The French Connection
Honorary Consuls, like the rest of us, come in all shapes and sizes; Thomas Baude, the Honorary French Consul since 1995, happens to come in a particularly elevated package. Towering above his consular counterparts at official receptions, typically decked out in his dapper blue and white pinstripe jacket and with his moustache quivering in humour, Thomas Baude is a bon vivant whose irreverence always infuses a bit of cheek into a dour function.
Born in Bangkok, 57 years ago to diplomatic parents, Thomas Baude lived there on and off for nine years before returning to France. He returned to Thailand in 1979 to teach French at the Alliance Francaise in Bangkok. A year later he was transferred to Chiang Mai to head the recently opened branch, a position he has maintained until today. “The day of my arrival, I heard gunshots and thought I was in the Wild West. I was. The wife of the DEA chief was shot in Anusarn Market that afternoon…” Drug warfare and street shootings aside, Baude soon settled down, especially after he met his wife, Chamaiphan, who was working at the Chiang Inn hotel.
After a whirlwind courtship, the two got married and now have two beautiful daughters, one studying at Chiang Mai University’s veterinary faculty and the other at Regina Coeli School.
“I was the only teacher at the Alliance Francaise for many years,” said Baude, while dipping his moustache into an espresso at the Alliance’s café. “There were about 12 students then, some were highschool students, others Thai women wanting to go to live in France, some tour guides and even a charming 70 something year old general who said that he always wanted to speak French. It was cute seeing him do his French grammar homework so studiously with a 15 year old highschool boy he had paired up with in class. At the time, around 70% of tourists to Chiang Mai were French, so the interest in learning the language grew quite rapidly. Today we have around 400 students.”
Baude, while brimming with naughty and witty vignettes, is a man who prefers the simple and humble life. Though impossible at his great height, he appears to be more comfortable blending into the background. So, it was like pulling teeth to get him to tell me about his achievements. Only the fact that he was my French teacher when I was 13 and I had known him most of my life, did I manage to extract some information to write about. I recall having attended the cocktail party when he received the Chevalier du Merite from the French Ambassador for his civic work, a highly distinguished honour. “Well, I got a kiss from the ambassador and he gave it to me, it was nice,” was his mild (yet oddly disturbing!) response.
The Alliance Francaise, which Baude runs, along with the stunning École Française d’Extréme-Orient across the road, which he doesn’t, both belong to the French Republic. The former was set up to teach French language and has a French library, while the latter is dedicated to the study of Asian societies, and has an even more impressive library. “Unlike you Brits, we didn’t sell off our land for pittance,” he chirped with pride. “In fact, I remember when HE Peter Tripps, the British Ambassador, came to Chiang Mai to officially hand over the land. The honorary consul at the time, Donald Gibson MBE and his friends as well as myself got quite a few gin and tonics in with the ambassador and his wife. After a while the ambassador went to bed, as did I, and as the gin and tonics kept flowing and apparantly the ambassador’s wife and the others decided to kidnap Queen Victoria (the statue that used to stand on the grounds of the consulate where the current The Chedi hotel lies and which is today housed at the Foreign Cemetery) in a commando raid. It was all very dashing. I know that Eleanor Hardy, the first GM of the Chedi tried very hard to get the queen back. I told her, ‘over my dead body’ which, as a Frenchman, I think would have Napoleon rolling in his grave!”
Baude, in his unassuming and good natured way, is a wind-up merchant and enjoys banter with his cousins across the channel. “I was invited across the road many years ago to play badminton,” he recalls. “There was this elegant gentleman with a shock of white hair, white polo shirt, old fashioned white tennis shoes, very dapper and handsome and so very Oxbridge. I wanted to punch him on the nose because he was trashing me so soyndly at it, but he was so terribly polite as only the Brits can be I couldn’t really. Turns out he was John Le Carre (of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy fame) and he was here to visit long term Chiang Mai resident Francois Bizot, who ended up being portrayed as a character in The Honourable Schoolboy.” No one escapes his teasing, even his Thai father in law, who used to fight the French in Cambodia, “it was a little awkward at first,” he said with his usual wryness. “I was courting his daughter and was a dreaded Frenchman, but we just laughed and finally got on very well.”
A man with many caps, the director of the Alliance Francaise, Honorary French Consul and family guy, is also on the committee of the Chiang Mai Foreign Cemetery, having been roped in by my father many moons ago with the promise that there would be no grave digging duties. Today the committee is fighting an uphill battle to reclaim nearly 80% of its land from squatters.
Apart from ribbon cuttings, cocktail functions, photo ops and petanque, Baude’s duties as Honorary Consul duties are far from glamourous. “I have to identify bodies (they all laugh at me at the morgue because I shake and jump like a little girl), I mostly have to certify old aged pensioners for their monthly stipends, and often I am just here when people get into trouble. Often they come marching up the driveway demanding service and declaring that they are French, I can’t resist telling them that it is alright, nobody is perfect.
There are around 800 French nationals registered with the embassy in Chiang Mai. Baude reckons that translates to around 2000 residents in Chiang Mai city and another 1000 spread throughout the north of Thailand. Of those, around 400 live in Chiang Rai. “The great majority are retirees with fairly low pensions,” added Baude.
