Whether realtors, bankers, French teachers, interior designers, bakers, bloggers or milliners, there are 56 honorary consuls of France in the United States. These men and women act as intermediaries between the French embassy in Washington D.C., the ten consulate generals and the French citizens living in the American states and territories. They are made up of both French and American nationals, and perform their duties on a voluntary basis.
If a French person is stopped for driving under the influence and incarcerated for the night in Reno — the casino capital of the American West — it is Pascal Baboulin’s job to inform the San Francisco consulate general and have a lawyer brought in. “The local police force has my cell number”, says the honorary consul of France for Northern Nevada. “I often help them with interpreting.” Pascal Baboulin is one of the 56 honorary consuls of France in the United States, who act as intermediaries between French citizens in their respective regions and the local consulate generals.
Managing a country 15 times the size of France is no mean feat, and so the French embassy in Washington and the ten consulate generals are assisted by voluntary intermediaries in the field. Each honorary consul is recommended to the French ambassador by the local consulate, then approved by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. The job lasts for five years, and can be renewed. Originally from Chambery in the Savoie region, Pascal Baboulin now lives in Virginia City, a town of 855 inhabitants located 25 miles south of Reno, Nevada. He was named honorary consul in 2008 by the general consul of San Francisco, and tasked with supervising a community of around 1,000 French people stretching from Reno to Lake Tahoe. “It’s a small region”, says the honorary consul, modestly. But with some 750,000 annual visitors to Virginia City — a former mining town that has remained unchanged since the Gold Rush — and three million annual visitors to Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the opportunities to help a French tourist struggling with administrative problems are hardly lacking.
“A leader in the local French community”
Many French travelers lose their passports while at Charlotte Airport in North Carolina – one of the largest airports in the country. Laura Meyer Wellman has been an honorary consul since 2011, and remembers helping a French student find accommodation while he waited to receive a temporary pass. Just like Laura Meyer Wellman — who was born in New York State — about half of the honorary consuls of France in the United States are American citizens chosen for their local influence and their knowledge of French-American culture. “The consul in Atlanta was looking for a leader in the local French community, ideally a businessperson or a teacher”, she says. As a longstanding Francophile, member of both the Alliance Française and the French-American Chamber of Commerce, and a business owner, Laura Meyer Wellman was the perfect candidate. And in June 2016, the consulate in Atlanta renewed her position as honorary consul of France for another five years.
According to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, any citizen between the ages of 25 and 70 can be named honorary consul, on the condition they are not French civil servants or government agents, magistrates, full-time university professors or elected through universal suffrage. The honorary consuls of France are volunteers, and fulfil their responsibilities alongside their own careers. Laura Meyer Wellman is the president and CEO of an insurance company in North Carolina. Liz Wiley is a lawyer and writes for a food blog in Austin, Texas. Damien Watel cooks “the best foie gras this side of the Atlantic” in his bistro in San Antonio. Amélie de Gaulle is an interior designer in Nashville, Tennessee. Cédric Fichepain runs a restaurant and two bakeries in Omaha, Nebraska. Adèle Boufford Baker is vice-president of a funeral home founded by her great grandfather in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Pascal Baboulin makes custom hats in Virginia City, Nevada.
An essentially “social role”
“I have an office space at home, open every day from 5pm until 8pm”, says Anne de Broca-Hoppenot, honorary consul of France, who works as a French teacher and International Exchange Coordinator at an independent all-girls catholic school in Princeton, New Jersey. In their roles as go-betweens for the consulate generals, the honorary consuls deliver passports, identity carts, birth certificates and other notarized documents. During presidential election years, they are also responsible for receiving proxy votes and opening local polling stations. But both in Princeton and in all the other American regions, the role played by the honorary consuls is “essentially social”, says Anne de Broca-Hoppenot. “I connect people with the relevant members of staff at the consulate and the embassy.”
The readily-available honorary consuls assist both French and American citizens. They guide American students looking to move to France to study, answer tax questions asked by retirees with dual citizenship, and help American writers find publishing houses in Paris. They also assist families in repatriating bodies back to France, and in finding new accommodation after a fire or a flood. They reassured worried parents about their children in Paris and Nice following the recent terrorist attacks, and act as a link for newly arrived French citizens and local Francophone circles.
As representatives of France across the 50 American states, the honorary French consuls are tasked with welcoming visiting dignitaries and accompanying official visits. These events can include a French ambassador visiting a bilingual school in Salt Lake City, a French deputy taking a guided tour of a Nissan-Renault factory in Mississippi, a group of entrepreneurs looking for new markets in New Jersey, or even sailors on a French Navy frigate making a stopover in San Diego. In the absence of the consul general, the honorary consuls also preside over Legion of Honor awards ceremonies for American veterans of World War II. “I work as a delegate for the consulate general in Miami”, says Jean-Charles Faust who has taken part in many of these ceremonies since being named honorary consul in Tampa, Florida. “But my main role is working on fostering Franch-American relations.”