A charismatic Frenchwoman is leading the movement changing the way Romanians look at politics and government.
Clotilde Armand, a Frenchwoman, is running for the Bucharest Sector 1 Mayor in June’s local elections. Her bid comes in on behalf of the Bucharest Salvation Union (USB), the party led by mathematician turned activist Nicusor Dan, who himself is running for Bucharest’s top job.
We met Clotilde on the 29th of March, a Tuesday, on the shores of Straulesti Lake where she announced her candidacy.
Several hours later she granted us an interview where she told us, amongst other things, how she married Sergiu Moroianu, a mathematics PhD graduate and researcher at MIT, about her career on two continents, and her first vacation in Romania, in 1996, when she fell in love with the Fagaras Mountains.
ANNOUNCEMENT ON THE LAKESHORE
March 29th, 10.30 am. We’re somewhere in Bucharest’s Sector 1 on the shore of Lake Straulesti. The area is heavily littered and the smell of stagnant water hangs in the air. A few meters from a blue table, on which a few flyers are arranged, a small girl and a dog run around the yard of a dilapidated house.
A gipsy, short in stature, with her hair in a ponytail is looking curiously at the video cameras lined up in the grass in front of the table.
Nicusor Dan is speaking with a tall, slender woman, who has a healthy laugh and an accent that’s impossible to ignore. Several reporters look on, confused.
Next to the folding chairs set-up for the press conference, two wicker baskets covered with white linen napkins offer the promise of macaroons – the well-known, multicolored French cakes.
It feels like a picnic where everyone is too somber and the unpleasant smell emanating from the lake is unlikely to help anybody’s appetite.
The tall woman is Clotilde Armand – the USB mayoral candidate Sector 1 – whom the press has christened ‘the Frenchwoman’.
She begins to speak, her hands clutching the papers on which she’s prepared her remarks.
She talks about meeting Nicusor Dan through her brother-in-law, Andrei Moroianu, whom she’d met at Mathematics competitions. Then she speaks about her four children, who attend school in Romania, and about her parents who live in the Vichy region of France. They are simple people: her father is an engineer and her mother a homemaker.
Her accent is rather discernible, especially when she pronounces ‘n’, nasally, or the guttural ‘rrr’. She stumbles over a sentence and bursts out laughing, like a schoolgirl. She nudges Nicusor Dan with her elbow. The USB president, more versed with the Romanian press, remains composed and somewhat tense. Clotilde Armand continues, unabashed.
Some of the reporters are visibly amused when the Pekingese dog from the nearby house works its way through Clotilde’s legs. The moment dispels any trace of solemnity.
Towards the end of the press conference, the gipsy intervenes. She asks Clotilde Armand for a house to raise her kids. The Candidate tells her that she’ll accompany her to city hall. Some young men on Nicusor Dan’s team ask the woman for her telephone number.
The Frenchwoman then thanks the attendees for their presence and invites them to join her in cleaning the litter along the banks of the lake. Reporters signal to each other it’s time to pack up and go.
After the makeshift conference, we meet with Clotilde Armand, indoors, to speak about her background, her career, the move to Romania, and now, her move into Romanian politics.
Who is Clotilde Armand?
If I hadn’t met my husband in the U.S., I would’ve been a Frenchwoman like any other. I’m an engineer by profession. I studied at the Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT), where I met many students from all over Europe. The Europeans were a natural community, sandwiched between the Americans and Asians; we Europeans had a sense of belonging to the same place.
I met my husband, who is Romanian, when I was 22. After he finished his studies we decided to move to Romania. He is a mathematics researcher (Sergiu Moroianu is a researcher at the Institute of Mathematics of the Romanian Academy – Ed.). His salary when we moved back to Romania in 1996 was equivalent to $50 a month!
I managed to build a business career where I spent half my time in Romania and the other half abroad. Eventually we decided to remain here for good.
Why not the United States or France?
Not in the US, I’m not someone who can migrate just like that; I feel we all have strong ties to our homeland. We have responsibilities and duties, and, whether it’s France or Romania, I could fulfill these, in the sense that we have a certain quality of life in either country.
In the US, no way, in France, yes, we have thought about it. My husband, however, is very attached to his country. I’ve also grown attached to Romania and think it’s a good country in which to educate children.
