PARIS - She has always wanted this kind of assignment. As far back as she can remember, Mireille Ballestrazzi, 58, has dreamed of a job where “adventure and exercising responsibility” would come together.
In many ways, it has already been her mission for the past 30 years inside the French police force. But now things have reached a whole new level, after Ballestrazzi was selected to be the new president of Interpol.
With a vote last week in Rome by the General Assembly of the International Criminal Police Organisation (ICPO), the French police commissioner will succeed Singaporean Khoo Boon Hui, and in doing so, become the first female president in the history of Interpol.
This international institution was founded in 1923 with the aim of facilitating exchanges between the police forces of the 190 member countries. “A sort of international policewoman,” says Ballestrazzi with a smile. She is the second French head of Interpol, following Ivan Barbot, who serve 1988-1992.
Ballestrazzi has been serving as the Central Assistant Director of the French Judicial Police (DCPJ), the arm of the French police force that deals mainly with law enforcement and crime investigations. She is one of eight women who graduated in 1976 from France’s National Police College (ENSP) which trains commissioners at Saint-Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or in the suburbs of Lyon. Back then, hers was only the second graduating class to welcome women into its ranks.
Frédéric Péchenard, Director General of the National Police until June this year, and Christian Lothion, Central Director of the Judicial Police, had been encouraging Ballestrazzi to apply for the Interpol presidency since 2009.
Strengthened by this internal support, Ballestrazzi’s candidacy was widely welcomed by her colleagues, and since May, Interior Minister Manuel Valls has made no secret of his support for her. Outside the police force, she benefitted from the backing of French security agents in many capital cities and “from the ambassadorial juggernaut.”
“I was put forward by France,” Ballestrazzi says proudly.
Busting art thieves in Japan
Ballestrazzi, who set up the anti-crime squad in Bordeaux upon graduating from ENSP, has spent her entire career in the service of the Judicial Police. Head of the Ajaccio branch in 1993, she came up against underground nationalists in Corsica, but also the Interior Ministry which, under the leadership of Charles Pasqua, was negotiating with these same nationalists in secret.
She then moved to the Montpellier branch of the Judicial Police, before being named head of the Central Bureau against Art Theft. There her perseverance led her all the way to Japan where she recovered four stolen works by 19th century French master Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
This episode helped solidify her current reputation outside of France. “The time I spent as head of this bureau showed me how efficient collaborations with foreign police services and the assistance of Interpol can be,” she said in her application for the post.
Ballestrazzi is by no means in unknown territory at Interpol, whose headquarters are also in Lyon. She became European Vice-President after being appointed to Interpol’s Executive Committee as well as a member of the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s files.
The president of Interpol is not overly involved in the day-to-day running of the institution, a task that falls instead to the Secretary General, Ronald Noble of the U.S.
So what are her priorities for the four years her mandate lasts? To help African nations fight the trafficking networks dealing in precious woods and rhinoceros horns, and to fight cybercrime and corruption in sport. To help face these challenges, Interpol is establishing a new Asian headquarters in Singapore.
The task that awaits, naturally, requires total commitment. But Ballestrazzi will hold her post at the French Judicial Police: her way of keeping in touch with her inner policewoman.