When Menna Rawlings walked into her large office in Paris a fortnight ago and sat down at her new desk, she added a new chapter to a dripping piece of history.
It was Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, who was the first man to sit in this seat in 1814 as Ambassador to Great Britain – a reward for his role in humiliating Napoleon.
206 years after leaving office, following 36 other men in that office, Menna Rawlings became the first woman to take on the role of UK Ambassador to France, proudly waving the Welsh flag in the process.
“My mother was born and raised in the Rhondda Valley, she met my father in London so I grew up in North London but when I was 18 my whole family decided to go back to Wales “Menna told ITV Cymru Wales.
“During my childhood we used to go up and down the M4 whenever we could to see family, so I always felt Wales was my home. I have traveled through it a lot. the world, but Wales is where I always come home and that feels a very strong part of my personal identity ”.
Of course, in the 21st century, a woman taking on a leading role should never be seen as an extraordinary event. But while we are surely now beyond these tired attitudes in society, when Menna joined the Foreign Office in 1989, a woman appointed to her post was simply unthinkable – even for her own family.
“I remember visiting my grandmother when I was about to finish college, and after telling her that I would like to be a diplomat, she looked at me in horror and said : “You surely mean the wife of a diplomat? “.
Before 1946, women were banned from diplomacy and until 1973 they had to resign if they married.
Even now – in 2021 – after all the equality developments, Menna said she suffered from impostor syndrome during her first visit to the embassy in Paris.
“As a woman who had attended a mainstream public school and then the London School of Economics, I felt out of place at all,” she said after considering the role of previous ambassadors.
“I looked at this long, long list of all the lords and gentlemen and I just thought ‘Wow, now it’s me'”.
Was it difficult for you as a woman to become an ambassador?
“When I joined the Foreign Office thirty years ago, it was very masculine,” Menna told me.
“There was a certain tradition of diplomats coming mostly from private schools and some universities, and as someone with a very different background, it seemed like a very difficult place for someone like me to fit in.
“I am delighted to say that this has really changed. About 30% of our ambassadors abroad are women, so we have a long way to go, we have not yet reached parity, but I am convinced now that it is a place where people can get along because of their differences rather than despite their differences ”.
“The main thing is to persevere. It is really important that you do something that you are connected with and truly love. Promoting my country abroad really wakes me up in the morning.
“I have an insatiable curiosity for other countries and being curious will be very helpful to you. I encourage anyone to consider employment with the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), regardless of your background and background.”
What do you actually do when you are?
I suggest to the Ambassador that even with all the changes to the diplomatic service, his role will still seem very foreign to the majority of people in Wales.
“When I get home to Wales my mother still says quite often, ‘What exactly are you doing, Menna? “, she admitted to me.
“It’s about being the UK government’s main representative abroad,” she explains. “It’s about trying to connect with another country and promote British interests, including Welsh, here.
“This includes promoting Wales as a place to visit, promoting business and sport relations is a great link between Wales and France. I am really looking forward to the World Cup in rugby in 2023. It’s my job to promote the whole of the UK as much as possible in France ”.
The ambassador must of course talk about Britain’s relations with France, and she is determined to reassure that the partnership was still strong despite the breaks in recent months.
British government even sent a warship to control a disagreement off Jersey on fishing rights in the English Channel, and President Macron and the Prime Minister recently had a very public spat over comments made on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position since Britain left the European Union.
Ambassador Rawlings told me that while government ministers set the tone for the partnerships, she sees her job as moving the relationship between the two countries from “very good” to “excellent”.
“The road has been bumpy,” Menna admitted. “We have women in some countries where you really have to fight like Russia and China, but I wouldn’t put France in that category at all.
“We have a fantastic relationship with France. The Prime Minister is in regular contact with the President.”
This runs counter to various reports in recent weeks that tensions between Macron and Johnson have reached such a point that meetings are not taking place. A former senior diplomat even suggested that relations between the two countries were at their lowest level since 2003, when the war in Iraq was the main bone of contention.
But Menna said the crisis in Afghanistan shows the strength of the UK-France partnership – even between the political leaders of the two countries.
“This conversation starts at the top and works its way through the system, and if they want to phone each other they absolutely do and I think it happens a lot more regularly than people imagine.
“There have been challenges, especially during the negotiations to leave the EU, and there are other difficult issues that we are grappling with. But we are allies, we are friends, we are partners .
“We have 1,000 years of history and I look forward to the next 1,000 years of a stronger relationship with France.
“Over the next four years my role will be to explain and analyze, but really to defend British interests,” added Ambassador Rawlings.
“Will I do this any differently from my predecessors? Time will tell.”