What do these people have in common: Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, celebrated actress Isabelle Huppert, French President Francois Mitterrand, U.S. Navy Admiral Frank Bowman, and Atlanta Mayor’s Office of International Affairs Director Vanessa Ibarra?
They are all recipients of the French National Order of Merit (Ordre national du Mérite) awarded by the President of France. Ibarra now holds the rank of knight for her efforts in advancing the relationship between the country and the City of Atlanta.
Ibarra, who has worked in the mayor’s office for seven years, said she had to read the email she received three times – and even sent it to a friend – to comprehend that she’d received the prestigious honor.
“I’m a knight now,” Ibarra said incredulously. “Who gets knighted these days in this century?”
Ibarra’s connection to France dates to her childhood. Born in Venezuela, her family moved to the country just after her birth when her father took a job there. Her two siblings were also born in France.
“I thought my father was French,” she recalled. “He insisted we speak French. Even after we moved when I was 6, my parents believed it was extremely important to have French language and schooling. They kept us in it no matter where we moved, including Mexico and finally the U.S.”
Ibarra attended Georgia State University, where she studied abroad – in France, of course – and received her master’s degree in international business.
Her career trajectory had her working in French trade and investment role, before she joined the city in 2015. She ascended to her current directorial position when her mentor Claire Angelle left the position.
Ibarra said she was proud of her accomplishments in fostering the city’s startup exchange program with French sister city Toulouse and in Atlanta being named a “French Tech Hub” for startups looking to expand in North America.
“When I look at this medal, I feel an immense sense of pride and respect for what it stands for, for the personal journey to get here and smile because I know that none of the work that I have done throughout the years would be possible without the commitment and support of all those here,” she said.
Ibarra received her knighthood during a recent celebration at the French Consul General Vincent Hommeril’s residence. It was bestowed on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron and Ambassador Philippe Etienne.