my year at the College of Europe, studying with 30 different nationalities. You can't understand how the European Union works if you don't open your mind and try to see things from a different perspective. I wanted to put myself in another member state's shoes to have this perspective. 

How do you see your career evolving? Because of your studies, you're linked directly to the EU and there's a lot of questions about it at the moment.

I would like to stay on a career path where I can work on EU-related matters. I've been lucky to work for the British government for the five years and to be able to move to a role in the French administration as a contract agent. I would be interested in working for the EU institutions directly at some point, but also in working in the private sector on influencing the EU institutions. There are still a lot of possibilities out there.

How does the local staff system work? 

The Foreign Office decided a few years ago to hire an increasing number of local staff. These local staff are FCO staff of any nationality (including British) who are employed overseas in their country of residence on local terms and conditions.  It started with mostly support roles but now, many policy roles are localised. Around 70% of FCO staff overseas are locally employed, rather than UK civil servants. Other diplomatic services are moving in the same direction such as the U.S.  

Most of my colleagues at the Embassy were British nationals, some of them moved to France for the job, others were already settled in the country. It can be a permanent contract or a short-term contract, depending on the needs. 

Security clearance depends on the role itself. Some positions would not be accessible to non-UK nationals.  At an equivalent grade, local staff would be given the same responsibilities as career diplomats.  

We are one team working together with the same aim. It's a clever system in the sense that you use the local staff’s expertise of the country, of the language, of the people; the diplomats bring with them their network of contacts in London, their expertise, their acute understanding of the politics and the dynamics in the UK. That complementarity is one of the strengths of the British diplomatic service.

What is your advice to someone applying for a local staff position? How is the application process?

Bear in mind that it is a British process. So your cover letter needs to be focused on your skills. You need to show what you've done, what your experience is by giving concrete examples. It’s completely different from a French cover letter. 

Then, the interview is competency-based. British students are well-trained for that kind of interviews. When applying for the British diplomatic service for a local staff position, you have to keep in mind that the recruiting process is modeled after the UK civil service. 

You were in your job for five years. What was the most useful thing you learned?

To just go out there. Talk to people. Being shy and being quiet doesn't get you anywhere. I've learned about networking and talking to people. People always have something to tell you, and you always have something interesting to say to them and don’t be afraid of saying it. 

The UK and French university systems are very different in the way they train you. Do you find it challenging? 

What I admire in the British system is that you can study a topic that is completely different from what your job ends up being. I've noticed that reporting back to London tends to be short and to the point and doesn't go into great details, compared with the French system where writing long memos is more common – and that is something I can testify from my current role! Both systems have their pros and cons, and it is a skill to be able to navigate between both.

There is another difference between the two diplomatic services. French civil servants are usually very well trained on a large range of issues, meaning no matter what they work on, they always have a basic knowledge of the topic. In the UK, it's more about competency. People pick up knowledge very quickly, which is also very impressive.