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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Marie-Monique Steckel

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-19

Marie-Monique Steckel's connection with Paris dates back 395 years.

That was when Ile. St. Louis, the largely residential island in the Seine River that's long been favored by affluent Parisians, was developed during Louis XIII's reign by three friends who hoped to get rich quick.

"They didn't get rich - they were lousy businessmen," Ms. Steckel said of Marie, a general contractor, and his two friends, Le Regrattier and Poulletier, the developers who broke ground on Ile. St. Louis in 1610. "And, of course, they didn't stay friends."

She tells this story because Ms. Steckel grew up on Ile. St. Louis as the daughter of a renowned scholar of Roman epigraphy, H. G. Pflaum-Vallin and his painter-wife, Mia. The bridge known as Pont Marie was her occasional channel to the "mainland," as island residents still call the metropolitan area across the river.

"I didn't know it when I was growing up, but my life was to be a series of bridges," Ms. Steckel said.

As president of the French Institute Alliance Francaise in New York, her newest bridge is to New York, where the organization was established by American Francophiles in 1898.

"What I love about New York is its multi-ethnicity," Ms. Steckel said. "I strongly believe that a French voice has to be a part of this multi-ethnicity."
She has been projecting France's voice in one way or another ever since her time at Yale and Harvard Universities and, earlier at the Institut d' Etude Politique de Paris, the elite institution that confers master's degrees in political science. The institute, founded in 1872 and known popularly as 'Sciences Po," accepts less than 5% of the thousands who apply each year; it has traditionally prepared young Frenchmen for national leadership.

Her education enabled her to build a bridge into business. She joined Oxtoby-Smith, a consultancy in New York, and spent seven years conducting motivational research among consumers and corporation.

"I traveled the length and breadth of America," Ms. Steckel said. "By studying people's buying habits, and how companies sell their products, I got this amazing exposure to the American psyche."

She also learned about marketing, a skill that was to prove useful in her next assignment.

That assignment was to start an economic agency in New York to spur interest among Americans to invest in France. The organization that Ms. Steckel set up was called the French Industrial Development Agency. She persuaded behemoths such as IBM and the Ford Motor Company to open or expand plants in France. (The agency is now part of a larger unit called "Invest in France.")

"In those days, there was an element of surprise among Americans that France sought their investment," Ms. Steckel said. "They wanted to know how the French would put out the welcome mat, and about the opportunities for growth in trade."

That growth has been formidable, with the bilateral trade in 2004 being $55 billion. Every day of the year, more than $1 billion in commercial transactions - including trade - take place between the two countries. Some 2,500 French companies have created 500,000 jobs in America, making France the fifth biggest foreign investor here, with more than $143 billion.

And last year, American investors poured $66 billion of the total annual foreign direct investment of $152 billion into France, accounting for 580,000 jobs and making America its third biggest investor.

Her success at the French Development Agency caught the attention of Jacques Chirac, who was forming a new political party, Rassemblement Pour La Republique. As Mr. Chirac's national director of communications, Ms. Steckel created what was acknowledged to be the first modern media campaign for a French political party.

It helped, of course, that the new party won big in the National Assembly election.

"I employed all the marketing skills that I'd learned in America," Ms. Steckel said. "I was asked to stay on in France - but if you want to bring about positive change, you must be prepared to be in politics for the long haul. People like me were just political tourists."

While Ms. Steckel was in France, her husband, Raymond, a corporate lawyer, and sons Frederick and Adrian, had remained in America. She yearned to join them.

Fortuitously, she was approached by France Telecom with a job that enabled her to do just that. The global telecommunications revolution was accelerating, and the company wanted a foothold in America. Ms. Steckel opened France Telecom's first office here, and in time became the 150,000-employee company's president for North American operations for 20 years.

"Again, I was a bridge between France and America," she said. "And besides helping to generate more than $500 million in new American contracts for my company, one of my proudest accomplishments was a training program under which young French engineers and technicians came to America for short periods to learn about the telecommunications industry - and about American society."

One more bridge - this time to the American private sector again, when Ronald Lauder, son of cosmetics legend Estee Lauder, invited Ms. Steckel to join him as a senior adviser on telecommunications and, later, Eastern Europe.

About a year ago, still another bridge arose in Ms. Steckel's life when David Black, head of the nonprofit French Institute Alliance Francaise, confided in her that he was leaving to become chief of the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's West Side.

"I want to return to my tribe, the Jewish community," Mr. Black said.

"Guess what - I want to return to my tribe - France," Ms. Steckel said.

She expanded an ambitious $18 million renovation program of the institute's building upon taking office as president; the plan includes creation of a sky room, limned with French style, for cultural events. The renovated building will reopen in January 2006. The institute has an annual budget of $6 million that's raised from language fees, subscriptions and donations.

Tomorrow at 7 p.m., Ms. Steckel will welcome hundreds of guests at a benefit gala in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. When a reporter asked her what footprint she'd like to make on the institute, she said:

"Footprint? That sounds too grand. But I'd certainly want New Yorkers to see the institute as a place where the entire family can enjoy French culture. The institute as a bridge to France - that's how I would put it."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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