France Ambassador to Sofia: Bulgaria Needs Better Image with French Investors

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | July 30, 2008, Wednesday // 00:00
Bulgaria France Ambassador to Sofia: Bulgaria Needs Better Image with French Investors: France Ambassador to Sofia: Bulgaria Needs Better Image with French Investors France's Ambassador to Sofia Mr. Etienne de Poncins. Photo by Nadya Kotseva (Sofia Photo Agency)

The French Ambassador to Sofia Etienne de PONCINS was born in 1964. He is married, with three children. He is a graduate of the ENA (college for senior civil servants) (Jean Monnet class of 1990) and holds a diploma from the IEP (Political Studies Institute) in Paris (1984). Before coming to Bulgaria, Etienne de Poncins served at the Director of the cabinet of the French EU Affairs Minister (2005-2007). In 2003-5 he was the Speaker of France's Permanent Representation in the EU in Brussels. In 2002-3 Mr de Poncins was a member of the European Convention Secretariat. In 1999-2002 Mr de Poncins was the Deputy Head of the French Embassy in Warsaw. In 1995-1999 he served at a counselor at the French Permanent Representation to the European Union.

Interview by Ivan Dikov

Question: Your Excellency, a few days ago we had an anniversary - one year since the return of the Bulgarian medics, who were jailed in Libya. France, the President Sarkozy, and even his former wife Cecilia were especially committed to the resolving of this case. How exactly did France manage to achieve the release of the nurses?

Answer: I believe we explained well what exactly happened. There was no set price to be paid. These were the collective efforts of the European community in order to release the nurses and the doctors. But there definitely was an insistence on part of the French President Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia, and practically we offered Libya to regain its due place in the international community. And this is what happened because now Libya is our partner in the Mediterranean region. And as concerns the nurses, I met with them yesterday, and we talked about their current life.

Q: How would you comment on the way they live now, and their claims that the Bulgarian government had abandoned them, and that only France cared about them?

A: Their legal status is rather complicated because their Libyan sentences have not been repealed, and this does not allow them to travel in a number of countries, for example. Unlike other hostages, who have all their civil rights reinstated when they are released, their situation is more specific because their sentences have not been repealed. They cannot travel in Arab countries, for example.

Q: So there was no political deal, and the only think Libya received was the right to reclaim its status as a full-fledged member of the international community?

A: Yes, international recognition, and compensations for the other side of this tragedy - the infected Libyan children.

Q: And who paid these compensations?

A: This was a whole mechanism, which was managed by the European Commission, and which became possible through numerous negotiations.

Q: How does this reconcile with the fact that Libya did not become a full member of the Mediterranean Union?

A: No, Libya is a full member. It is just that Mr. Quaddafi decided not to attend the founding meeting in Paris on July 13, and sent his foreign minister instead. But this was Libya's decision.

Q: Last week the EC released its monitoring reports on Bulgaria and Romania, in which Bulgaria was severely criticized for failing to deal with corruption and organized crime, and for its failure to absorb EU funds. What were the reactions in France to the so described problems in Bulgaria as a EU member?

A: You know that this is a long-term process - Bulgaria and Romania are under the supervision of the EC through such regular reports. This report was widely discussed in Paris as in the other European capitals. These things that the Commission says are correct and balanced. Now it is the turn of the Bulgarian authorities to respond to this criticism, which is formulated in the report.

Q: With this criticism in mind, was the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU a mistake, or perhaps premature?

A: No, Bulgaria has its place in the EU and its membership is very positive on the one hand. It is a member of the European family. Of course, it has certain difficulties - those described in the report. But we here collectively are determined to help it so that it can solve these issues.

Q: Is there a lesson from the Bulgarian case for the EU and for France? How is it going to affect the further enlargement of the Union?

A: The enlargement is another topic. It is following its course with Croatia and Turkey but there is one thing for sure - countries need to be well-prepared in order to join the EU.

Q: During PM Stanishev's recent visit to Paris, President Sarkozy promised to send one of his advisors to help with the work of the newly created Bulgaria State National Security Agency DANS. How is this help going to be realized, and what can we expect from it? Is France trying to help Bulgaria to deal with corruption and organized crime in this way?

A: During PM Stanishev's visit we could conclude that our two countries had very close relations. We signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement, which includes provisions on interior affairs. We like a lot the new institution DANS, what it does, and its Director Mr. Sertov. We already have an expert working in the Interior Ministry, and we could send him to DANS but there are some technical details that need to be resolved.

Q: How exactly is this advisor in DANS going to help?

A: He could provide advice and he could help with the organization of the work but the substance of the work must be performed by the Bulgarian authorities.

Q: One of the four priorities of the French Presidency of the EU is energy policy. In this respect is France worried by EU's energy dependence on Russia? Where does France see the solution of this problem - in nuclear energy, alternative fuels, renewable sources, the Nabucco gas pipeline or something else?

