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Jean-Claude Trichet (4): The crossroads of my education

I'd like to talk a little about my mother, Georgette. She was an independent stenographer, and she often went to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to work. She would come home with rolls of paper filled with cryptic scribbles and quickly type them out into text. She kept her own hours and worked very hard.

   She was always telling us to treat everybody with respect and courtesy. For her, people who neglected and disparaged other people were failures as humans. She had a great capacity for empathy and was always caring for those who were in need. I certainly owe her a lot: She made me aware of the fact that the most important thing in dealing with other people -- whatever their position or responsibilities -- is to treat them with consideration.

   My mother was born in Chambery in the Savoy region of the Alps. Although I visited my father's birthplace of Brittany more frequently, I also visited Savoy many times. Walking from the villa at Saint-Jeoire-en-Faucigny to the summit of a mountain named Le Mole to watch the sunrise was paradise. Gathering cyclamen flowers and eating wild bilberries are vivid memories from that time.

War stories    

In Savoy, I listened to dramatic war stories from my mother's brother Jean Vincent-Carrefour, who ran a leather factory. My uncle was in the French Resistance. He was captured by the Nazis and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in central Germany in the fall of 1943, where he stayed for nearly two years until August 1945.

 

Taken at my elementary school in Paris at around age 9. I am seated third from right in the front row.

  An overwhelming proportion of prisoners died there. He was forced to dig tunnels nearby in the underground factory of Dora, where V2 rockets were manufactured. Losing your shoes at night in the concentration camp was an invitation to foot infections and death. A single bowl of soup was the difference between life and death. I heard about trials and tribulations, but he was tight-lipped about exactly what it was really like in the concentration camp.

  Still, my uncle made a point of differentiating between the Nazis and the German people. "It was a terrible experience, but I want the people of France and Germany to take the path of lasting peace," he repeatedly said. I think the postwar reconciliation between Germany and France, which was led by General Charles de Gaulle, as far as France was concerned, was in line with the majority judgment of the people who lived through that painful period, and certainly with my uncle's vision.

     Of course, the burning memories of the abominable behavior of the Nazis toward the Jews, and their brutal occupation of Europe remained. But the people of France and Germany had to establish friendship and build the foundations of enduring peace.

     Like other boys, I was naughty and adventurous. When I was 7, I flew off a stack of chairs and broke the two bones of my forearm. They took two months to heal completely. With my right arm immobilized, I was forced to use my left.

     The incident brought me close to a teacher named Ms. Bouchineau, who had a big influence on me. She would encourage me, saying, "No matter the situation, study as if the world depended on it." During the time I had the broken arm, she praised me for getting the best grades in the class despite being impaired, and for quickly learning to write with my left hand.

Tragedy strikes    

I was good at French, Latin and math, but in junior high school my main interest was physics. On the first exam, I had the best score in the class and gained momentum. I embarked on math and physics studies in mathematiques superieures at Lycee Condorcet. Then a dramatic event occurred.

    When I was 16, my father suddenly died. He fell from a window in our second home in Brittany, injuring his spinal cord. Following that, he had an embolism and passed away. My grief was immeasurable.

     As the oldest son among three siblings in a family that had lost its breadwinner, I had to put the highest priority on the financial security of the family. Rather than studying for two more years in mathematiques speciales, I limited myself to one year and went to the Ecole des Mines in Nancy, resolved to start working as quickly as possible. I was at a crossroads of my career.

Jean-Claude Trichet is former president of the European Central Bank.  

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