It’s also a country where the people are noble-minded. It’s something I like very much. There’s a lot to do here, you can get involved. Romania now feels like my permanent home.
When did you get your citizenship?
I got it at the end of last year and I’ve had my national ID card since February. I used it yesterday for the first time, coming back from Bulgaria, and everyone was looking at me quite suspiciously. (she laughs)
How did you meet Nicusor Dan?
My husband has known Nicusor Dan for 25 years. I’ve known him for 20. Like my husband, he’s a mathematician. He’s from the same generation as my brother-in-law (Andrei Moroianu is a director of research at Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris, and a former gold medalist at international mathematics Olympiads)
He and my husband started the Scoala Normala Superioara, inspired by the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. The goal is to offer elite-level education in mathematics, physics, computer science – several disciplines – in Romania – in Bucharest – so that students stay in the country two or three years after completing their baccalaureate.
The whole idea is to keep students here a few years before they leave the country, since they now have access to first-class education. Spending a few years here, before leaving, can change everything. They are more likely to return, even if they do leave, if they start their post-graduate studies here.
We built this school together, with Nicusor, and we’ve also worked on other projects. Very recently my husband and I talked about other ways I could be involved. So we’ve decided on this course of action together.
Do you think the citizens of Bucharest are ready to vote for a women? A foreign one at that?
I may be from another country, but I’m now a Romanian citizen. So yes, I think so. It’s about the trust they give me as a person, not as a foreigner or as a woman.
I have too much to lose, including a reputation, even in the eyes my family, to get involved in anything undignified.
Tell us about your experience at Distrigaz. (Former state-run natural gas distributor in Southern Romania)
I started in January 2005 and the company was privatized 5 months later in May. We were a small French team who’d come in to bring Distrigaz into private ownership and reorganize the company.
I had a few months to understand what was going on because the privatization process had been delayed. During this time I studied their processes and the way people were working. The moment we had signing authority, we knew what to change to make operations more efficient. We also made sure the rules were being followed. If something wasn’t working out we’d investigate in order to understand where the problem came from.
At the beginning, we basically said: “Okay, the past is the past. Now there are rules that have to be observed. The first rule is ethics. You need to do a reading on a gas meter and the customer has to pay. If there’s any fraudulent activity and the customer isn’t paying, we need to know about it and stop it. Also, a customer has the right to get their gas – any customer – without paying anything on top of their regular fee.“
There were a few who didn’t want to accept these new rules. It was easy to understand why – it was advantageous for them not to follow the program – so I had to fight every step of the way, even with the help of the DNA (Anti-corruption Directorate). A DNA investigator helped us set up stings to catch the people taking bribes…and this had an effect on everyone else. But some were not able to understand that the old jig was up until they were arrested. That’s how we put an end to the way things used to be.
We made sure to take it all the way and today the ethics issues at Distrigaz are nearly all resolved.
There might be a couple of bad apples, operating on their own, but nothing systematic from top to bottom, the way it used to be.
Did you work for other companies in Romania?
I worked in consulting for KPMG in 1999. I was there for over two years helping multinational companies get set up in Romania. I was also involved with Michelin when they came to Romania to take over operations from Tofan.
I have helped foreign investors get their bearing in the Romanian landscape. It’s a different legal and cultural context. These companies were looking for managers who understood the local as well as the corporate culture. I was the manager of the consulting department at KPMG, then I worked at GDF Suez, and I’ve been with Egis Romania since 2013. Egis is an engineering company with infrastructure, environmental, road, and airport projects. I’m the country manager for Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova.
You are ready to give up your manager’s salary for a mayor’s stipend?
I’ve been fortunate to work on large projects, with very large budgets and thousands of people. So yes, I am ready to give up a very good salary for a smaller one.
I want to be clear about it, so I’ll spell it out. I’ve been working for 19 years and I’ve always made a good living. I’m not the kind of person who needs a luxurious lifestyle. I’ve put money away whenever I could, so today I’m quite well off. Because I’ve worked in different countries and didn’t contribute to retirement plans in any one place, my husband and I have always been conscious of the fact that we need to save for the future.
When I’m 60 there won’t be any place to which I’ve contributed for 40 years. I’ve worked in America, Romania, France, and Germany. So we have planned our savings. I can manage four or more years on a much smaller salary than I’m used to.
