After 207 years of men, the first female Ambassador to France talks Rhondda roots and making history

When Menna Rawlings walked into her grand office in Paris a fortnight ago and sat down at her new desk, she added a new chapter to a room dripping with history.

It was Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, who was the first man to sit in that seat in 1814 as Britain's ambassador - a reward for his part in the humiliation of Napoleon.

206 years after he left office, following 36 other men in that office, Menna Rawlings became the first woman ever to take up the role as the UK's Ambassador to France, proudly waving the Welsh flag in the process.

"My mum was born and brought up in the Rhondda valley, she met my dad in London so I grew up in north London but when I was 18 my whole family decided to return to Wales", Menna told ITV Cymru Wales.

"During my childhood we used to go up and down the M4 whenever we could to see family so I've always felt that Wales is home. I've travelled around the world a lot but Wales is where I always come home to and it feels a very strong part of my personal identity".

Of course, in the 21st century, a woman taking on a high-profile role should never be seen as some extraordinary event. But while we are surely now beyond those tired attitudes in society, when Menna joined the Foreign Office in 1989, a woman being appointed to her role was simply unthinkable - even to her own family.

“I remember visiting my nan when I was just about to finish uni, and after telling her I’d like to become a diplomat, she looked at me utterly horrified and said, ‘Surely, you mean a diplomat’s wife?".

Ambassador Rawlings took up her role on August 23rd Credit: UK Government

Before 1946, women were banned from diplomacy, and until 1973 they had to resign if they married.

Even now - in 2021 - after all the developments to equality, Menna said she suffered imposter syndrome on her first visit to the Embassy in Paris.

“As a woman who had been to an ordinary state school then the London School of Economics, I didn’t feel as if I fitted in at all", she said after looking at the role-call of previous ambassadors.

"I looked at that long, long list of all the Lords and Sirs and I just thought ‘Wow, now it’s me’".

Menna with her brother and parents in Brecon Credit: Menna Rawlings

How difficult was it for you as a woman to become an Ambassador?

"When I joined the Foreign Office thirty years ago, it was very male", Menna told me.

"There was a certain tradition of diplomats coming mainly from private schools and certain universities, and as someone who had a very different background it felt like a very difficult place for someone like me to get on.

"I'm delighted to say that it has really changed. Around 30% of our Ambassadors overseas are women so we have some way to go, we have not made it to parity yet, but I'm confident now that it's a place that people can get on because of, rather than in spite of, their differences".

"The main thing is to perservere. It's really important that you do something you're connected to and that you really love. Promoting my country overseas really gets me up in the morning.

"I have an insatiable curiosity for other countries and being curious will stand you in really good stead. I'd encourage anyone to consider a job in the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), whatever your background and whatever your origins".

What do you actually do when you are one?

I put it to the Ambassador that even with all the changes to the diplomatic service, her role will still seem very alien to the majority of people in Wales.

"When I go home to Wales, my mum quite often still says, 'what exactly do you do, Menna?', she admitted to me.

"It's about being the lead representative for the UK Government overseas", she explains. "It's about trying to build connections with another country and promoting British, and including Welsh, interests here.

"That includes promoting Wales as a place to visit, promoting relationships between businesses and sport is a great link between Wales and France. I'm really looking forward to the Rugby World Cup in 2023. It's my job to promote all the UK as much as possible in France".

A Royal Navy ship returns to Portsmouth from Jersey after it was scrambled along to the protest by French fishermen over fishing rights Credit: PA

The Ambassador of course has to talk up the Britain's relationship with France, and she is resolute in her reassurance that the partnership was still as strong as ever despite rifts in recent months.

The UK Government even sent a warship to police a disagreement off Jersey over fishing rights in the English Channel, and President Macron and the Prime Minister recently had a very public spat over comments made about the constitutional position of Northern Ireland since Britain left the European Union.

Ambassador Rawlings told me that while it is government ministers who set the tone for partnerships, she sees it as her job to change the relationship between the two countries from "very good" to "excellent".

"It's been a bumpy road", Menna admitted. "We have women in some countries where you really have to knock heads together like Russia and China, but I wouldn't put France in that category at all.

"We have a fantastic relationship with France. The Prime Minister is in regular contact with the President".

That goes contrary to various news reports in recent weeks that the tensions between Macron and Johnson have reached the point where meetings are not taking place. One former senior diplomat even suggested the relationship between the two countries was at its lowest ebb since 2003, when the Iraq war was the major bone of contention.

But Menna said the crisis in Afghanistan showed the strength of the UK-France partnership - even between the political leaders of the two countries.

"That conversation starts at the top and works its way right down the system, and if they want to pick up the phone to each other they absolutely do that and I think that happens on a much more regular basis than people imagine.

"There have been challenges, particularly during the negotiations for leaving the EU, and there are other challenging issues that we are grappling with. But we are allies, we are friends, we are partners.

"We've had 1,000 years of history, and I look forward to the next 1,000 years of a stronger relationship with France.

"Over the next four years, my role is to explain and analyse, but really to defend British interests", Ambassador Rawlings added.

"Will I do that differently to my predecessors? Time will tell".