Colonel Anne-Cécile Ortemann
Colonel Anne-Cécile Ortemann will, this summer, be promoted to Brigadier (Brigadier General in the U.S. and général de brigade in France), only the third woman in the history of the French Army to obtain this rank. You will have to address her as “Madame le général” rather than “Madame la générale” “because rank has no sex” she says.
Today in charge of cyber and digital transformation at army staff headquarters in Paris, Anne-Cécile also has an executive MBA from HEC/Mines in Information Systems and Technologies and was the French military fencing champion (her discipline is the épée).
But even if she's in uniform during our lunch, the officer doesn't obscure the woman: we also chat about children, greying hair and weight control!
“I was a competition fencer at school, couldn't see myself doing a desk job, was good at science and had some notion of serving my country, so after my baccalaureate [end of school exam] I went along to the local armed forces information and recruitment centre and they suggested I attend the Prytanée National MilitaireLa Flèche, the only military school open to women at the time,” she recounts. Prytanée offers both secondary education and preparation for the competitive exams to enter French military academies.
Her time there “was not always an easy ride” she laughs, “as some of the boys openly questioned what us four girls were doing in their class. But it gave me the tools to deal with what I later encountered at St Cyr.” This is the foremost army officers' training academy where she found herself the lone woman, the other one having thrown in the towel after a month!
Although she had no particular preference for the army over the navy or air-force, she thought she'd give it a go. “My brother was already in the army and tried to put me off because he was worried about how I would fare.” Clearly, his concerns were unfounded!
But she concedes that “if you don't have a minimum of ability in some sport then it would be really hard to succeed because sports are still an important skill base for the physically demanding army.” And when she started, 29 years ago, the physical requirements for women and men were identical. “We are currently reviewing this,” she explains,“notably with the help of the staff at the National Centre for Military Sports (CNSD) in Fontainebleau, because we need requirements to indicate competence for the kind of missions these men and women will to do rather than just proving they can do push-ups... particularly when we know that women have different strengths than men.” They have more endurance but less muscular strength, for example.
When she graduated from St Cyr with an engineering degree and the ambition to have a long military career, she chose signals. “It allowed me to go on missions abroad and follow the incredible innovations which mean that today we can set up an entire command and control centre from beginning to end on our own. We are the commander's weapon,” she says proudly.
Anne-Cécile is also a gender-equality activist: she uses her maiden name professionally, often speaks publicly, and is the vice-president of an association founded in 2016 called “Avec les Femmes de la défense” (With women in defence) to help women network and move upwards in their careers. She admires French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly for her courage in launching the gender equality programme a few weeks ago“because quite a number of people don't see the point. But it's very important to address this issue.”
She's already heard remarks concerning her own recent promotion such as “she could wait” [48 is young to be promoted to General] and others more disparaging. “I put on my mental sou'wester so that the remarks slip off me like so much rainwater but it's still not easy to take,” she concedes.
Her career affected her personal life choices. As her husband was also in the military (until a year ago when he moved to a civilian job) “we had to carefully calculate when we could have children.” She put off going to War College – a mandatory passage for any senior officer wanting to command a regiment or hold an equivalent post – for a year so that she could have her first daughter. But after the birth of her second daughter and successful completion of the year-long War College course, “I could tell that in some people's eyes I was now a mother, not an officer. And so when I asked to command a regiment, my hierarchy was surprised. They'd been preparing to offer me a desk job! But that's not what I joined the army to do,” she exclaims. If pay in the army is equal, “what does need to change are the assumptions made concerning the types of posts we want. We don't want the hierarchy to think in our stead!”
She stresses that support from the family is “really very important” in a career like hers “and allows us to go on deployments serenely. My husband has always encouraged me, telling me to have fun and do what I enjoy. And our respective Mums are very important and present even if we always ensured that we were not both sent on deployment simultaneously so that one of us was there for the girls.”
The result is that during her six month mission in Afghanistan or four months in Mali “I've never heard my daughters cry on the phone and that's vital for my peace of mind and therefore my ability to concentrate on the job at hand.”