An evening at the Embassy with Professor Helen Drake, Director of the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance
A surprise invitation to a ‘soirée Festival de rugby’ – an evening festival of rugby –saw me navigate the grandeur of the Parisian residence of the British Ambassador to France, Dame Menna Rawlings, on the evening of Thursday 5 October 2023. Uncertain of what to expect, I arrived on time and joined a small crowd waiting for the heavy doors to open to admit us from the prestigious rue du Faubourg St Honoré into the imposing, cobbled courtyard of the Residence. ‘Tenue de ville’ was the dress code and amongst the hundreds of individuals in attendance, I saw an array of kilts, military uniforms, high fashion, sober chic and only one pair of jeans. I admired the splendid chandeliers and artworks, appreciating how we were free to wander at ease through the sumptuous public rooms.
Taking place around the midway point of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the primary purpose of the occasion was to celebrate in an informal and fun style, the best of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English rugby. Parts of the extensive gardens were set up for pros and amateurs alike to practise their rugby passes, and an Instamatic photo booth meant we could all pose for the night as champions in the Stade de France. Beyond the rugby, the evening displayed some of the best British and Irish food and drink. Sumptuous spreads of cheese, meat, fish, and vegetarian canapés circulated all evening for us to sample and enjoy (sadly, I didn’t win the food hamper in the prize draw, nor the free tickets to the upcoming Ireland-Scotland rugby match). Noise levels amongst the hundreds in attendance barely dimmed for the speeches by the Ambassador and her guests, the latter representing the four home nations (Irish and northern Irish representatives taking to the stage jointly, reflecting the unity of the all-Irish rugby team itself). A live band also kept us entertained with traditional music.
So, what was really going on? In the absence of stuffy diplomatic protocol and etiquette, the evening fostered friendship and serendipity, providing for the creation and strengthening of the person-to-person bonds that France and the UK deem as ‘foundational’ to their friendship ahead of the 120th anniversary of their Entente cordiale in 2024. I had arrived knowing no-one yet left in the company of two wonderful women working in French higher education, both of whom were optimistic that there would be ways to rebuild the exchanges between young people on either side of the Channel following Brexit. The evening was also a textbook example of public diplomacy in action, as both the UK and France sought to project officially curated images of themselves. Coming on the heels of the royal visit by King Charles III to France the previous month, the UK could highlight more of the cultural assets that underpin its diplomatic GREAT campaign. For France, here was a golden opportunity to emphasise the place of sport in its ‘diplomacy of influence’: host this year to the Rugby World Cup and next year, home to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
As I left the Residence and strolled back on a warm Parisian night via the Village du Rugby, taking pride of place on the historic Place de la Concorde, my mind reeled with questions. What’s it like inviting a large rugby scrum into your (temporary) home? Who clears up? And, less prosaically, what is it all really for? How does diplomacy earn its keep in a world driven with conflict and war? Perhaps the answer lies in its ability to keep both minds and communication channels open, and to humanise relations between peoples. In those terms at least, the evening at the Embassy was a success and I thank the team for their hospitality.
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Written by Helen Drake.
Loughborough University London
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