An American in Paris: Diplomacy in the era of Freedom Fries

U.S. Embassy The U.S. Embassy in Paris, where I work. (Puneet Kakkar photo)

Observing Bush's visit to France, striking workers, and the real ropes of diplomacy

The first question many of my friends have asked me is, So what's really up with the U.S. and France? Last weekend, President Bush arrived in France for the G8 summit in Evian. I didn't go, but it was interesting to compare and contrast the reports by the United States and French press.

The French press nationwide saw the G8 meeting as unprogressive. The American press also expressed the fears surrounding the meeting in light of U.S.-French relations. And while public opinion in France shared a concern about the presence of President Bush, it wasn't negative — rather, it seemed more of an observation. It has made me think about how much the American public perceived huge differences between the countries, which may have been exaggerated...

You think Berkeley has a lot of protests?

Ever since I arrived, Paris has been on strike. At Berkeley we're used to protests every day, but over here it's more serious. The Metro stops working. Buses block traffic. People struggle to get to work, public facilities are shut down, and the voice of the protesters is truly heard.

The country is currently undergoing pension reforms, so many employees of labor unions have called recurring strikes. Currently many French workers are opposing the lengthening of working time for pension plans (though the government says demographics dictate change and such reforms are necessary) and are not afraid to express their opinions. It's consuming press headlines daily. At some points I forget what's going on outside France!

The real thing

Working for the U.S. State Department by far is the most exciting experience I’ve ever had. First of all, it's the real thing. No more discussions in classrooms, with professors, GSIs, or fellow students. What goes on in the office deals with concrete issues of American diplomacy.

In the past week I have had so much firsthand experience with how the State Department works and especially how America conducts its foreign policy abroad. For instance, last week I sat in a "country team meeting" where all senior representatives of the U.S. that worked in the embassy congregated to meet with the Ambassador, from the Federal Aviation Administration to the State Department, from the Navy to the department of Commerce representative. I was impressed to see how each of these departments worked rather independently but still maintained constant communication with the Ambassador.

Foreign policy involves a lot more than I previously thought. In class we learn foreign policy as a product of various issues, but it's even more than that. There are so many simultaneous events and operations that occur without most people even knowing that they're going on — from business to politics, from visa services to economics, public affairs to military relations. I don't know how I clumped them so simplistically in my classes!

My first random observation —from not only the meeting but from a week's worth of work — is the level of intensity of working in the government. There are so many divisions, departments, and ACRONYMS. I was told one day to "call the IPC to report problems of my CLAN" and if any errors call some other entity. Only later did I find out the command was simply to call tech support if one of my computers broke down. Either way, the first week has been an awesome way of learning about the intricacies of the State Department.

The gem of the internship program is that it is not at all a typical clerical job of filing, copying, and stapling. Interns here are put to work. My supervisors spend a great deal of time thoroughly teaching me as well as directing me. I've learned how the department is organized, how orders are carried through, and most importantly, a rough sketch of how foreign policy is made and conducted. Since Day One I have found myself busy reading, writing, going to meetings, and calling people. My supervisors have put so much trust in the work I do. For instance, I am currently working on internal French politics, following several issues very closely (heavily using my French skills). This entails reading newspapers, press releases, and government documents — then succinctly summarizing a tome of information in one page, in English, to send back to Washington, D.C. so that they know "what's up in France."

It feels great that I am putting my knowledge to practice. I am not writing a midterm in a blue book or doing a dry problem set, but taking my knowledge, mixing it with real-world events, and formulating concrete, creative solutions and applications.