Why did you accept to run for the Sector 1 job at City Hall?
I’ve been volunteering for many years, since I was very young, in France. I see it as a duty. It is also a privilege. It has shaped me into the person I am today. I try to impart this culture of volunteering to my kids.
You receive, but you have to give back. In France, there would’ve been no Nicușor Dan, so nobody would’ve asked me to get involved. Or maybe there would’ve been. I don’t know. I’ll admit that I’m answering a call here though, a worthy one. And I’m the kind of person who can do what needs to get done.
Have you gone around Sector 1 to talk to people?
Yes, I went to Chitila Triaj. It was a bit of a shock. It’s actually somewhat pretty. Trees in bloom, cute houses, but the roads are not paved, there is no running water, and no connection to the city’s sewage. They’ve got electricity though! (she laughs). It’s an issue.
When I got there, everyone came out of their homes to see what we were doing. They told us all the previous mayors made promises that they never fulfilled. They are now so disappointed they’re thinking of boycotting the vote. It’s a shame. They need to find a candidate whom they trust, instead of giving up.
Have you met your PSD and PNL counterparts?
No, I haven’t met them. But you know what they say? PNL, PDL, PSD – all the big parties can mobilize 150,000 people in Bucharest. They’ve all got that kind of mass appeal. They’re in every government institution, every city hall, and they make a lot of people feel needed. In fact, those people are getting duped. They have a dead-end job, no growth opportunities, nothing, and they’re getting swindled ten times as much as is given to them.
Every vote in Sector 1 is worth 3,000 euros per voter. They give back nothing in exchange for those 3,000 euros.
How did you get that number?
I divided the yearly budget by the number of voters.
You’ve picked a very interesting place to launch your candidacy…
I don’t think the citizens of Bucharest realize what kind of opportunity we have with these lakes. They’ve been abandoned, rejected, and polluted. But they’re unique in Europe. It’s as if you’ve got a gold mine and you’re ignoring it.
If you look at Sector 1 on the map, you’ll notice that these lakes cross it from end to end. It’s amazing. And yet, the only lake people know in Bucharest is Herastrau Lake.
Even if I don’t get the job, my goal is to raise awareness, bit by bit, so that the citizens of Bucharest start to reclaim these lakes. I bet you didn’t know about this treasure trove in the middle of town. It smells foul and it’s polluted now, it’ a shame.
All the new buildings going up are dumping their waste in these lakes. I don’t even know what else I could call it, but it seems to me it’s basically a crime to let this go on. Bucharest has an extraordinary asset that no city in Europe has. And we’re just standing by dumping waste in it.
How long did it take you to learn Romanian? Do you speak it at home?
We speak French at home. Why? The kids are learning Romanian at school, their friends are all Romanians, and so they only get to speak French with me. If they didn’t speak to me they wouldn’t speak French.
I’ve given it my all for Romania, but I want my kids to speak my native language! (she laughs) It would be strange for them to have a French mother and not to speak French.
When we decided to stay here, I realized I had to focus on learning Romanian. I already spoke a bit, but not very well. Even now it’s not quite perfect, but I can write error free. As for speaking, you’ve already noticed that you need to be patient with me. It’s not easy to learn a new language at 42! (she laughs)
Did you take classes or just learn it on the fly?
On the fly and through people’s feedback. I try to change my sentence structure…it’s quite difficult.
When did you come to Romania for the first time?
It was the summer of 1996, exactly twenty years ago. I wasn’t married at the time but I was thinking that if I do marry a Romanian, I’ll have to see his country.
I stayed in Bucharest very briefly and then, on the second day, took the overnight train to the Fagaras Mountains. It was, just…wow! I was very impressed. It was gorgeous. We crossed the Fagaras Mountains in one week and I was left with the impression that Romania was the most beautiful country in the world.
When did you get your first taste of culture shock?
This obviously happens everywhere, even when I moved from France to the US. I was volunteering in the US and I wanted to explain French culture to a group of African-American school kids. They couldn’t quite grasp what France was, what Paris is about.
When I moved to Romania in 1999, everything was disorganized. It was exhausting to accomplish anything at all.
But the people here in Romania are very authentic. You can talk to any one person and feel like you’ve made a real connection.