What does London lawyer Peter Alfandary have in common with so disparate, albeit luminous, a group of individuals as acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese, round-the-world yachtsman Peter Goss and Arsenal's double-winning manager, Arsene Wenger? The answer is not that Alfandary does their legal work, but that this Thursday he will join them in having been awarded France's highest decoration, the Legion d'Honneur.
Alfandary is "absolutely thrilled" to be receiving the award, which will be given to him by the French Ambassador at a reception in London. The Legion d'Honneur was created by Napoleon in May 1802 and was first bestowed two years later. The head of Napoloen is on the front of the medal, which is awarded either for gallantry in military action or in recognition of twenty years distinguished service in military or civilian life that enhances the reputation of France.
Peter Goss received his award for turning back in heavy seas to rescue fellow competitor Raphael Dinelli in the 1996 Vendee Globe Challenge, a 27,000 mile around the world race through some of the most treacherous waters in the world. Wenger's feats for Arsenal are as well-known as his players' problems with referees, and Scorsese has thrilled film-goers for years with classics such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and, most recently, The Gangs of New York. What, then, has Alfandary done to find himself in such exulted company?
Urbane and cosmopolitan, Alfandary is clearly delighted to be receiving the award, if – initially, at least - a little English in his appraisal of why it has been bestowed upon him. He agrees, with archetypal English understatement, that "yes, it is pretty unusual for a foreigner to get it," and says that he had no idea that it might ever come his way. But a look at the website of top twenty global law firm Reed Smith, where Alfandary is a partner, shows that this is not the first time he has been honoured by the French government. In 1991 he was decorated as a Chevalier dans L'Ordre National du Merite for services to Anglo-French relations.
The website gives another clue. Alfandary heads up Reed Smith's French group – a team of up to 15 bilingual lawyers that advises on French corporations investing and doing business in the U.K. – but also finds time to be the Deputy President of the French Chamber of Commerce, with which he has been involved for over 21 years. His affinity with all things French dates from the age of four, when his parents sent him to the French Lycee, and early on in his legal career Alfandary realised that his perfect French was potentially a major asset.
Not, though, that mere fluency is enough. Alfandary insists that the art of a good bilingual lawyer is in understanding and explaining cultural differences as much as legal ones. The French, he says, are "much more direct" and expect a similarly open approach from their lawyers. There are so many differences between the French and English legal systems that Alfandary believes it is vital "not to answer just the questions the client has asked, but the ones that haven't been asked as well."
Answering those questions so well is what has led to Alfandary being surely one of the only English lawyers (if not the only) ever to receive the Legion d'Honneur. He has the diplomat's skill of combining charm and authority, though his choice of transport to Reed Smith's Bankside offices is unlikely to be shared by London's diplomats, French or otherwise: Alfandary drives a blue and white Citroen 2CV, which he bought for £300. He waxes lyrical about driving in to work in his 2CV, listening to a recently reissued recording of Albert Camus reading one of the classic novels of existentialist fiction, L'Etranger. And, asked what receiving the Legion d'Honneur means to him, Alfandary eventually decides on the Gallic. After some hesitancy, he has this to say: "I could never have imagined getting such an honour. It's the highlight of my legal career. It's absolutely fantastic and I'm very proud. There's no point being English about it."