“I am here to help, I am happy to help, but I am also not here to take tranquilisers at the end of each day. I try to use humour and turn things around so that people who come here are comfortable and understand what I can do for them, including the limitations.”
[right]by Pim Kemasingki[/right]
Sophie Le Coeur is a medical researcher who collaborated in the research of treatment strategies to prevent the infection of HIV from mother to child.
Le Coeur arrived in Thailand during a time of crisis. It was 1996 and the HIV epidemic had reached its peak. She flew with her husband and three children directly to Chiang Mai, the epicentre of the emergency.
Sat in her airy office overlooking a small back garden in central Chiang Mai, typically French looking Le Coeur – why are all French women slim and elegant? – told us how a life studying infectious diseases had led her to living the north of Thailand.
After completing a PhD on the study of HIV infection, Parisian Le Coeur, a twenty-something-year-old physician and epidemiologist, travelled to The Congo where the initial outbreak of HIV virus began in the 1980s.
“I loved living in The Congo, the people were very friendly,” Le Coeur remembers her time in Africa with fond memories. In The Congo, Le Coeur, who worked for the French National Institute for Health Research investigating malaria, worked alongside her French husband, Marc Lallemant, who was working in affiliation with the French Research Institute for Development (IRD). The couple lived in The Congo for eight years, until civil war erupted in the mid-1990s. “It became too dangerous, I remember driving to work with my colleague and there were stingers laid out on the road. We had to carefully navigate the car and escape from the warzone area, it was scary.”
After returning to France the couple were invited to do research at Harvard University where they stayed for five years. Le Coeur’s husband was invited to a HIV conference in Bangkok, after which the couple decided on Thailand as a prime place to be able to carry on their research on a subject which had become a passion and a life calling.
“When we arrived in Thailand the situation in northern Thailand was critical. Though after only two to three years it improved tremendously and the infection rate went down.” It is still disputed why exactly the north of Thailand was so badly affected by HIV. Le Coeur applauds the Thai government on their fast and effective response in fighting against the epidemic. “They set up a massive programme for research, education, prevention and the protection of human rights, it was very successful.” By 2002 treatment for HIV infected people was also made easily accessible in Thailand and many are now living in good health.
In Chiang Mai Le Coeur initially worked as a researcher studying the prevention of mother to child HIV transmission, in connection with a few local hospitals. For the clinical trials a large number of HIV infected pregnant women were required, though after a year or so of the Thai government’s combating the epidemic the number of these women became fewer. “We realised we could not carry on the research, there were not enough people to test. Which was a wonderful thing, but not for us as researchers!” The research was therefore expanded and the project covered 27 hospitals. Le Coeur and other foreign researchers worked in collaboration with the Thai Ministry of Public Health, who were very helpful facilitators of the plan which reached out to the worst affected areas of the country, including the north, northeast, the south and Bangkok.
Aided by the work of Le Coeur and many others, successful drug treatments have been developed which prevent a HIV positive mother passing on the virus to her baby (with only a 1-2% failure rate), while before these preventive treatments were available 25% of infected mothers would pass HIV on to their child.
” HIV positive women are now able to have children without transmitting the disease to their offspring,” said Le Coeur. She continued to tell me “Nowadays HIV should be considered like any other chronic disease, for example like diabetes. But unfortunately there is still a lot of stigma attached to it.”
The negative stigma attached to HIV is something which Le Coeur says is detrimental to the prevention of HIV infection. “When people fear HIV they do not get tested, therefore the disease is spread further.”
Whilst also working with the French Demographic Institute, Le Coeur, her husband and another researcher founded the Programme for HIV Prevention and Treatment (PHPT), Le Coeur’s current work place. The Chiang Mai based organisation, with its own laboratory, now employs over 100 staff. PHPT is sponsored by, and works in collaboration with Chiang Mai University and various Thai and foreign organisations such as the Ministry of Public Health Thailand, Harvard and Oxfam-GB.
Somewhat of a workaholic, Le Coeur enjoys her life in Thailand which also involves regular work trips to Paris, where she admits her heart lies. “Thailand is a wonderful place, my children grew up here. My youngest daughter, now studying in America, can speak fluent Thai.”
Le Coeur’s most recent project involves a group of Thai adolescents, aged around 15, born when drugs for the prevention of transmission from mother to child were unavailable. This is a group of children who caught HIV in their mother’s womb. “We want to know what their situation is now, and what do they need for their futures.” Many of these young people have faced stigmatisation. “Now that they are older, they are facing issues like entering into sexuality and being a HIV positive adult. Like many adolescents with a chronic disease they may stop taking their medication, they want to be like everyone else, it puts them at risk.”
Le Coeur tells me many of these children live with their grandparents as their parents have passed away from the disease. “It is difficult for their guardians to tell the children they are infected, there is no easy way.”
Le Coeur now lives with her husband in Chiang Mai as her children have all left home to live abroad. Though she misses them, she does not suffer from flown the nest syndrome as they regularly come home to visit. “We are an international family, they were raised with their parents travelling a lot so they follow suit.”
[right]by Grace Robinson[/right]
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