Updated: Jul 7, 2022
I first met with Michel Carpentier in the distant 1983 when I was the Chairman of the Research Group of the Council which was charged with preparing the decision for the first European Program for Strategic Information Technologies, ESPRIT.
My first strong impression and the start of my appreciation of his qualities, was of his resilient drive towards the goals which he had set as if none of the (quite awesome) European bureaucracy of the time could or should stop him from achieving them.
This first impression was strengthened further by noticing the respect that Etienne Davignon ( Vice President of the Commission and Michel’s hierarchical “boss”) had for him. Davignon, a “superhero” of the time affectionately called “Stevie Wonder”, seemed to listen to Michel carefully and with rare attention.
As time passed, I came to know more and more of the impressive range of Michel Carpentier’s qualities. Indefatigable, he would delve into a mountain of dossiers (it was still the pre-digital era !) whose mere size would intimidate most men. He did so with gusto, “decorating” the memos, letters and proposals he received with remarks that ranged from the caustic to the benevolently humorous.
He possessed the ability (it took me years to understand how rare this was) to process an enormous amount of information and retain the most important bits which he then remembered for a long time. Coming from academia, I had been trained to read books and research papers, slowly and carefully, while taking notes to be revisited later. It was Michel that first remarked to me, with his inimitable smile he reserved for such occasions, that if I continued in this fashion with Commission dossiers I would be inundated and eventually rendered useless.
My first debt to him, one of many, was that he helped me learn how to navigate effectively in a bureaucracy that I slowly came to know, understand and (only partly!) justify.
As Head of Unit of Basic Research and then Director of ESPRIT, I knew that I was working for a Director General who was not simply my hierarchical superior but also a mentor and a friend. He helped me navigate between several Scylla and Charybdis situations (including the creation of the World Wide Web Consortium) which I doubt I would have survived without his wise (and yes, cunning at times) counsel.
Besides, professional relations, personal friendship and love begin with some sort of chemistry (there are even quantum physics based theories today!) but need time and nurturing to come to full blossom and maturity.
I guess the chemistry (quantum or otherwise) was there from the start but what I am really grateful for is that it did have the opportunity to grow into something both sturdy and beautiful.
We had many opportunities to spend wonderful times together, and with our families, not only in Brussels but also in Santorini, Ouranoupolis, Lemnos , Moncaret and elsewhere. These memories and the smiles (Michel’s, Annick’s, the boys’s ) remain indelible so as to be cherished. They say that true friendships throughout a lifetime can be measured by the fingers of our hands, sometimes just one hand. Our friendship was one such.
Michel Carpentier was a great man gifted with charisma and strength tempered by kindness.
Lucky are those that have been or will be blessed with the friendship of such a man in their lifetimes.