Meet France’s first female diplomats


Today, there is a strong female presence at the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and women hold many different types of positions. On 31 December 2020, 28% of ambassadors and directors were women. This figure, which reflects France’s commitment to a feminist foreign policy, is constantly rising. However, this has not always been the case. The first female diplomats had to show great tenacity and courage to fight for space in a field that had long been the preserve of men.

Suzanne Borel, the first female diplomat

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs competitive recruitment exam, which had long been forbidden for women, opened to them in 1928. Suzanne Borel had always wanted to work in this field, so she tried her luck and passed the exam. She joined the Foreign Ministry in 1930, but as her friend André Siegfried said to her: “You’ve gained entry; now you have to gain acceptance”. Her induction was contested by the association of Foreign Ministry officials. The recruitment of women was suspended until 1944.

Despite the obstacles she encountered, Suzanne Borel occupied various positions until the beginning of World War II, where she earned recognition in the Resistance. She was then called on to be a member of the Private Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Georges Bidault, and she married him some time later.

At the time, women were kept at a distance from political positions. Suzanne Borel used her position as a female diplomat to get into the heart of political action.

There was still a long road ahead before a woman would rise to the highest echelons, but the movement was underway and other women would follow her through the door she had wedged open.

"“I am simply a woman with a taste for justice, who believes that women are more capable than conventional wisdom suggests, and that it is only fair to give them an opportunity”.
Suzanne Borel, Par une porte entrebâillée (“Through the half-open door”)

Marcelle Campana, first female consul and ambassador

Marcelle Campana joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1935 as a secretary. She was the daughter of a French diplomat, who had been Consul-General of France in Sydney and London in the 1920s. Working as an archivist during the war, she enrolled in the Resistance and became a diplomat after the Liberation.

In 1967, Marcelle Campana was the first woman to be appointed Consul-General. In 1972, she became the first woman to be appointed Ambassador. She took up her position in Panama.

Check our Instagram page for the story of Marcelle Campana, the first woman appointed Consul-General and Ambassador.

Eve Curie: pianist, writer and diplomat

Eve Curie, the daughter of physicist and chemist Marie Skłodowska-Curie, began her career as a pianist and then a writer, publishing Madame Curie, her mother’s biography, which was a worldwide success. In 1939, she became a diplomat, and joined General de Gaulle and Free France. She wrote reports from the various fronts (USSR, Libya and China), published in the collection Voyage parmi les guerriers (voyage among the combatants).

However, she did not limit herself to being an observer. In 1944, Eve Curie participated in the landing in Provence with French troops. Her engagement earned her the Croix de Guerre decoration. In 1952, she was Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In this position, she met and later married Henry Labouisse, an American diplomat in charge of the Marshall Plan in France.

The couple moved to Beirut when Henry Labouisse was appointed Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
At that time, Eve Curie could not obtain an official post, but she became the unofficial adviser to her husband. Those who knew her in her role “between shadow and light” remember a brilliant mind with instinctive intellectual acuteness.

From 1965 to 1979, her husband was Executive-Director of UNICEF. During this Cold War period, Eve Curie accompanied him in his many assignments for children’s welfare. They didn’t hesitate to travel to Nigeria during the Biafra conflict, where they helped save many lives.

Isabelle Renouard, first female director

Isabelle Renouard joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1964. She chose this career with what she described as “a soupçon of recklessness”.

She had a highly varied career. She took up positions in Ottawa, Algiers, and at the Permanent Representation of France to NATO. At the Ministry, she worked in the Human Resources Directorate, and on cases linked to southern Europe, as well as disarmament.

In 1986, Isabelle Renouard was appointed Director of French Nationals Abroad and Foreign Nationals in France. She was the first woman to reach a director’s position. Ten years later, she finished her career by also becoming the first female Secretary-General for Defence and National Security.

Catherine Lalumière, first female Minister of State for European Affairs

Catherine Lalumière was born in Rennes, and began an academic career as a lecturer, holding a Ph.D in public law. She was politically active and became Minister of State for the Civil Service, followed by Minister of Consumer Affairs in Pierre Mauroy’s government in 1981.

In 1984, Catherine Lalumière was the first woman appointed as Minister of State for European Affairs. In this role, she oversaw the important issues of Spain’s and Portugal’s accession to the European Community. She signed the Schengen Agreement on behalf of France in 1985, paving the way for free movement in Europe.

She continued her European career and became Secretary General of the Council of Europe in 1989. That period was marked by the end of the USSR and the opening up of the Eastern Bloc countries. Catherine Lalumière worked to bring Central and Eastern European States closer.

She was then elected to the European Parliament. There, she worked within the Foreign Affairs, Common Security and Defence Policy Committees. She was also Vice-President of the European Parliament from 2001 to 2004.

Updated in October 2022