Colonel Patrick de Vathaire became the Senior French Representative to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) in August 2011. He comes to ACSS with extensive operational experience and a thorough knowledge of Africa, thanks to his degree from France’s military academy (EMIA), class of 1983, and his many missions across the African continent. In his previous post, Colonel de Vathaire monitored the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire and oversaw French forces’ operations to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia and the redeployment of French troops in Africa. He has agreed to share his first impressions of his new job with us and look back on a few of the defining moments in his career.
1- Why is it important for the United States to have a French representative to the ACSS?
It is important for two reasons. First, because the United States and France need to share what they know and have learned about Africa. The United States has realized that other countries can provide support for its African operations, and France, with its long history in the region, has vast experience that cannot help but be beneficial to both countries. In addition, President Nicolas Sarkozy has been working since 2007 to leave behind the notion of an exclusive sphere of French influence in favor of openness and collaboration with Africa as a whole.
The discussions between the United States and France allow for an exchange of ideas and lead to a better understanding of what remains a highly complex continent. My reasoning also coincides with ACSS’ actions, which are above all in the academic realm. The Center promotes reflection and analysis to better understand the many factors at work in Africa and how those factors interact.
2- What precisely is your role at ACSS? What do you do?
To start, I would say that I am first and foremost an advisor to the ACSS director. I give him my opinion – when he asks for it – on the ongoing files and programs or on current events in the French-speaking world. I am also a participant in my own right in ACSS activities, particularly at seminars, where I bring – or at least I hope I bring – a French perspective to the discussion that can be different from the American view. For example, at a seminar I just attended in Dakar, I made a contribution that had less to do with language and more to do with my personal thoughts on the subject.
That said, at the request of the director, I am also in charge of assessing the intelligibility of certain documents for French-speaking readers. My job is not to change the message, but to ensure that the documents are written in such a way as to clearly convey the ideas to the intended audience.
3- What is your most defining memory from your time working in Africa?
That is a difficult question, because I had many memorable experiences in Africa. But if I had to choose, two experiences would stand out. First was what I went through while in Rwanda during that dreadful period we all know well. I was a young captain at the time and as a man the experience was all the more striking.
The other time was when I was commanding the French battalion in Abidjan. It was a true balancing act because I had to find a happy medium between my mission and actions that could have triggered serious incidents or a major crisis.
The decisions that I had to make during those two periods were especially difficult and are a reflection of the sort of man I am, professionally and ethically.
4- How will you use your prior experience in your new position?
I am going to respond more generally to your question. One of the characteristics of the Senior French Representatives to ACSS is that they are all officers with hands-on experience in Africa – men who have dealt with a crisis there. They have also all worked as staff officers. This combined experience in the field and with the people and decision-making centers in Africa and in France typically gives them a different perspective from that of the academic world. That is an asset for ACSS. We draw on our practical experience to cultivate academic thought among the ACSS professors and researchers so that they grasp all the dimensions of a given situation.
More personally, I would say that my military background and past experiences have given me a better understanding of the countries of Africa and of its people. They have also led me to believe that it is important to respect people’s culture in all our actions, especially in Africa. That is the message that I am trying to get across from my place in the ACSS.
5- Was it easy to transition from your previous position to your current one?
Yes, it was. First of all because I spoke at length with my predecessor, Xavier Collignon, who gave me a good idea of both what to expect and what was expected of me. Second, as you might imagine, I read up a lot on American culture to get a better feel for the environment I would be working in. For that matter, I am continuing to read and to learn.
6- How would you characterize your colleague’s welcome at ACSS?
Excellent. I was really very warmly welcomed to ACSS; everyone went out of their way to make me feel more at home. While it is true that the Center is accustomed to having a French representative, I nonetheless owe them a lot, especially for their help in dealing with day-to-day administrative details. They have been very kind and helpful.
7- Do you miss France yet?
Not really. In part, that is because I still visit once in a while. And, being in the military, moving is part and parcel of my job. To give you an idea, this was my 17th move since I began my career. I think it has made me more adaptable, allowing me to integrate more easily into my environment. The difference this time is that this is my first post in an English-speaking country. Overall, my family and I are very happy and we think that living in the United States is a very good experience. I would also add that Washington is an excellent place to meet the area’s decision-makers and better understand the upheavals going on around the world, particularly in Africa.