A: Energy is one of our priorities but rather with respect to the connection between energy and climate, and the perspectives to reduce the Greenhouse gas emissions. We know that Bulgaria has the ambition to become a center for the redistribution of energy resources, and we are really happy about that. We are also happy about the fact that Bulgaria puts an emphasis on the development of nuclear energy because we believe that it is environment friendly.

Q: Still, mostly Eastern European states are heavily dependent on Russia for their energy. To what extend is this a problem for France?

A: France has had a policy of diversifying its energy providers for a long time. It imports energy resources from Russia but from Norway and Algeria as well.

Q: Turkey suspended the negotiations for the joining of Gas de France to the Nabucco gas transit pipeline consortium over the French recognition of the Armenian genocide. In this situation can France support Nabucco, and does it want to support it?

A: The large French company GDF did want to participate in Nabucco, and this was indeed blocked by Turkey but we were supported by all other participants including Bulgaria. We regret Turkey's decision because GDF is one of the greatest gas suppliers in Europe even though it is not going to take part in Nabucco. It recently signed a contract with Bulgargaz so it is going to remain in the region.

Q: In this situation is France going to take any steps to help secure the supplies for Nabucco?

A: Since we were got excluded from the project, they cannot ask us now to assist them to fill the pipeline. But GDF has very interesting projects for cooperation with Bulgaria.

Q: What is the purpose of the Mediterranean Union, which was recently founded at the initiative of President Sarkozy? Despite all guarantees given to Turkey isn't its main point to divert Turkey from its aspirations for EU membership?

A: We have stated a number of times - the Mediterranean Union is a separate project, and it is not a competitor to the European Union, so to say. Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan was in Paris at its founding, and he understood very well what it was about.

Q: Another main priority of the French Presidency is the development of the Common Security Policy of the EU. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the USA still remains the main if not the only guardian of the borders and the security in Eastern Europe. When can we expect to see the EU led by states like France able to guarantee on its own the security of all its members?

A: I think we need to distinguish between the different levels here. As concerns the common, general security in Europe, it is provided by NATO, and by the way a large number of the EU member states are also members of NATO. On the other hand, the EU needs to assume its responsibility in order to secure the periphery around its borders, and we know there are already a number of such operations. The two organizations complement each other rather than compete. What we propose in our priorities is to improve the efficiency of EU's military missions. We need to do several things so we can deploy troops more quickly, and to become more efficient.

Q: What does France think about the possibility of transferring its nuclear arsenal to the EU together with Great Britain?

A: We have not reached this phase yet. We are advancing step by step. Plus, I am not sure that there has been any request from the EU for such thing. But in a long-term perspective - why not? As we have often said - the security of our neighbors is very important for us, and it is part of our first-rate interests. You know that when your primary interests are at stake, we can then afford to use nuclear weapons.

Q: The French Presidency of the EU in fact has a fifth priority - the successful ratification of the Lisbon Reform Treaty, which was recently rejected by the Irish in a referendum. Its predecessor, the Constitutional Treaty was rejected by the French and the Dutch voters in 2005. What is it about these contracts that scares off the citizens of Western European states?

A: For the time being the process is very clear. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is moving on. So far 22 or 23 countries have ratified it. By the end of the year they will most likely reach 26. And now we expect from our Irish friends to tell us how they see the things. You know that President Sarkozy was in Ireland to see what they think of doing. And the Irish prime minister is expected to come to France in October with specific ideas about how to unfreeze the situation. The choice is simple. We either remain with the Nice Treaty, or we move on to the Lisbon Treaty. If we choose Nice, this would mean an end to the enlargement because with the institutions we have now, we cannot continue with the enlargement any more. Of course, the Lisbon Treaty is more interesting. It is a step forward, and that is why we are fighting for it.

Q: France was the fourth country which recognized Kosovo's independence, even before the USA and the UK did so. What were France's motives for this move? Aren't you afraid that an independent Kosovo could destabilize the whole region starting with Macedonia?

A: I think that we just legitimized a situation which has existed for the last few years - Kosovo was outside of Serbia. This was part of a long process. There was a report of Mr. Ahtisaari. At the end it all became better, things worked out better than expected, and a number of states followed our example including Bulgaria. We are still watching the situation very closely but we can say that at the present moment things are under control.

Q: Aren't you afraid this could spark a crisis in Macedonia, for example?

A: Macedonia can be a matter of concern to us but it is not directly related to Kosovo.

Q: During PM Stanishev's visit to Paris it became clear that the deal for the purchase of the corvettes would finally take place even if in twice smaller size. We know about the problems which arose from the selection of the French company Armaris for this deal, because before that a Dutch company was selected. Isn't this after all a political deal, and does it have something to do with the French support for the release of the Bulgarian medics jailed in Libya?

A: No, and the proof for that is the fact that the tender for selecting a supplier came way before the question about the nurses was tackled by France. When Mr. Sarkozy was in Bulgaria in 2007, he asked for the clarification of the technical part of the deal. There were negotiations, and when Mr. Stanishev went to Paris, he could announce officially the purchase of two corvettes. I think that the importance of this project lies in the fact that it meets the needs of the Bulgarian Navy for such ships. It is also very interesting because there is industrial cooperation through which French corvettes could be built in Varna. This is a project with long-term effects, and presents help from the French Navy to the Bulgarian Navy.

