THE NEW CONSUL GENERAL OF FRANCE IN HOUSTON
Recently appointed as Consul General of France in Houston, Valérie Baraban is the first woman to hold the position. She is a native of France, but this is not her first tenure in the United States. She graduated from the École normale supérieure, one of the top French grandes écoles, which achieved particular recognition in the fields of mathematics and humanities with philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and French Theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. She began her career teaching French language and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. After returning to France and pursuing her doctoral research, Baraban enjoyed an exciting and varied career path, including a position at the office of Mr. Jack Lang, previous French Minister of Culture, at that time French Minister of National Education; then an assignment in the cabinet of Mrs. Rama Yade, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human rights; and more recently, at the Elysée Palace, as a diplomatic advisor to the National Coordinator of Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism. More than 15 years ago, Baraban’s passion for public and world affairs took her to the French Foreign Office of the Quai d’Orsay.
Baraban’s diplomatic career began in 2005 in the Security and Strategic Affairs Department, in the Policy Branch of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. It continued through various appointments, including her appointment to the French Embassy in Beijing as Deputy Head of Cooperation and Cultural Department and her assignment to Brussels as a negotiator at the French Delegation to NATO. In 2017, Baraban joined the Elysée Palace and was primarily responsible for France’s initiatives related to combating the dissemination of terrorist content online, mobilizing against the financing of terrorism, and strengthening security strategies in Europe.
Baraban relishes her return to the United States to rediscover her contact with Americans and is particularly pleased to be in Houston. She sees the city as a critical participant in the transition to renewable energy, the new approach to space exploration, and digital transformation. As Consul General of France in Houston, Baraban is responsible for protecting French nationals abroad and developing cooperation between France and the states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
Consul General Baraban is a Knight of the National Order of Merit. With the French writer from Guadeloupe Daniel Maximin, she published a book on Caribbean culture (Les fruits du cyclone, Seuil, 2006).
In early January, 2022, CKW LUXE had the honor of speaking with Baraban about her fascinating career, her current position, and what she envisions for the future.
CKW LUXE: On behalf of CKW LUXE and its readers, I would like to congratulate you on your appointment as Consul General of France in Houston. Please tell us when you took over the position and which states are under your purview.
Valérie Baraban: I took over my position in September of 2021. I’m responsible for the states of Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Also, we serve as poste de rattachement for the general consulate in New Orleans, for which we accomplish the consular tasks at the service of the French community in Louisiana.
CKW: As the Consul General of France in Houston, you are responsible for protecting French nationals abroad, whether they are permanent residents or temporary visitors. Is that correct? How have you approached that responsibility in the months since you have served in the position?
VB: Protection comes in many forms. For example, regular catastrophes can be concerning for French citizens living in the Southern States. My job is to take care of them. When a hurricane is coming, I have to make sure the French community is informed and takes the appropriate measures to protect itself on top of what the local authorities do. In a health crisis like the pandemic, the general consulate serves as the point of contact to which each citizen can refer and ask questions. We explain where to go and what to do for assistance with each specific problem.
Consul General of France, Valérie Baraban, and Houston Mayor, Sylvester Turner, at Houston Consular Ball 2021
Photo credit: City of Houston, Houston Consular Corps
CKW: As the first woman to be in charge of French diplomacy in the Southern United States, is your approach different from your male counterparts and are there ways in which it is similar?
VB: The French consular network in the United States comprises three positions occupied by women. We are in the South: Los Angeles, Houston, and New Orleans. I observed that the Consular Corps in Houston now includes more women. France provides a woman in this position, as do other countries, like Argentina, Brazil, Israel, and some others. I am pleased to think that this is a more general evolution.
Professionally speaking, the job is the same, whether you are a man or a woman in that position. We have to provide the same kind of services to the French community and perform the same diplomatic work with the local authorities. But you act with your personality as a Consul General. Each French Consul General, one after the other, served and continues to perform with what is essential to their personality. Being a woman, I will bring something different from a male counterpart.
CKW: You have a varied and interesting educational background. Can you briefly describe it for our readers and offer insights into how aspects of it may complement your work as French Consul.
VB: I graduated from the École normale supérieure in philosophy. In France, we have a higher education system that is different from the American system. After high school, a student in France can either go to university or one of the grandes écoles. To access a grande école, the student must prepare for a very competitive examination for two years and then pass it. The École normale supérieure is one of the top French grandes écoles, and this is where I studied. I started preparing for the examination in physics and maths, but as I was missing humanities, I switched to a preparation combining humanities and maths. At the École normale supérieure, I chose a specialization in philosophy and passed l’Agrégation. This highest teaching diploma in France is a very prized competitive one. I also learned Chinese at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. I received the prize from the École normale supérieure which rewards the most deserving student of the year.
