Interview with Mr. Thierry Reynard, first Consul general in Miami [fr]
Mr. Thierry Reynard, hello, you were the diplomat that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs had appointed to open the Consulate General of France in Miami. As we celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, could you explain to our readers what were the reasons that guided the opening of the consulate in Florida?
The creation of the Consulate General of France was decided in 1984. Our ambassadors in Washington had stressed in the early ‘80s that our country was falling behind by handling the whole Southeast area of the United States from its Consulate in New Orleans. We were a little behind when considering the change of the economic and demographic map of the United States.
A task force was initiated with the aim of launching a common ground between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy and Finances. The goal was to open in select cities with strong economic potential, Consulates with a dual-purpose: a consular mission on one hand, and a commercial one on the other hand. Therefore, the Consulate General in Miami was created in 1985 followed by the Consulate General in Atlanta in 1989 with the same double standard, consular and commercial. Later, Houston welcomed a Consulate with the same capacities.
In fact, it is a forerunner of what the current Minister Laurent Fabius has since realized, by connecting foreign trade at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. The intuition of the great potential of Florida’s growth has been widely demonstrated and proved accurate.
It is amazing to witness the growth that the Miami area has experienced. As an anecdote, I can recall that we have been preceded by a pioneer. In the early ’80s, Mr. Bernard Arnaud, founder of the world’s leading luxury group, LVMH, had spent some time in Florida at a property development company called Ferinel Inc. In some way, he was ahead of us. I did not meet him since he had returned to France in 1984 before my arrival in Miami.
With this double duty, the Consulate would not only benefit from the potential of Florida, but it would also protect the interests of the French citizens who settled more and more in the region. It would also take advantage of the hub played by Miami, a hub of air and trade links between the US and the Caribbean as well as Central America.
The Consulate general was granted with consular responsibilities for Florida first, then for Puerto Rico, followed by commercial missions for the two States and finally for some Caribbean islands. At the time, we had commercial jurisdiction over Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands.
We were entitled to assist companies from Martinique and Guadeloupe willing to trade with Florida’s companies. When I arrived at the end of 1984, we had an Honorary Consul on site with few means. So, opening a Consulate was a great leap forward. On the commercial front, as we know now, the commercial missions have been redeployed in Atlanta, since Business France, which is the organization that took over UbiFrance in charge of the trade relations of the exporting companies, is established over there.
Upon your arrival, what were your impressions about the city?
I arrived from Washington where I had met the Ambassador, who gave me his last instructions before I took up my post. With a rental car, I arrived one late afternoon at the end of 1984 from the Miami Airport. We had booked a hotel downtown. I have to admit that our first impression was a huge shock for us. We arrived in the middle of a city that seemed nearly dead. The streets were badly lit, with a few cars on the road and no pedestrians. The Miami of that time was different from that of today. Downtown and Biscayne Boulevard were gloomy. Bayside, obviously, didn’t exist yet, nor did the American Airlines Arena. On Brickell, only a couple of buildings existed.
At that time, the only nice neighborhoods were Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, and Key Biscayne. The new areas, which developed later at an extraordinary pace, such as Wynwood, the Design District, South Beach, and even South Miami were not recommended at the time.
I noticed, for instance, that people hardly dared to go at night to Joe’s Stone Crab, which was then situated in the middle of vacant lots at the tip of South Beach.
One must also remember that Miami was recovering from the arrival of more than 120 000 Cuban refugees, who were called Marielitos since they came from the port of Mariel, near Havana. These refugees settled in Little Havana, Hialeah, and also in South Beach. This contributed to these regions’ low reputations.
It should also be mentioned that, at the same time, a television series called “Miami Vice” also gave the city a really bad image, since the series only showed stories of gangsters and killings occurring within the city. Another memory that I can bring back is that in order to go to Key Biscayne by the Rickenbacker Causeway, one had to take an old bridge which opened when the boats passed. The big bridge did not exist yet, and the tennis tournament had not begun until the construction of the current bridge.
In the sporting field precisely, basketball was not the most popular sport. The Miami Heat did not exist. One of the most popular sports was baseball, and the biggest teams of the country came to spend the winter at the center of Florida. In fact, the most followed sport was football with the golden age of the Miami Dolphins and their legendary quarterback, Dan Marino. He was the biggest rival of the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, Joe Montana. A few days after we arrived, at the end of January 1985, there was the Super bowl final between the Dolphins and the 49ers. Miami lost that final and the match had a great impact.
Culturally and artistically, there was a lot of activity. However, there were virtually no art galleries. Art Basel evidently did not exist. There were some institutions such as the Bass Museum, the Flagler Museum, and the Norton Gallery. We also worked with Mitch Wolfson, who is a great Francophile. In St. Petersburg, there was also the Museum Salvador Dali but it was not in this magnificent building. It was located in a huge warehouse.
The French speaking population as well as the Francophile community had certainly welcomed the news with enthusiasm. What were the activities and services of the Consulate at its opening? Could you also tell us how many people were working in which services?
My main work during those first months was of course, to meet with local officials of different areas, in order to let them know about the opening of the Consulate.
For the political part, I traveled to Tallahassee to meet with officials. The Governor at that time was the Democrat, Bob Graham. He later served many years as a Senator for Florida.
