From Palais de l’Élysée to e-Estonia

by Dea Martinjonis October 26, 2017
French PR guy, Estonian Prime Minister

What do the former French President François Hollande, the current Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, and the protagonist of our jobbaticler story — Arnaud Castaignet — have in common? I’ll tell you soon enough.

Frenchman Arnaud (31) has had a very cosmopolitan career for his young age, having lived and worked as a business journalist and PR-consultant in Paris, Istanbul, and Mumbai. “I still feel a very strong connection with Turkey and India,” says Arnaud.

Arnaud lived and worked beside Paris also in Istanbul and Mumbai. “I still feel a very strong connection with Turkey and India,” says Arnaud. One can certainly understand why. Seen here with one of the most famous Indian actresses — Aishwarya Rai.

In 2014 his life took a big turn when he got hired to the communications team of the former French President François Hollande. Two years earlier he’d participated in his presidential campaign as an activist and caught the communications team’s eye. Arnaud worked as the President’s digital strategist and communication officer for three years, covering varied topics like opinion analysis, social benefits, community engagement, digital issues, etc.

”These were three very exciting years, without a day being similar to the next,” says Arnaud, who accompanied Hollande during international conferences, summits and several state visits to the most diverse countries including Iraq, Madagascar, and Colombia.

“There were very joyful moments like the Paris Agreement during the COP21 (2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference), and very difficult ones like the terrorist attacks in Paris,” recalls Arnaud.

French President out, Estonian President in

In December 2016, while several members of the team are actively preparing for the presidential re-election campaign, Francois Hollande suddenly decides not to run for re-election. One week later, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid is on a state visit to France. During the visit, the Open Government Partnership Summit takes place and the French President’s office has organized a hackathon for Open Government and Open Data. President Kaljulaid visits the hackathon and talks about Estonia’s digital society. It is then and there that Arnaud first hears about the Estonian e-Residency program. And decides to follow the e-Residency account and its members on Twitter and LinkedIn. It’s not long before a job advert on Jobbatical for the Head of Public Relations is shared through these accounts. Arnaud applies.

Arnaud with the former French President François Hollande.

The application process itself is smooth and takes exactly one month — Arnaud has two Skype interviews, one with the program’s head Kaspar Korjus and the other with some team members. Five days later he receives a proposal to join the team.

“Obviously, President Kaljulaid doesn’t know this story — how her visit sparked my jobbatical journey — but maybe I’ll have the chance to tell it to her one day,” Arnaud says.

The Cherry on Top of the Cake

Having worked with the president of one of Europe’s superpowers, Estonian e-Residency with its global digital nation-building agenda seemed like a worthy challenge to take on for Arnaud. “I needed to work on something innovative in an unconventional atmosphere. To serve ambitious goals, purpose and a long-term vision. I was terrified of going back to the “normal” working environment,” explains Arnaud.

Arnaud at Startup Istanbul with his boss Kaspar Korjus, the Managing Director of e-Residency and Alex Wellmann, the Head of Marketing at e-Residency (both on the right. Alex, too, is a jobbaticler.

He hadn’t dreamed about Estonia in particular. In fact, he’d contemplated moving to quite a few other places around the globe, the criteria being to find something that would make him think out of the box. Since Arnaud was already interested in all things digital, he was aware of Estonian digital advances and e-Residency served as a cherry on top of the cake.

Governmental Agency Working as a Startup?

Now four months into his job, Arnaud shares his experience. “I love the fact that our workplace and culture are more similar to a startup company than that of a governmental agency. I’m very glad to work for the public sector, but I believe it’s good for a public administration to be as innovative and agile as startups,” Arnaud says.

“Taking a jobbatical has brought me new ideas, inspiration, new ways of thinking and new areas of interest. I have no doubt it will benefit my career a lot,” says Arnaud. Seen here with his colleague and fellow jobbaticler Adam Rang.

Three things that surprised Arnaud, especially as a former French civil servant:

  • all the team members are young and very brilliant;
  • the team is international and you don’t lose your time dealing with hierarchy;
  • everybody is very accessible both in the e-Residency team and in the Estonian governmental administration in general.

“It makes things way more efficient. That was a major frustration in my past job,” says Arnaud. He says it’s been very easy to integrate into his new job and country because his colleagues have been supportive and nice. “I like the fact that we don’t only have professional relations, it’s also great to party with them,” Arnaud says.

Missing French Chit-chat, Loving the Closeness of Nature

Estonia has surprised Arnaud on many levels. “First of all, people are much friendlier here with someone they don’t know compared to Paris where you always need to be introduced by someone. It’s hard to get help in Paris when you don’t know the city whereas people are way nicer here,” claims Arnaud.

