Words MAXMILIAN WECHSLER
THE French Republic has a long and interesting history with the Kingdom of Thailand, and this can also be said of the current ambassador, His Excellency Gilles Garachon, who officially began his term on October 22, 2015.
Mr Garachon has returned many times since visiting in 1972 while still a teenager. From 1999 to 2003 he served as Political Counselor at the French embassy. Now he lives with his wife Isabelle and two sons, Arthur, 15, and Valentin, 17, both born in Thailand, in the house given to the French mission by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in 1857. The magnificent residence on Rue de Brest (Soi 36, Charoen Krung Road) adjoins a plot of land that enclosed the original French embassy in Bangkok. A new embassy building was christened on the site in 2014.
“I was born in 1955 in Paris. I didn’t want to be a diplomat; I wanted to be a historian. I realised my dream, graduating with a double major in history and archeology with a specific focus on North India and Southeast Asia. I discovered, however, that I didn’t love history as much as I thought because it focuses on the past. I wanted to be involved in the present and the making of history. That’s why I then chose a career in diplomacy. My background in Asian archeology helped me to specialise in Asia,” Mr Garachon said.
“After that I returned many times. In the late '70s I joined an archaeology program at the University of Rangoon, but I was pretty much based in Thailand. I spent a lot of time in Bangkok. At that time Burma was very much a closed country, so if you wanted to go shopping or even go to a supermarket you had to go to Thailand which was the gateway to Burma.
“In Rangoon I studied the Burmese language and was appointed by the French embassy to teach French at Alliance Française for two years. It was about that time that I decided to become a diplomat. I taught at our very small embassy in Rangoon where I could watch the diplomats doing their job. It seemed to me that diplomacy was more interesting than archaeology.
“I was 25 years old. I entered a course of study with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and finished it five years later. I joined the MFA and started my diplomatic career in 1987. I have been very fortunate to have been posted to many interesting cities in Asia such as New Delhi, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Manila and of course Bangkok.
“My last assignment before taking this post was in Manila, where I also served as ambassador. I love the Philippines. It was very nice there and a very good posting. I have also held three assignments at the MFA in Paris: The first in our Africa department; the second in the cultural and cooperation department in charge of Asia; and the third in the human resources department.”
Mr Garachon requested to be posted in Thailand: “There’s a list of postings available for ambassadors to choose their preferred assignments. We have the right to choose three locations. I chose only one. I and my whole family wanted to come back to Thailand. It is where our two sons were born during my first assignment here, and it was like a chance to come back home.
“All four of us love Thailand and we all really wanted to come back. This was a family decision, not me imposing it on them. In fact, when I told the family there was a real possibility we would go back to Thailand, everyone was screaming ‘yeah, yeah.’ But the problem was that the official decision from the ministry took four months. During that time I knew there was a good possibility but it wasn’t a sure thing. So during those four months I was a little bit worried that my family might be disappointed. We were all relieved when we found out I got the job, and now we are very happy here at this historic residence on Rue de Brest.
“When I worked at the embassy during my first assignment here I attended a lot of parties and other functions at this residence. I dreamed that one day I would live in this house, and the dream came true. I have decorated the residence with a few items I brought with me, like two cannon balls from the Philippines, puppets from Indonesia, statues of elephants from Thailand and some items from India.
“The boys are going to the French International School of Bangkok near Suvarnabhumi airport. It actually doesn’t take too long to get there from the embassy, about 40 minutes. It is a very good school with about 1,100 students.
“Thailand is a wonderful and interesting country and it is blessing to be posted here. We have a job to do and it is great to be able to do it in a very pleasant country with very pleasant people,” Mr Garachon said. He and his family will be able to enjoy the country and the residence until 2018, or possibly 2019, as the ambassadorial term is three or four years.
While we talked, a lovely small Shih Tzu vied for the ambassador’s attention. “He is a four-year-old male we call Gismo,” Mr Garachon said, giving the dog a hug. “We acquired him in the Philippines when he was a puppy and had to bring him here. He is a part of our family. He likes this place as well.”
Asked about his responsibilities as Ambassador of France to the Kingdom of Thailand, Mr Garachon said they are primarily twofold. “On the one hand, I have the honour and privilege to contribute to strengthening the bilateral relationship with our host country in every aspect; on the other, it is my duty to look out for the security and the well-being of the French community in Thailand.
