A meeting with Michel-Henri Carriol, new Member of the Order of Australia
Michel-Henri Carriol is one of those unforgettable personalities. Born in France, he arrived in Australia in 1966. Initially thinking he would stay for a few months, he never left his “adopted homeland”, as he calls it. For over fifty years, he has been everywhere. Firstly a diplomat, then the head of a company, he reinforced the Franco-Australian friendship and on Monday, he was named a Member of the Order of Australia, a prestigious honour which distinguishes worthy citizens. He recalls his extraordinary journey with us.
You were born and completed your studies in Paris. How did come to arrive in Sydney?
My parents were diplomats. As such, I lived outside of France from a very young age, particularly in Germany, Belgium and Libya. I got into Sciences Po, and I arrived in Sydney in 1966, as the sales representative of the French Ambassador, equipped with a diplomatic passport. I had to spend ten months in Australia, before going to ENA upon my return. So my plans changed slightly!
I met a young Australian, and after almost one year in Sydney, I decided to abandon administration, terminate my enrolment at ENA and stay in Australia to enter business. Today I’m still married to the same Australian, and we have two children and two grandchildren.
What were the relations between France and Australia like upon your arrival?
Franco-Australian relations were not well developed in the 1960s. Australia had a few contacts with New Caledonia. Commercial relations were limited due to customs regulations and quotas imposed by Australia. France had all the same sold fighter jets to the Australian army.
During my five years at the French Embassy, I met and was in contact with representatives of hundreds of French companies interested in the Australian market.
I am proud to be able to say that the glass of the Opera House are French, partly because of me! It was my biggest deal during my time at the Embassy. One of the three biggest producers of sheet glass was French. We were competing with an English and an American company. It was necessary to produce triplex glass, made up of white glass on the outside to reflect the light, and a slightly tinted glass inside so as not to blind the visitors. In life, like it’s said here, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I made sure to do that by sending one of the young architects who was working on the site to France to develop and to learn French. When he returned, I subsequently had a contact within the group of Opera House architects, and when technical charges were undertaken, we had some information on the project to prepare our proposition.
After several years working in diplomacy, you gravitated towards business…
After having helped a good number of French companies enter the Australian market, I made the decision to not only settle for some of them, but to fully invest my time. I started as a representative of Société Générale and Dior, one foot in finance and the other in fashion. There was a long way to go. Keep in mind that at the time, on the telephone when I mentioned Dior, people would respond, “Dior? How do you spell it?”
Thereafter, I chose to devote myself to the import and export of French fashion, beauty and health products, as well as spirits. I founded Trimex, an abbreviation of Trading Import Export. As Franco-Australian relations were at a low, I took a chance on safer investments. Fashion items, perfumes, cosmetics and of course, French gastronomy were already being sold fifty years ago.
You celebrated your 54th year in Australia. Have you ever wanted to leave your “adopted homeland”?
No! I love the two countries a lot, for different reasons. I appreciate the role of culture in France, the museums, but also the cities, the mountain… But I particularly like the people in Australia. Australians possess remarkable intrapersonal skills. The quality of life here also convinced me to stay, particularly after the birth of my children.
We had some difficult times, and some very satisfying times. Relations between France and Australia deteriorated after French nuclear tests in the Pacific. My post from France was no longer being distributed. Many businessmen who worked for my company stood down. Clients came into our stores with their young children and accused us of making them sick.
Today I am happy to be able to say that relations between France and Australia are great. Truthfully, it must be noted that this relationship began during the First World War. A lot of Australians died on French territory. That creates ties.
Australia is experiencing its first recession in thirty years, how do you see the months ahead?
I am rather optimistic for Australia. When I arrived in 1966, I was given a book called “The Lucky Country.” There is a reason why this country has such a nickname. The population is relatively low, so the wealth is spread out between a small number of people. Without Covid-19, I don’t think Australia would have gone into a recession. This year, the Australian budget predicted a surplus, and relations with China weren’t complicated. This crisis is changing everything, but I am confident that Australia can overcome this ordeal.
Australia is an agricultural country that could almost be self-sufficient. The autumn rain brings back cultivation, which is a new comfort.
On Monday, you were named a Member of the Order of Australia by the Governor General. A recognition for your commercial activities, but also for your numerous volunteering commitments…
It’s something that touches my heart. When we have success in our career, it’s necessary to help the next person. My wife and I got involved in helping cancer victims. Thirty years ago, we created the association, “Look good, Feel better”, which helps people who have suffered secondary effects of chemotherapy, particularly hair and eyebrow loss. The volunteers, the majority of whom are healthcare professionals, spend their free time at the hospital to counsel and help patients.
I am also invested in Bienfaisance’s Société Française, better known under the name French Assist, of which I preside over the New South Wales branch. We went through difficult times these last few months. I was waking up sometimes in the morning with 40 urgent messages on my answering machine. We had to manage various issues. I met with a lot of young French people who were in a very precarious situation in Australia, being unable to return to France, wives experiencing domestic violence, but also elderly people in difficulty… The situation has improved in the past few weeks, but there are still some urgent cases that we must help.
What does this recognition represent to you?
It’s obviously an honour, to which I remain humble. It’s the result of a work, and several teams. Alone, nothing can be accomplished. I had the chance to be able to lead, which allowed me to invest myself in several projects.
On the Governor General’s seal which issued the award, we can see the golden wattle, a native plant of Australia. It reminds me of the silver wattle that we find in the south of France, where I grew up. The golden wattle and the silver wattle blossom at the same time, 16 000 km apart, one in summer, and the other in winter. I found that was a nice nod to France and Australia, my two countries.
In receiving this honour, I join my wife, who was honoured five years ago. It’s a accolade of a team, both professional and personal.
Translation: Marina Liu