My first assignment as a teacher was at the University of California, Berkeley, followed by about ten years of teaching at the French university. My passion for public and international affairs led me to pass another competitive examination to join the diplomatic corps. Whereas the standard way to become a diplomat in France is to graduate from the École Nationale d’Administration (National School of Administration), I chose a different pathway. My profile is atypical for a diplomat, however, my philosophy, humanities, and arts background helps me in my current career today.
CKW: Our readers would also be interested to know how the career path you have taken has led you to where you are today.
VB: I have two main personal drivers. The first one is my interest in both action and thinking. I like to understand and act at the same time. Being in academia only is frustrating as I wish to perform. Acting without deepening my knowledge is disappointing as I am eager to get a personal understanding of the situations I am being confronted with. The diplomatic career is terrific and challenging as it reconciles action and expertise. You have to intimately understand the country in which you work or the domain you are being specialized in. At the same time, you have to take action, like resolving a crisis, developing relationships, performing in a manner that will have an impact. It is a job where you have to use both your intuition and reason. This work is a “total professional fact” to paraphrase the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss who created the concept of “total social fact.”
The second one is the experience of alterity, the attraction to what is utmost different from me. I like to go as far as I can from where I am or what I had initially. That is why I wanted to learn Chinese. I got connected to the intelligence community, a closed circle very far from my philosophy background. That is why my career path has brought me to many different places. I look for the most challenging situations that will force me to stimulate my capacity to adapt myself. The human dimension is essential. As a diplomat, you spend only three to five years in a position in a foreign country, which is not very long, so you have to immerse yourself in the local communities quickly and act strategically to build a sustainable footprint. I live this work as an adventure and not as a career. Life itself is an adventure. I lead my life as a car racer, free and determined simultaneously.
CKW: There are many cultural and societal differences between the Southern United States and France. What do you see as your role in educating both areas about the other?
VB: There are many common points between the Southern United States and France, and I want to emphasize them. I grew up in the South of France, and I recognize the values we share, like the warmth, the pleasure of making new connections, welcoming people, being open-minded and friendly, and loving life and good food.
But you are right, Texas and France are two different territories, and I see my role as completing the picture that one part may help out the other. France is a significant place for culture and inheritance, but it is also a leading country for innovation and creation. France has a long history of scientists, researchers, and engineers being prominent in developing innovation. Let’s remember that the company Schlumberger was founded in Texas one century ago by two French brothers, Conrad and Marcel Schlumberger, engineers in geophysics and inventors of technological solutions for oil prospecting. With her American husband, Jean de Menil, Dominique de Menil, Conrad’s daughter, founded the Menil collection. The exceptional commitment to the arts of Dominique and Jean de Menil led them to reshape the district of the Menil collection, with the cooperation of famous architects and artists like Philipp Johnson, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. It is one example of what France can bring to Texas. Today, France is a leader in energy transition, artificial intelligence, quantum calculating, and disruptive technologies, and it is a space power and a leader in space exploration. I want to showcase all these opportunities to foster win-win bilateral cooperation.
My objective is to project a contemporary picture of France locally, focusing on innovation and strategic commitments. I am pleased to remind you that, since January 1, 2022 France has taken over the presidency of the Council of the European Union. France has outstanding leadership in Europe! On the other side, I want to picture Texas to a French audience in a more up-to-date, accurate, and comprehensive way.
CKW: What are your aspirations and goals in developing understanding and shared diplomatic goals between the Southern United States and France?
VB: Energy transition is a huge challenge, and Houston is the most credible place to address it. Mayor Turner demonstrates his political will to reposition the previously international capital of oil and gas as the global capital for energy transition.
Houston’s credibility relies on its expertise, workforce, infrastructures, and wealth. France has committed to a sustainable path toward energy transition, not only in terms of political leadership, but also as a provider of cutting-edge technological solutions.
Another common goal is space exploration, now entering a new era. NASA is working in cooperation with the European Space Agency, in which France is a strong partner. For decades, French and American astronauts have been working together. It is another example of forward-looking cooperation between France and the southern part of the United States.
Education is the most strategic global challenge of the 21st century. The future of democracies, and our values, depends on it. How can France and the states I am covering cooperate more to prepare the next generations to face our world? Since the 19th century and the appearance of the “black hussars of the Republic” (the first public school teachers in France) throughout the French territory, national education has always been a critical public policy in my country. One of the largest networks of schools abroad is French. The French kindergarten model is renowned throughout the world. The French language is a global language, a multicultural vector for French speakers and French learners to Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean region, and so on. The French language provides access to philosophers, scientists, and creators all around the world. It gives American students a competitive advantage in their careers. Tackling the strategic challenge of education in the 21st century and combining the best of the American system and the French one to educate our future generations is a top priority.
CKW: Thank you for speaking with us today and for providing us with insight into your interesting position.
Holocaust Museum Houston, 2021 Guardian of the Human Spirit Award
Photo credit: Priscilla Dickson