To introduce our plans, I also spoke with other elected representatives including Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, a representative of Cuban origin who was already very active.
On the business front, we reached out to South Florida’s leading trade organizations such as the Beacon Council and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce with whom we organized joint operations. We also worked with the South Florida Initiative launched by local business leaders. The French-American Chamber of commerce already existed. We obviously worked hand in hand to set up trade operations with Chambers of commerce in France.
Conferences of the “Caribbean Central American Action” mobilized us every year. On one hand, we had delegations from French Chambers of commerce as well as representatives from Martinique and Guadeloupe in Florida, the goal being for the latter to open up the French Antilles to their neighboring islands and to South Florida. On the other hand, we managed missions of local Chambers to France. Miami already had a strong relationship with counterparts in Nice, so there were delegations composed of politicians and business leaders visiting each other.
We have also pursued projects that held great interest for French businesses, in particular, for Alstom, Matra, or Airbus. Unfortunately, due to financial reasons, some plans were not developed such as the bullet train connecting Miami – Orlando -Tampa, or the People Mover in Orlando.
Since the Chantiers de l’Atlantique were at that time the property of Alstom, which also specialized in the construction of large cruise ships, we kept track of the negotiations conducted by leaders of big cruise companies with the representatives of the French company.
Airbus Group established an important base in Miami since several pioneering American airline companies that ordered Airbus aircrafts were local companies such as Eastern Airlines and Pan American Airways, which since then have disappeared. As a result, Airbus opened up a training school for its pilots in Miami. Other French companies from the aeronautical sector settled shortly in the area.
In terms of culture, the Alliance française led by Danielle Ferré was very active. Other Alliances existed in Tampa, Jacksonville, or Sarasota.
For many years, a French film festival was organized in Sarasota with the support of the State of Florida. Unifrance Films, the organization that handles the export of French films abroad, was delighted by this event but unfortunately, it lasted only a few years.
In the area of education, we launched international programs with the School board of Miami-Dade County. This allowed us to offer programs in primary and middle schools in French, and also Spanish and German: programs that are still in force at Sunset Elementary School and Carver Middle School.
We have also supported the Congress of the French Culture in Florida that has existed for over 60 years and offers a magnificent essay contest open to all Florida schools each year in Orlando. It appears to me that it is still meeting great success with young people from all over Florida.
I also wanted to point out the excellent relations we are still enjoying with the Representatives of the French living abroad. I take this opportunity to greet Ms. Nicole Hirsh and Mr. Jacques Brion, who are still serving our compatriots with dedication and competence.
The Consular team itself was composed of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy and Finances, though those of the Ministry of Economy outnumbered the others. Overall, we were less than 10 people in the early years. I take this opportunity to salute those who are still there, including Jugnace Joseph, who had been our first local employee.
The double mission along with the extensive territory involved extensive travel in Florida and beyond.
Given the strong decentralization that exists at the political and economic level in the United States, we needed to travel constantly to major cities like Jacksonville or Orlando that have also enjoyed phenomenal development. These missions are still going on today.
Commercial jurisdiction over the Caribbean countries also meant traveling to Haiti, Jamaica and the Caribbean. We had to regularly go there to really cover the ground. In addition, we had, like today of course, to welcome the French dignitaries in our constituency.
The Consulate was effectively inaugurated in January 1986, the date that we celebrate this year. What is the memory that you keep of these opening days?
The opening itself took place Monday, January 27, 1986 in the presence of the then Ambassador, Mr. Emmanuel de Margerie (picture).
The inauguration went very well. Local authorities were present: the Mayor of Miami, the Secretary of State of Florida, and the Deputy Director of the Ministry of the Economy and Finances. Unfortunately, a tragic episode occurred just the day after the inauguration. On January 28, 1986 the Challenger shuttle accident occurred. It was a national tragedy in the United States to such an extent that President Reagan had to postpone his speech on the State of the Union. France was very touched by this accident as well, by the tragedy of course, and also because we had an extensive collaboration between NASA and CNES. Just the year before, French astronaut Patrick Baudry, had flown on the shuttle Discovery.
Finally, what are the most striking memories you have kept in the first years of this consulate?
In April 1986, the new government of Jacques Chirac decided the reinstatement of visas for non-European Union members including US citizens. We have to imagine the activity that fell upon us: we suddenly had to deal with hundreds and sometimes thousands of applications for visas daily. This was an absolute epic period. We had to recruit a dozen temporary helpers and rent additional space quickly and line up the applications directly on the floor. Fortunately, the requirement for US citizens was lifted a few months later.
The second event that occurred, also in April 1986, was France’s refusal to allow US aircrafts departing from a base in Great Britain to fly over our territory in order to bomb Libya. The Americans wanted to respond to an attack during which US soldiers had been killed. You can imagine that during this period some people expressed dissatisfaction. We had to answer to the criticisms that followed.
I left my post in 1989. In May 1989, Mr. Jacques Chirac paid an important visit to Orlando in order to defend the candidacy of Paris for EuroDisney.
There was a fierce battle between the last two candidates, Paris and Barcelona. I believe that Mr. Chirac’s appearance to meet with Disney’s executives was the decisive factor in installing Disney in Marne La Vallée.
There you have, some of my fondest memories of that period. I would also like to lament the passing of one of my successors, Denis Pietton, who left a lasting impression on Miami.