French Ambassador: French Companies More than Satisfied with Bulgaria
Novinite has interviewed H.E. Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes, who apart from English, German and Portuguese is also fluent in Bulgarian. This is not surprising, since between 1991 and 1995 he worked at the French Embassy in Sofia and is, moreover, married to a Bulgarian.
De Cabanes has graduated from the Institut d'?dutes politiques du Paris. The diplomatic missions in which he has taken part include ones to Cyprus, Brazil and Djibouti.
The French Ambassador to Bulgaria was picked by readers of Novinite's Bulgarian-language service as 2014 Personality in the News in the Diplomacy section.
Mr Ambassador, 20 years ago you came to Bulgaria to work here as a press attach? at the French Embassy. What has changed since then?
Bulgaria has changed, mostly because it has become a democratic country: institutions are stabilized and functioning, there are elections... Despite deficiencies (as in all countries, [here they are] undoubtedly more than in some but less than in many others), there is no doubt about the nature of the political regime in which Bulgarians wish to live. There is no will for "reinstatement", unlike what could have happened in mid-1990s: the government of [former PM] Zhan Videnov was the evidence that the path was wrong following the cabinet of Lyuben Berov which did nothing to prevent the boom of organized crime and corruption.
Another serious change: Bulgaria is a full member of the European family: 20 years ago, Bulgaria aspired to join NATO and the European Union. Currently it is a member of these two organizations and participates fully in building Europe at a political level. By the way, Bulgaria will chair the Council of the European Union ministers in [the second half of] 2018.
And how has Europe changed within that time?
Europe changed mostly because it enlarged itself: 20 years ago there was hesitation about the enlargement. Many Europeans, including many in France, were opposed to it on two grounds: there were fears the EU would not be able to go on with its unity and, to the contrary, will fall apart, as well as fears of migrant influx of people who would fail to integrate in the "rich" Western European countries.
What happened was the contrary. First, the process of European construction deepened: in the past 20 years we created the Euro, the Schengen area, a more united common space for justice (with the European Arrest Warrant), we developed a mobility policy for students, not only through the Erasmus program, but mostly with the harmonization of diplomas, we have energy policy which indeed has to be deepened, which prevented pressure from Russia to impose on Bulgaria the conditions for construction of South Stream. We have common climate change policies, a neighborhood policy, regardless of whether applied to ex-Soviet Union states or Southern Mediterranean ones... And policies which existed before - in fishing, agriculture, customs - continue to exist and be strengthened. Therefore this fear proved groundless.
About the second one, for everyone it is evident that the presence in old member states of ex-Communist states' citizens is of an exceptional benefit, and in practice there was no "influx" of poor citizens to rich EU states. There are migration waves, but in many cases people return to their homes with a better professional preparation and or with a diploma. Most of all, these movements of people contribute to the creation of a European spirit which is a basic factor for the future of our energy continent. Therefore, this fear was also groundless.
Which is the biggest threat to Europe presently, in the context of the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen?
With globalization ongoing, everything is possible, the world has no borders anymore, everything finds it easier to move - ideas, people, information, capitals, goods... But threats as well. Nobody could think they are protected. This is the truth, we have to realize it in order to protect ourselves better and fight wrongdoers.
Which are the biggest threats to Bulgaria on an international level, in your opinion?
Terrorism is not the only risk, on the contrary: wars between states are still possible, even though they are a rare thing. We witnessed this close to our European Union in 2008, and in Ukraine last autumn. Only if they are united can Europeans prevent the spreading of this kind of threats. NATO helps us, it is true, but first we have to realize that what is threatening one of the EU members could also be a threat to others: a basic principle of the European Union is solidarity.
What are the chances for Bulgaria to enter the Schengen area?
Bulgaria is bound to join the Schengen area. France agrees in principle. But the decision has to be taken unanimously and each one of the member states of this space has to agree. Not to be a member of the Schengen area, however, is not so big a disadvantage, since Bulgarians can move freely across Europe - just like the English, who are not Schengen members.
Speaking of the domestic situation in Bulgaria, you have pointed to corruption in the judiciary, but what would restore your trust in the judicial system?
I look on things as the vast part of Bulgarians do, who according to surveys do not trust the judiciary.
The problem is that trust is won in the long-term and is lost very quickly.
In that sense, apropriate measures were taken long ago like the removal of evidently corrupt people from the judicial system and the adoption in Parliament of the strategy for judicial reform. As the Commission put it in its report about [Bulgaria's] progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism [CVM], he have to see in time if the system will continue to set itself free of members who are not worthy to bring justice in the name of the Bulgarian people and if the adopted strategy will lead quickly to concrete measures wo that we avoid cases like this which I had to deal with in December [more about the case Mr De Cabes is referring to is available here] - or like the "disappearance" of Evelin Banev.
What are Bulgaria's most serious problems?
The main problem of Bulgaria is the weak presence of a state led by the rule of law: corruption is not ubiquitous, but has a strong presence in institutions that should otherwise fight this phenomenon. Opinion polls show Bulgarians do not hold much trust in the judicial system, in the parliament and in the political class in general. But citizens are now determined to control their political system, which is the evidence of a viable democracy: this is why they opposed in 2013 the appointment on an oligarch at the top of the national security service.
What are the priorities of your work as an ambassador here?
Like every ambassador I have the purpose of strengthening the bonds between France and Bulgaria in all areas. This is exactly why one of the directions of my work is related to making my compatriots more familiar with the advantages of the Bulgarian market: the export and investment opportunities in Bulgaria have to be perceived like an opportunity for the French companies and, more generally, my compatriots have to get accustomed to visiting your country which abounds with tourist landmarks, cultural ones in particular. [At the end of my term] I will have the impression of a job well done if mistrust and ignorance of many French people about Bulgaria disappear.
How would you recommend Bulgaria in your country?
Bulgaria is a calm and dynamic country. The population is educated, open, hospitable, cheerful and the French people immediately feel at home. Mountain landscapes are splendid, monasteries and archaeological landmarks show the vast historic richness of this country, and it is precisely the past of an old nation - like France. The economic advantages are numerous and well-known: low taxation, well-prepared workforce, EU membership, proximity to the Turkish market, ties to Russia. French enterprises have embarked on investment in Bulgaria and are more than satisfied.
If you had to describe what Bulgaria is for you in three words, what would they be?
Well... my compatriots would say "Emil Kostadinov, umbrella and yoghurt". And as for me, I would need a little more words to describe your so rich country that is hard to describe in three words.
But I will try: Maria (my wife), the Rhodope Mountains, Seuthes!
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