HISTORY, specifically that of the Asian region, has always piqued the interest of French Ambassador to the Philippines Gilles Garachon. In fact, as a student of history over two decades ago, he decided to specialize in Hindi and Burmese archeology, which effectively combined his two main passions.
A graduate of the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, he also worked towards a doctorate degree in Indian Civilization Studies, completing it in 1985.
“When I was young, I really didn’t want to be a diplomat at all, nor did I thought to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. There were no diplomats or civil servants in the family. In fact, what I really wanted was to become an archeologist. History was just something that really interested me ever since,” Ambassador Garachon said in an interview with The Manila Times in his Makati City office.
Besides this, he somewhat believes that his “classic French family upbringing” also fueled his curiosity for the Asian culture, which he found “exotic and mysterious.” Certainly a far cry from the “organized and monotonous” way of life he was accustomed to in France.
“You could say what I really wanted was something different. France to me was something familiar. What I wanted was the thrill to discover new people and cultures. I wanted to discover languages that I didn’t speak, a way of thinking that was different—these were real challenges that I wanted,” he recalled.
While in college, Garachon majored in Indian and Buddhist archeology. He completed his PhD in Burma while working on a traditional Burmese-French architecture dictionary and teaching French. He was also a Burmese-English translator from 1979 to 1981.
After his three years in the diversified and highly cultural city of Rangoon, Garachon returned to Paris with a different perspective of history.
He explained, “At the end of my studies in Burma, I found that particular practice of history was too defined. It wasn’t what I wanted for my career.
The job of a history scholar is fascinating, but it entails a devotion of your life to the past. To study parts of history hundreds of years ago, one needs to offer his whole life to it.”
Garachon continued, “When I practiced for a few years as an archeologist in Burma, it was not what I expected. I realized that I wanted to be more in the present, with a vivid story that is alive.
“So it was when I worked as an English-Burmese translator that discovered the work of embassies, and I found that more interesting than archeology.”
It was then that Garachon finally decided to pursue a career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it took him another four years to prepare for the rigorous entrance examination. While adept with Burmese and Indian architecture and archeology, he needed to take up extra courses in Economics and International Relations for his new goal.
All his hard work eventually paid off when in 1985, he began to work for the Office for African and Madagascar Affairs in Paris. Four years later, he moved to his first international posting as First Secretary of the French Embassy in New Delhi.
Garachon found the Indian culture to be far different from any other Southeast Asian nation.
“It was as if you were in another planet,” he mused. “I found it fascinating that the Hindi religion had a different way of viewing history even in the Hindi or Urdu language.
“When they say ‘yesterday,’ [kal]it’s also the same Hindi word for ‘tomorrow.’ It means that they see history as a cycle, different from the Western view of history as linear. It’s something simple yet philosophical,” he shared.
After four years in India, Garachon went straight to his next posting as deputy consul in the Embassy of France in Hong Kong—just before the bustling city was turned over to China. As his second international posting in 1993, the French reminded himself to detach from his experiences in India to effectively fulfill his new responsibilities in the Chinese-British city.
Toward the end of his stay in Hong Kong, Garchon met his would-be-wife, a dance performer in a French show in nearby Macau. He was attending a diplomatic function on behalf of the consul general, and as fate would have it, he fell in love with the beautiful Isabelle.
By March 1996, he returned to Paris where he was appointed head of the Asia and Oceania section of the Department of International Cooperation and Development. As for his personal life, with less than a year of courtship, the ambassador got married and spent three happy years with his bride in France before returning to Asia. His next stop was in Bangkok, Thailand as political counsellor at the Embassy of France in 1999.
It was in this equally culture-rich city that the young couple raised their two boys, Valentin and Arthur.
“Their first memories of childhood were in Thailand, and they were raised the Thai way. In fact, our Thai cook and nanny fed my youngest chilli paste when he was six months old!” Garachon laughed. “So until now, he loves chili. It is without a doubt that our kids are very Asian.”
The following stop for the family was in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Garachon sat as cultural counsellor for the embassy from 2003 to 2007. Again, it was another memorable posting as he was able to share the experience of discovering a new language, culture and people with his equally adventurous family.
Before his current appointment in the Philippines, Garachon returned to Paris where he headed the Human Resources Department (non-permanent staff) of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2007 to 2011.
“I behaved in a very Asian way during my post in Paris. It was a new challenge for me especially in that posting where human values are deeply cherished. I spent my days meeting people, figuring what job to give them. You have to be humble, to be at the service of the people, and to really try to help them. It entails a lot of listening—to what people want, what their problems are. It is very rewarding in certain instances when you find people a good job and they are happy about their position,” Garachon related.
Finally, Ambassador Garachon found himself in the Philippines in 2012 excited to learn new things all over again, discover different culture, and return to his favorite Asian region.
As a team leader to Filipinos
In this, his first posting as ambassador, he is happy to be a “team leader of the friendly and polite Filipinos working at the French Embassy.”
“Compared to other postings, as an ambassador you are the team leader, but decisions are not solely made by you. As a leader, you have the feeling of a certain strategy—you talk to your friends and colleagues about this, then you have to find ways to improve your strategy to implement this. And with this, we all work together. It’s a team effort,” he described.
While in the Philippines, Garachon hopes to continue to connect with Filipinos who remain fascinated and interested in the French culture. Spearheading events related to trade, business, culture and education, the ambassador is very positive that the Filipinos will always maintain a thriving relationship with the French.
On the other hand, the ambassador is honest to admit that the French need to know more about the Philippines—its culture and people. For him, there is an “imbalance” of cultural knowledge between two nations, one he belives that the French must recognize.
“As a French man, I can honestly say that Filipinos know more about the French than French people know about Filipinos,” he told The Manila Times.
“The French know it’s a former Spanish colony and was part of the American war. But they don’t know much else. There is an imbalance in a way. The Philippines is really an Asian country even with that strong Spanish and American influence. The Austronesian culture is very strong at the core.
“It takes time to understand the Philippine culture as an archipelago, because it is deeply diverse, even just with its dishes with different origins. It takes a lot of time to discover because in a way its culture is hidden,” the ambassador explained.
For Ambassador Garachon, looking into the past is still an interesting hobby to indulge in, but it is his role in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that he is able to make concrete changes that can influence events that are happening “in the now.”
“The difference between working at the Embassy compared to working as an archeologist is that you get a chance to make history. Working in the embassy is history-making. I’m not saying that I am a great actor in this history making, but in a humble way, I am taking part in the process,” he professed.
“Archeology is history that is already made and final, that is difficult to grasp because there are no testimonies to support facts. You cannot act or interact in history. You cannot change anything. Things happen, and they happened that way. As a diplomat, you can influence what is happening now,” he said.
Thus it is with much passion, enthusiasm and pride that Garachon makes history each day he leads the French Embassy in the Philippines. And it is certain he will do so wherever history takes him next.