“Typically I wake up at 6am and tweet for an hour. I am a big fan of Twitter. I have breakfast, talk to my wife and my boys and then read the newspapers. Then I go to my office next door.
“I see the job of ambassador as kind of like being a conductor. The embassy is like an orchestra, and you have to check to see if everyone is playing their part and everything is done properly. Of course, an ambassador also must represent his or her country. I usually have lunch outside and often go out in the evening for cocktails at national days and other events.
“During the rest of the day I meet a lot of people. This work is about communicating and I love it. I love to meet people and connect with them, and I love to talk to people and learn from them. To be paid for something I like so much is wonderful. It’s also necessary to make some political analysis, and I also like this aspect very much. It lets me put my training as a historian to use, so that’s good.”
Mr Garachon speaks Burmese and Hindi fluently and can speak some Thai. “I am far from fluent, but I can make myself understood. I can deal with waiters and taxi drivers. Most of the time I use an embassy limousine but I sometimes take a taxi. Once and only once I took a motorcycle taxi. Fortunately the Saphan Taksin BTS station is very close by. I can walk there; it’s a great way to beat the traffic.”
A centuries-old alliance
Friendly ties between France and old Siam were first established in 1685, in the time of King Narai. King Louis XIV sent a delegation to meet with His Majesty in Lopburi. “At the time the capital was Ayutthaya but the King was apparently housed for the summer in Lopburi. The French ambassador met King Narai in Lopburi and brought a Thai ambassador back to France to meet with Louis XIV in Versailles. It was a most important diplomatic visit, but after King Narai left the throne diplomatic relations stagnated for a while.
“Officially, diplomatic relations really started in 1856 when King Mongkut and Emperor Napoleon III signed a treaty,” said the ambassador. “In 1857 King Mongkut gave us this very house with the plot of land because he wanted France to have an embassy here. The King also gave land to the Portuguese, British, Americans and Russians for the same purpose.
“A reception for a Siamese delegation sent by King Rama IV was organised on June 27, 1861 at the Chateau of Fontainebleau. At the sumptuous ceremony the famous Golden Letter from King Mongkut was handed over to Emperor Napoleon III by the three Siamese ambassadors. The scene is depicted in an impressive painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme.
“This letter is considered to be a national treasure and it will be displayed in an exhibition dedicated to “L’art de la Paix” (The art of peacemaking) as of October 17, 2016 at the Petit Palais Museum in Paris. This is being arranged in collaboration with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, which the MFA was renamed to in 2014. I would suggest that any of your readers who have the chance to be in Paris this autumn should go and see this unique exhibition full of secrets and treasures of diplomacy.
“So you can see we have a very long and fascinating history with Thailand, and this very house is symbolic of that relationship. We have never moved from the site given to us by King Mongkut as some countries have. We will celebrate the 160th anniversary of diplomatic ties at our beautiful garden here on the bank of the Chao Phraya River this coming December. Bilateral relations between France and Thailand have been strong for a long time and my team and I are working hard to strengthen them further.”
The ambassador said France is bound by the June 2014 decision of the European Foreign Affairs Council to suspend all bilateral visits at the ministerial level until further notice, but added that “nothing prevents us in the time being from engaging with the Thai authorities in the process of a progressive return to democracy, with general elections in 2017 as announced by the National Council for Peace and Order.”
“France is an important partner of Thailand, keeping her rank in 2015 as the 16th biggest supplier of the Kingdom and 23rd biggest buyer. We export to Thailand products in every sector. The most expensive are the Airbus planes. There are some oil activities with Total and we export a lot of cosmetics and other luxury products made by companies like L’Oréal, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Chanel and Louis Vuitton. We make Michelin tires in Thailand as well.
“A French construction company, Bouygues, is building the new 77-storey MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok. French automobiles are making a comeback and you see some Peugeot passenger cars on the roads here. Renault has merged with Nissan, so they are also very present in Thailand. Unfortunately Citroën cars are not sold here anymore.
“Products we import from Thailand include computer equipment, fabrics, manufacturing equipment, paper, and foodstuffs like shrimps, fish and fruits.
