“Sometimes it feels like I live in Downton Abbey,” says Muriel Domenach, France’s consul-general to Turkey, of her official residence in Istanbul where she lives with her husband and three children. A stone’s throw from the city’s main shopping street, the Palais de France is set in a garden studded with antiquities and Iznik-tiled fountains.
On the day we visit, the dining table is laid with monogrammed Limoges china and Christofle silver for a breakfast with a group of French chefs. Gobelin tapestries hang on the walls and light streams through the glass art nouveau atrium. In the ballroom a bronze and Bohemian-crystal chandelier is adorned with bees: Napoleon’s emblem and the only decor element impossible to remove after his abdication. In the music room, children’s sheet music on the Erard grand piano lightens the somewhat imperious atmosphere.
France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has urged his ambassadors to increase tourist numbers to France while promoting French business abroad by traditional means or soft power. Domenach has responded by simplifying the visa application process, publishing a “dictionary of love” for Valentine’s Day to celebrate the world’s oldest diplomatic alliance between Turkey and France (“I see Turkey and France like an old married couple”) and upholding French values wherever possible.
Last year a Ramadan evening, bringing together secular and conservative Turks, Greeks and Armenians in the consulate garden, initially raised eyebrows – but the subsequent press was overwhelmingly positive. “One influential columnist saluted the fact we had invited the consulate’s housekeeping staff, including Bekir Bey, the butler who has been here for more than 30 years,” says Domenach. “It was the first time they had ever been guests at one of our events.”
Domenach adds: “I’m trying to reach new audiences, both the French community and Turkish civil society.” For a woman whose educational background fits the classic French diplomat matrix – Lycée Henri-IV, Sciences Po, ENA – this outward-facing role is a new one, as she has mostly worked in the Ministry of Defence dealing with strategic issues. “My mentor, the French ambassador to Washington, told me to make the most of being a young, dynamic woman in my first position as head of mission, thus presenting a young, dynamic image of France.”
Her deputy is a woman and she also has a female chauffeur. “My husband, who specialises in Ottoman history, looks after our children at the weekend when I have to go to functions. I tell Turks that I believe in the modern man and that equality starts at home.”
France’s embassy in Constantinople was also its first-ever diplomatic mission abroad following the 1536 Franco-Ottoman alliance between Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent. The Palais occupies land given to France by the sultan.
The consulate employs 170 members of staff, of whom 50 are French – including gendarmes as security.
Turkey and France may have a longstanding alliance but relations during the Sarkozy years were damaged in 2011 when France drafted a law banning the denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Q&A- Jean-Marie Guéhenno
President & CEO, International Crisis Group
Guéhenno is a former UN peacekeeping operations undersecretary and the author of The Fog of Peace: A Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century. He looks ahead to the 70th UN General Assembly (UNGA) session in September.
What is going to be the main focus at the UNGA?
Part of it will be peace operations. A report has recently been issued on how these operations should be conducted; in the past 15 years there has been a huge growth in UN peace missions. What’s happening in Libya and the Middle East will bring the issue into greater focus because questions remain about what to do there – should we have intervened in Syria earlier? And nobody knows what to do in Libya. It is falling apart and nobody wants to put troops on the ground. That will link up with another big theme: terrorism, the Islamic State and what to do about it.
What will be the biggest issue that the General Assembly will face?
Ukraine – and there will likely be a continued sense of impotence. With the Security Council divided on the issue it will be next to impossible for the UN to move anything forward.
What kind of debate will arise from the sustainable development goals agreed at the Rio+20 Conference?
The debate will centre on governance and rule-of-law issues; not typically priority development discussions, and politically sensitive in many countries. There is a growing understanding that you can’t have long-term peace and long-term development if you don’t address some real political issues.