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Newsmakers

French Ambassador Michèle Boccoz: The Caring Diplomat

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star
French Ambassador Michèle Boccoz: The Caring Diplomat
French Ambassador Michèle Boccoz, who has a soft spot for children, is one of PeopleAsia magazine’s ‘Women of Style and Substance’ awardees for 2022.
MAU AGUASIN

Poised and elegant, French Ambassador Michèle Boccoz tears up when talking about children, particularly underprivileged Filipino children.

“It’s always heartbreaking when children are concerned, whose lives are so terribly affected (by their situation),” Ambassador Boccoz, tears welling in her eyes, told us recently when the topic of the return to face-to face classes for children came up in our conversation. She apologized for the show of emotion, saying, “Sorry, I feel very strongly about that.”

Was she speaking as a mother, a diplomat, a human being, or all of the above?

“It’s a mix of all that,” she replied.  “As a diplomat, we are trying to work together with this country, and I care for the development of this country and for the future of the country. And the youth, the kids are the future of the country. So that’s why I think it’s so important.”

“The Philippines has a young population.  If you educate a young population, then it’s a wonderful asset for the country. But if their education is not there, then that’s going to be a problem.”

The lady ambassador was also in Bacolod recently visiting two non-government organizations (NGOs) that help abused children. One of them, Cameleon, helps victims of sexual abuse heal themselves and rebuild their young lives.

Boccoz loves her country, France, very much. And she believes loving France means being true to its ideals and loving the rest of the world as well. That is why she finds being a diplomat and a humanitarian very rewarding.

“I love my country. I’m very devoted to my country. But I really think that if you look only at your country, you have a very narrow vision, and you don’t realize also how you relate to the rest of the world and how you can choose to be situated with the rest of the world. And I think it’s really good to put it in perspective, to get to understand different cultures. I think that’s something that I found really rewarding. I think I can serve my country better in this way,” shares Ambassador Boccoz, who trained in diplomacy and is an alumna of France’s École normale supérieure (ENS) and of the École nationale d’administration (National School of Public Administration-ENA).

She joined the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 1991. An experienced diplomat, she served as ambassador to Belgium (2009-2012), to Croatia (2013-2016), and later, as the Global Health Ambassador with a focus on the fight against HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases (2016-2017).

From 2017 to 2020, she was assistant director-general and special envoy of the director-general at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, where she was responsible for the strengthening of health diplomacy and the strategic relationships of the WHO.

“As a diplomat, I was interested beyond diplomatic work and into global health issues,” she says.

Between cocktails

“Magandang umaga. Gusto po ba ninyong mag-kape?” Ambassador Boccoz, who speaks Spanish, German, Italian, Croatian and is starting to speak Tagalog, gives us a sample of her Tagalog as she opens her beautiful home to us for an interview.

“I’ve always been interested also in learning languages.” shares Ambassador Boccoz, who declares that for her, Philippine mangoes are the best.

She admits there is a misconception that diplomats swirl and twirl only in a glamorous world.

“The glamorous image is a popular image. We used to have an advertisement in France for chocolates. It was all about chocolates being the ambassador’s chocolates, so you had this beautiful tray, beautiful reception. And so people tend to think that diplomats do that all the time in glamorous receptions. A colleague of mine was writing his memoir, and the title was a very provocative one, ‘What do diplomats do between two cocktails’?”

Apparently, for Ambassador Boccoz, it includes visiting prisoners. Among the places she visited in Bacolod was a prison for minors. “I saw their living conditions, and  discussed the help we can provide for them.” She has also been to Tondo, including to the so-called Smokey Mountain.

The caring diplomat was also among the first to visit Surigao Del Norte, Surigao City, and Siargao a few days after Typhoon Odette. “And so we really mobilized our colleagues in Paris to help and support the victims.”

There is also the political dimension that must be nurtured “between cocktails,” so to speak.

“We have to very seriously work on all the dimensions of our cooperation with the country where we are represented, which means all the political high-level dialogue, how to strengthen the relations between the two countries. But it’s not only political, it’s also economic. Currently, the government has very strong economic priorities. So, we are very, very closely working on trying to raise the level of cooperation in areas that are priority areas for this government. We’re talking a lot about strategic and security aspects; energy, green energy, including nuclear energy; food security, climate change issues.”

The Philippines and France are celebrating 75 years of diplomatic ties this year, and Ambassador Boccoz and the French Embassy have lined up 15 events since earlier this year to celebrate this milestone.

Ain’t no mountain high enough

Michèle Boccoz grew up in a picture-pretty place called Savoie with a view of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe and the Alps. But she knew there was another world to explore beyond the Alps after she immersed herself in a magazine that featured the world’s UNESCO Heritage Sites.

“It was all about different cultures, languages, civilizations, histories and all that. And from a very young age, I started reading that. I was fascinated by that, and that probably influenced my interest in discovering other cultural diversities,” recalls the well-travelled diplomat, who also considers Paris her hometown. She estimates that she has probably visited over 100 countries in the world for both personal and professional reasons.

Like many of the 100 other countries she has visited, the Philippines has also widened her world with the widest of smiles.

“Filipinos are such a positive people. They are very often in very difficult situations. (But) they’re always resilient, positive, smiling, they care so much for others. They have this incredible warm relations to others. When I first arrived here, at the beginning of 2021, the country was still in a lockdown. It wasn’t so easy. And in spite of that, I felt so warmly welcomed. And I realized that this interaction between people, the human dimension, the smile, the open hand, are always there.” *

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