“As for culture and tourism, my country has always enjoyed a positive image among all age groups in Thailand. The French-Thai cultural festival known as ‘La Fête’ is a landmark of the Bangkok cultural scene, and it’s been given a new look. Its programs have been extended throughout the year. French universities have excellent exchange and research programs with universities like Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, Kasetsart and Silpakorn.
“We are very lucky to have benefited from an inclination of the Thai public to want to learn French. This has come about in large part thanks to the special relation the Royal Family has with the French language. We maintain support of French language teachers with the aim of making French language proficiency in Thailand a dynamic reality. Finally, we are exploring new ways to expand relations including cooperation in the areas of heritage and gastronomy.”
French mission in Thailand
“The first head of the French Embassy to hold the position of ambassador took office in Bangkok in 1949. Taking into account the personnel working on the premises of the diplomatic campus, and the agents working in related French agencies based outside the diplomatic campus, I would say we employ around 150 people in all, of which about 75 are Thai staff,” Mr Garachon said.
“The new embassy building took two years to build and was completed in 2014. I saw the plans, and when I arrived after its completion I was much impressed by the beauty of the building. The designers were French and a Thai company did a great job on the construction. It is quite an efficient and economical design. The whole team is inside one building, whereas before they were divided between three different locations. Everybody is kept busy and every mission is fulfilled, and what I like most is that everything is done with a good spirit. This is very important.
“Our consular section is very busy. We have honorary consuls in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Hua Hin and are considering the appointment of another in Khon Kaen,” said the ambassador, adding that between 50,000 and 60,000 Thais apply for visas to enter France every year and roughly 80,000 Thais visit France, some of whom first go through other Schengen countries.
Asked about the overall security situation in France after the brutal terrorist attacks on November 13 last year, Ambassador Garachon said: “Security measures have been reinforced and the situation is under control. Additional measures are taken when France is organising specific world events.
“For instance, for the UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament which took place in ten cities all over France from June 10 to July 10, the French government mobilised over 90,000 security personnel, mainly from the police and ‘gendarmerie’ forces to ensure security for foreigners and French nationals. We did a lot to make the tournament as secure as possible. There has to be a balance. The security was at a maximum level but at the same time we tried not to make it too visible.”
“As a Frenchman, food is important to me. I can cook a little and my mother is a very good cook. One day if I have more time I will devote more energy to the culinary arts, but for now I am a connoisseur of good food. Of course I love French food, and I also love Thai food. At home we eat French and Thai cuisine and the embassy employs both a French chef and a Thai chef.
“Bangkok is a kind of world capital for cuisine. You can find every kind of food here and it’s all delicious because Thai people are very good cooks. It is part of the culture. Thai people are very sophisticated when it comes to feelings, human relations and to cuisine.
“When I have the opportunity I like to travel around Thailand and I have many favourite places. I love the seaside but usually I prefer to go to historical sites like Lopburi and Ayutthaya. I love the ancient Khmer architecture of Phimai in Sisaket province on the border with Cambodia and other places in Issan like Khon Kaen, and the Lanna influence around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. I still enjoy history but now it is a hobby. I feel very fortunate to have the job of ambassador because I love communicating with people, working with colleagues and discovering new people and cultures.”
*This interview was conducted before the terrorist attack in Nice
• PhD in History
• Graduate of the ‘Institut National des langues et civilisations orientales’
(National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations) – achieving fluency in Burmese and Hindi
• Plenipotentiary Minister grade in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)
• 1987-1989: Head Office, African and
Madagascar affairs, MFA, Paris
• 1989-1993: First Secretary at the Embassy of France in New-Delhi
• 1993-1996: Consul of France in Hong-Kong
• 1996-1999: Head of Asia and Oceania
section Department of International
Cooperation and Development, MFA, Paris
• 1999-2003: Political counselor at the
Embassy of France in Bangkok
• 2003-2007: Cultural counselor at the
Embassy of France in Jakarta
• 2007-2012: Director – Human resources Department, MFA, Paris
• 2012-2015: Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary of the Republic of France to the Republic of the Philippines, non-resident; Ambassador to Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
• French distinctions: ‘Chevalier dans l’Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur’ and
‘Chevalier dans l’Ordre national du Mérite.’