Q: France is Bulgaria's sixth largest trading partner after Russia, Germany, Italy, Greece and Belgium but it is ranked fifteenth among the foreign investors in Bulgaria with EUR 382 in 1996-2007. What aren't French investors more interested in Bulgaria, and what is the way to attract them?

A: France's place as an investor in Bulgaria is not what it should be. The first side of the question is that the French companies have a very demanding agenda - you know that in the context of globalization many states present investment offers. Perhaps Bulgaria lacks a good image with the French investors but with the strategic partnership that we just signed we hope that the situation will change for the better. My team and I, we invest together lots of efforts in order to help improve this image.

Q: Our northern neighbor Romania has attracted much more massive French investments. Is this only the result of better economic conditions, or is this influenced by the traditionally closer relations between France and Romania?

A: Yes, there are close relations between France and Romania but the other reason is that the Romanians had specialized in such areas where the French are also specialists such as the car manufacturing. The French companies, which have invested in Bulgaria - there are a number of them - are very satisfied with their investments, and sometimes when they have to choose between Romania and Bulgaria, they choose Bulgaria. The Montupet company, which produces automobile parts will soon open a factory in Ruse. So there will be some progress in this respect.

Q: The number of French tourists visiting Bulgaria is roughly equal to the number of tourists from a country the size of Sweden. France ranks fifteenth again in the number of tourists in Bulgaria. What could attract more French tourists to Bulgaria?

A: First, I would like to point out that the number of French tourists visiting Bulgaria is growing very rapidly - by 15-20% per year. But the French tourists are somewhat different from the Scandinavian ones, so to say, who arrive with chartered flights, and spend all their time lying on the beach and in the hotel, and between the beach and the pool they stop at the bar to have a beer. Or more than one beer... The French want to get to know the country more. Of course, they do go to the beach but maybe they like visiting more distant places, to travel more - a kind of tourism of higher quality, which will be perhaps more interesting for the Bulgarian economy.

Q: Is cultural tourism what Bulgaria is lacking?

A: Bulgaria has a lot of strong sides in tourism and it should not restrict itself to this beach tourism only, it should diversify its tourist services. It has a great potential for that.

Q: In the context of the global triumph of the Anglo-Saxon language and culture hasn't the francophonie and French culture lost its positions in Bulgaria that it had during the socialist period?

A: Bulgaria has been part of the Francophonie Community since 1993, and the francophonie is present in all segments of the Bulgarian society. There are those language schools in Bulgaria, which prepare really good French speakers, who can continue their education in France or any other French-speaking country as soon as they graduate. This is a great asset for these people and for Bulgaria as a whole. I think this is one of Bulgarians' strong sides - the ability to speak well a number of foreign languages. The fact that Bulgaria belongs to the global French-speaking community is an additional asset. Our cultural cooperation is very strong - for example we are having the Comedie Française in Sofia in October, for example. The Bulgarian public shows a great interest in French culture.

Q: Do the elections of President Sarkozy and other leading right-wing politicians such as Chancellor Merkel and PM Berlusconi mean a triumph of the rightist ideology in the EU? Does this mean that if Bulgaria had a rightist government it would enjoy a stronger support on the part of Sarkozy's France?

A: In international affairs it is not that important whether you stand on the right or on the left. The personal relations between President Sarkozy and PM Stanishev are very good. This is, for example, the reason why we could make progress on our strategic partnership. The personal relations and the political will are more important. You know that Sarkozy and Spain's socialist PM Zapatero also have very good relations.

Q: Which is the thing that has impressed you the most in Bulgaria, and which the thing that you dislike the most?

A: I really like the variety of landscapes here. Within a small region one can see Mediterranean and mountain landscapes. The thing which has always impressed me when I travel in Bulgaria is seeing how many plots are not cultivated. When you come from France, where we have this kind of a rural culture, it is always surprising to see uncultivated lands. It is also a pity because at the same time we see the prices of agricultural products rise. What I dislike is the condition of the roads, and the fact that there is often a lot of trash alongside them. I have the feeling that people just throw their garbage through the car window. It is a pity because this act pollutes a really beautiful landscape, and it costs almost nothing to stop this behavior - just a little information in school or elsewhere. Sometimes I want to stop my car and collect all that garbage. I think we need to launch campaigns in order to help people end this. This is what I don't like, but the things I like about Bulgaria are more important than those that I dislike.

Q: Is this what you tell you relatives and friends about Bulgaria when you go back to France?

A: No, not only. I tell them that we have had the luck of having been on the better side of the Iron Curtain, and not having lived in communism for fifty years. Before the Second World War we were in one common European family. We had been lucky but the French don't think about that. When we know Bulgaria's history, we understand better the difficulties that it has in reaching European standards.

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