He is very fond of the fact that one can be in the forest and nature in less than half an hour. Arnaud likes the easy-going nature of Estonia’s capital Tallinn that has a population of 400K and is easily accessible from one end to another almost by foot. “I love not waking up every morning to the sound of car horns and not having to spend hours in a crowded subway to cross the city.”

Coincidentally, Arnaud spent two weeks in Estonia during the summer of 2016. Visiting its largest islands, national parks, and many cities. “Those Nordic colors and landscapes looked so new to me. I loved it and had great memories of these holidays that sparked a strong interest in Estonia. Who would’ve guessed I would live here less than one year later!”

Arnaud has also turned into a startup aficionado here. “I get to hear about innovative startups every day. Estonia is such a dynamic country and I now want to promote Estonian companies everywhere. I’m very impressed with what I’ve found here.”

“Estonia’s digital society is very unique, as well as e-Residency program itself. The idea of providing equal opportunities to everyone from anywhere in the world by democratizing the access to entrepreneurship is very ambitious and will not only improve the lives of individuals but also benefit their families, their communities, and their countries. It could make the world a better place and I am very proud to be contributing to reaching this goal of financial inclusion worldwide.”

“For someone like me who is very interested in international politics, public policies and digital issues, it is amazing to be able to work for the Estonian e-Residency program,” Arnaud says. Seen here with the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

But naturally, not all is peaches and cream. “I have to admit the weather is very challenging for me,” Arnaud admits. “Also, coming from Paris, other cities are always a bit frustrating regarding the lack of museums and exhibitions. Sometimes I also miss spending hours on a terrace discussing and passionately arguing over the most pointless things imaginable with my friends. French chit-chat is pretty unique and usually involves politics, love, literature and/or holidays.”

Crypto Tokens and Champagne

As Arnaud had wished, he is definitely thinking out of the box in his job and learning new things every day. “Since I arrived in Estonia, I’ve dived into topics that I didn’t know anything about. Be it blockchain, crypto tokens or ICO (Initial coin offering). It’s what I love about this job,” says Arnaud.

Arnaud has also turned into a startup aficionado here. “I get to hear about innovative startups every day. Estonia is such a dynamic country and I now want to promote Estonian companies everywhere.”

Arnaud has also learned that in Estonia meetings must be efficient and finish exactly when they are supposed to finish. “The French people tend to be less straight-forward and more diplomatic at work, that is why it is not unusual to finish a meeting without any decisions being taken,” the Frenchman remarks.

Go Bordeaux or Go Home

Half-French and half-Cambodian, Arnaud was raised in Bordeaux. It is only natural that every party at Arnaud’s place involves some Bordeaux wine and he’s shared his passion with his colleagues. “Especially the ones from Haut-Médoc and Saint-Emilion,” he adds.

As any Frenchman, Arnaud has strict principles regarding food. “Just to name a few: no cream in risotto or pasta carbonara, cheese with unpasteurized milk tastes way better; Champagne is a controlled and registered designation of origin, not a synonym for “sparkling wine”(even if I do appreciate drinking crémant, cava or prosecco as much as I like drinking champagne); and — I know it will be controversial here but I am ready to fight for my ideas and beliefs — you should not put pineapple on a pizza,” lists Arnaud.

Amen, I say as a fellow foodie and wine lover. Because all this SHOULD be followed.

Arnaud has one last and important note on food in Estonia. “Some restaurants here are some of the best ones I’ve been to in my entire life. The food culture here has positively surprised me by the amount of organic and local products being used.”

“Coincidentally, Arnaud spent two weeks in Estonia during summer of 2016. Visiting its largest islands, national parks and many cities. “Those Nordic colours and landscapes looked so new to me. I loved it and had great memories of these holidays that sparked a strong interest in Estonia. Who would’ve guessed I would live here less than one year later!””

Arnaud is half-French and half-Cambodian and grew up in France.

What advice would you give to someone considering a jobbatical, too?

“I’d tell this person not to hesitate too long. Any experience abroad brings a lot of value to your career but also your personality. Also, I advise not to look at the usual destinations. The fast-moving business world is becoming more decentralized. People have better access to information and knowledge, and the world does not lack innovative ideas. Revolutionary projects may have come from Silicon Valley, New York or London in the past but they will soon be born in Lagos, Medellin or Bangalore. Just as Tallinn is now hosting revolutionary projects like e-Residency.”

Inspired by Arnaud’s story? Why don’t you snatch a dream jobbatical of your own?

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