Marie Monique Steckel : Curiosity Across Cultures

Marie-Monique Steckel has been President of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York since 2004. As Steckel prepares to move on from her 17-year leadership of FIAF, the Sciences Po American Foundation would like to pay her homage with an alumni portrait. In this interview, Steckel reflects on her career, how curiosity has propelled her life, and what her next steps may be.

Steckel studied Public Service at Sciences Po Paris, graduating in 1962. During her years of higher education, she studied Soviet politics at the Yale Graduate School of Political Science. At Yale, Steckel met her American husband. “That is when my life turned upside down,” says Steckel. The couple married in 1962 and in 1964 moved to New York, where Steckel began her long career building bridges between France and the United States.

Steckel has a knack for starting new ventures. She founded the French Industrial Development Agency in the United States, as well as France Telecom North America, and later worked with Ronald S. Lauder, the son of Estée Lauder. Under Jacques Chirac, she was the National Director of Communication at the creation of the Le Rassemblement pour la République. Steckel continued her career trajectory into the presidency of FIAF, and with energy and vision, she transformed the somewhat sleepy institution into a dynamic destination for all things Franco-American.

Steckel credits her time at Sciences Po with igniting her curiosity about the world. “I felt that it was an amazing opening of ideas, and it was a big shift in my life, as I had come from a purely academic household in Paris.”

Curiosity, originality, and a desire for exploration have driven Steckel throughout her career. “I am a risk taker, and I am fearless,” she says. “I am leaving FIAF so that I can take on new projects. Having done so many things, I want to bring my experience to socially impactful projects in the arts or education.”

At FIAF, Steckel manages 50 employees, 70 teachers, an annual budget of $12 million, and essential fundraising campaigns to keep French culture alive. Since 1898, FIAF has worked to promote the traditions, values, and language of France. Its headquarters, in a 1920s Beaux Arts building on East 60th Street, is a powerful magnet for anyone who wants to learn French, soak up French culture, celebrate young artists, or meet leading French and Francophone thinkers, cinema directors, authors, and celebrities. “We work on bringing things that are uniquely French to New York,” says Steckel.

“What Sciences Po gave me was the self confidence to navigate different careers,” says Steckel. “I’ve changed careers nine times. Sciences Po gave me the agility to go from industrial development, to telecommunications, to Eastern Europe, and from there to cultural programming, and even into politics… Sciences Po gives you the freedom to believe that you can do anything.”

Steckel will continue to explore the world and new opportunities even as her time at FIAF comes to an end. “I want to be in the river, to flow with the current. I do not want to be on the riverbank, watching the water pass me by,” she says.

As Steckel reflects on the river of her work and education, she leaves behind a piece of wisdom for the younger fish: “I think the best advice is to be curious. Curious about people, curious about cultures. The motor of my life is curiosity. It is something that should be fostered and promoted. Don’t be afraid to jump in.”

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