ABU DHABI // Jean-Yves de Cara, the executive director of the Paris-Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, laughs when asked where he comes from.
"Yorkshire," he jokes, before rattling off in his unmistakably French accent a list of his favourite places in England. His quip is not quite as far-fetched as it seems - as a boy, Prof de Cara lived for a month each year in York, in northern England, to attend a local college - and it highlights a curious paradox about him. The eminent lawyer says he is "totally Anglophile". He is a member of a barristers' chambers and a club in London.
Yet he has a sense of style that could only be French, and the very raison d'etre of the institution he runs is to offer an alternative to the Anglo-American model of higher education that currently holds sway internationally. Prof de Cara believes people here are attracted to "something that's different" from the English-speaking institutions. While acknowledging it has been difficult to set up a French-speaking university in a part of the world where most people do not speak the language, he believes the signs so far, with 500 students enrolled, are that "it's a successful project".
"The fact we have this number of students to me is very significant," he says. The difference between the French and English higher education systems goes far beyond language, according to the 59-year-old. They are based, he says, on different ways of thinking. "The focus is more on synthesis with a more concise presentation of ideas," he says of the French way. "We have a tendency more to conceptualise than to analyse. This is particularly true for lawyers.
"If you deal with a legal point in England, you will say this is the case and list one, two, three, four and five points. "A French lawyer would look at the case and [regardless of] whether there are 10 or 15 points, will say they see two main aspects, two ideas to explain these points. The approach and presentation is different." Prof de Cara was appointed executive director of the Paris-Sorbonne Abu Dhabi in September last year, taking charge 12 months after being made administrative director.
The university, which was launched in 2006, recently moved into a new campus on Reem Island. He had been head of the institution's law department, having joined, not from the Sorbonne, but via the Université Paris Descartes, which was brought in as a partner on the Abu Dhabi project to provide law courses. Originally from Lyon, Prof de Cara took his PhD in his home city and was invited to work under a British lawyer who went on to become Lord Slynn of Hadley, a Law Lord in his home country.
"He was a great lawyer with this unique legal mind that England produces," says Prof de Cara. "I was very fortunate to work with him in his chambers and to draft judgments for the European Court of Justice." His work with Lord Slynn led to Prof de Cara being invited to join Essex Court Chambers, one of the most prestigious barristers' chambers in London, from where he practised. "I used to come back every weekend to France to do classes," he says. "I used to teach on Saturday morning, which probably wasn't very popular with my students. Then on Sunday evening I would go back to London to go to work on Monday."
Teaching law in France while practising law in England was, he says, "a very stimulating combination". In 1994 he moved back to France when he was appointed a professor of international law, although he also had spells teaching in some of the world's top institutions across the globe, among them King's College, Cambridge, King's College London, Durham University and the University of Georgia. He also taught in universities in Germany, Spain and Switzerland and was appointed a judge ad hoc at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, sitting in a case brought by the Congo against France. He expects to return to The Hague in September when the case resumes.
The list of other cases he has worked on is suitably colourful. In 2003, he worked as a lawyer in Iraq, again alongside Lord Slynn, and they succeeded in getting the People's Mujahedin of Iran removed from the UK and EU lists of terrorist organisations. He was also a member of the legal team of Jacob Zuma, the South African president who was accused of corruption and rape, and spoke on behalf of the Moroccan government at the United Nations in relation to the Western Sahara.
Also, he has been visiting Iraq recently again to provide advice to the authorities there on the development of their legal system. "It's dangerous so it's quite exciting," he says of his visits to the country. "And we may have some professors of law in Iraq coming here in Abu Dhabi [for training]." Prof de Cara firmly believes that his work as an academic and as a practising lawyer, "enrich each other". Those who work only as university professors, he believes, may find it harder to show their students what things are like in the real world of the courtroom.
"The students will become practising lawyers, so if you can give them some practical examples it is useful," he says. "On the other hand, when you only practice, sometimes you may lose touch with principles. "If you're an academic as well as a practitioner, you know of the theoretical debates, of developments in new fields of law, nuclear or environmental or IT, or you may invent or form another theoretical basis for your work. You may find answers there. This is very useful in practice."
One case he remembers particularly was passed to him by a client who believed the solution lay in EU law. Prof de Cara surprised them by saying that instead civil law was key to their case. "If you're an academic, you look at problems with some distance and therefore you can bring your clients to another approach to the case," he says. firstname.lastname@example.org For more profiles from this series, go to www.thenational.ae/people