On Monday, September 16, Philippe Etienne, Ambassador of France in the United States, presented Bénédicte de Montlaur with the insignia of Chevalier in the National Order of Merit during a ceremony at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City. The Ambassador’s remarks are below.
Dear Bénédicte de Montlaur,
Dear family and friends,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to all of you,
It is my honor and a great pleasure to be here tonight for a very special event, the presentation of the French Order of Merit to Bénédicte de Montlaur.
Before proceeding, let me say a few words about this award. The French Order of Merit is one of France’s most prestigious distinctions. It was created by former President Charles De Gaulle in 1963 to highlight the achievements and contributions of the recipient to France. This award has been bestowed upon French citizens and foreign nationals alike including statesmen, scientists, academics, artists, and executives.
Dear Bénédicte, it is not every day that we have the opportunity to honor someone who has dedicated so much of their time, intelligence, creativity, and passion to the service of France.
You are a seasoned diplomat—having held numerous positions in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Deputy Assistant Secretary for North Africa, Negotiator on Africa and the Middle East at the United Nations Security Council and First Secretary at the French Embassy in Syria. Most recently, you served as Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy to the United States, France’s largest international cultural advocacy network, where you directed a team of 90 people in 10 offices across the United States. And, very soon, you will embark on your next adventure at the head of the World Monuments Fund.
Your contributions to France are vast and wide ranging. In the words of a close friend: “Wherever she goes, Bénédicte carries forth the torch of culture, à la française, with charm and spirit—a Marianne for the 21st century.” Indeed, each step in your career is a testament to your dedication to France. From your roots in the French countryside, these qualities have taken you to Africa, Lebanon, Syria, South America, and the United States. Along the way, you have developed close friendships and expanded your world view while sharing the best of France with all those you encounter.
In 2015, after more than a decade-long career in international relations, you chose to shift your focus from political diplomacy to the cultural sphere. In your role as head of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to the United States, you were obliged to learn a whole new set of skills, such as how to navigate New York’s elite cultural milieu, how to raise funds, and how to negotiate not only one, but two boards, the non-profit partner foundations of the Embassy: FACE Foundation and the Albertine Books Foundation. Needless to say, you overcame all of these hurdles—and countless others—leading the way for many remarkable achievements during your tenure.
Under your leadership, A Night of Philosophy and Ideas has achieved notoriety across the US, expanding to five cities with more than 20,000 attendees nationwide. This flagship-event made its US debut in this very building 5 years ago. Today it draws 7,000 attendees annually in New York City alone, where it is the largest iteration of the event anywhere in the world. The New York edition is also one of the few that operates as a true 12-hour marathon, from 7pm to 7am. I hear that you have spent no less than four “nuit blanche” alongside your New York team, seeing this event to its croissant breakfast conclusion at sunrise!
Festival Albertine has also flourished under your guidance. This festival was created to provide a space in New York City for high-level transatlantic debate around important issues of our time. Your dynamism and vision ensured that this festival not only live up to its mission but surpass it. You invited some of the most important American intellectuals of the moment such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Gloria Steinem, and Masha Gessen to tackle everything from the history of racism to the future of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic. These are just two examples of your ambitious, innovative approach to fulfilling the French Cultural Services mission to create a channel for dialogue between France and the US.
Dear Bénédicte, one of your most striking qualities is your willingness to “go-the-extra-mile”, whether it be joining an American book club and keeping up with the reading—even while moving back to France during part of that time—or launching the Cultural Services’ first-ever podcast. A year ago, you had never listened to a podcast in your life. In fact, you weren’t even entirely sure how to go about doing so. But, inspired by the conviction that this was an excellent way to connect more people across the US with the French American dialogue, you threw yourself into this new adventure. You enrolled in acting lessons and podcasting courses and you spent several mornings at a recording studio in Brooklyn. In May 2019, you launched The Thing About France, a podcast where American cultural figures including David Sedaris, Adam Weinberg, Mickalene Thomas, and Darren Walker, explore the relationship between France and the US. The podcast quickly made it to iTunes’ “New and Noteworthy” listings where it remained for several months.
However, while perpetually driving the development of projects and programs at the Cultural Services, your priorities were never focused exclusively on external initiatives. In 2019, following years of fundraising and negotiations with both the French government and the city of New York, you began the renovation of the Payne Whitney Mansion, where we are gathered today. These renovations are crucial, both for the future of Albertine and the daily lives of the employees of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.
Those who have worked with you highlight your incredible energy, and willingness to throw yourself into new circumstances of all kinds. Your enthusiasm is contagious, and one of your primary strengths as a leader, it galvanizes those around you to perform at their highest level. Even in the last months of your tenure, you didn’t lose momentum. Following the tragic destruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral, you rallied your staff to participate in the nation-wide campaign to raise funds for the rebuilding of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Here we see a glimmer of your future position at the head of the World Monuments Fund, where you will ensure the preservation of cultural heritage around the world!
Dear Bénédicte, for all of these achievements, and the many others that I don’t have time to mention, it is my pleasure to bestow upon you the insignia of Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite.
«Benedicte de Montlaur, au nom du Président de la République, nous vous faisons chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite »