POLITICS
French Ambassador on Politics, Wine and the Good & Bad of Georgia
22 December, 2017
Franco-Georgian relations, you can argue, are centuries old, dating all the way back to the semi-legendary Franks at the Didgori battle and Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani trying (unsuccessfully) to acquire the French Empire’s diplomatic aid for the Georgian Kingdom, to more modern times, with France sheltering the Georgian government in exile in 1921 and mediating in the 2008 August War.

We hosted and interviewed His Excellence Pascal Meunier, Ambassador of France to Georgia, who was eager to share his insights on the
relations between the two countries.
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Pascal Meunier

There are five main areas in which France is providing assistance and expertise: education, military, infrastructure, economy and environment. Tell us about those relations

Looking back at the history, I would say France has always been by Georgia’s side when it faced difficulties. Next year, we’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Georgian Republic. In 1921, when the Bolsheviks invaded Georgia, we welcomed the Georgian government in exile in Leville, near Paris. President Margvelashvili visited Leville last year and the French government and private owners of the manor agreed to return ownership to Georgia. This year, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. Starting with the political relationship, France is one of the strongest supporters of Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. As Americans say, we are walking the talk. Eric Fournier (now Ambassador in Budapest) was French Ambassador in Georgia in 2008 when the Russians invaded. He went to Sachkhere, where we had opened a mountain troops school some time earlier, traveling in our diplomatic car with the French flag on. Once there, he raised the French flag and spoke about the sharing military expertise. We are also active in air defense within the NATO program and in the Navy we have committed ourselves to be present in the Black Sea because, while a challenge, the Sea is one of potential prosperity; one that should be focused on trade, not confrontation. Recently, a French frigate visited Batumi port from Toulon; it took them 10 days without having to set foot on the ground, just to show our determination and support to Georgia.

What is France’s take on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations?

It’s an ongoing process. The closer Georgia gets to the EU and NATO in terms of standards, behavior, and interoperability, the easier it will be for Georgia, if the window of opportunity is open, to become a member. In terms of military cooperation, we are very happy to have Georgian soldiers with us in the EU Peace Mission in central Africa. They are also in Afghanistan. NATO allies recognize and praise this. Quite recently, together with other ambassadors, I attended a defense conference organized by Minister of Defense, Levan Izoria. He’s been very successful in reforming the ministry, trying to achieve the goals of interoperability with NATO, goals of preparing and acquainting the population with the total defense system concept. His decision to spend 2% of the budget on weapons procurement was a good one.

Let’s talk ABOUT THE 2008 AUGUST WAR. Were the negotiations successful?

All frozen conflicts in countries from the GUAM framework – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova – are a kind of warning and punishment from Russia. We cannot accept this. What is positive in negotiations either in different Minsk Groups or Geneva talks is that at least wars are easing down. It is not completely satisfactory, but it’s better than full-out war. It is important that we remain determined and firm on our position. France has always had specific relations with Russia, but at the same time we should not abandon or ease down on our values just to have the benefits of dialogue. During their first press conference in France as president, Emannuel Macron was quite stern in his statement on Russia in front of Putin. At the same time, Russia has international responsibilities; it’s a big country and we have to talk with them. To answer your question - we are not happy that Russia has not fulfilled all the points in the ceasefire agreement. We think that discussions have to continue.

Back to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic future. What is your assessment of the first year of visa-free regime with the EU?

Georgia and the Georgian people deserve this. It’s been a long process of negotiation and it’s fair to say that Georgia indirectly had been the victim of the huge migration movement to Europe. I don’t think that Georgia is a threat in terms of migration to Europe, the threat comes from elsewhere. Visa liberalization has been accepted by some countries who were reluctant, and France was one such country because we had large migration flows and criminals, famous “thieves-in-law.” So, the image of Georgia in France was not entirely positive. We decided to tackle the problem by enhancing cooperation with the Georgian MIA, who appointed a police attaché in Paris, and we cooperate with him closely. We are monitoring figures and do not see any worrying figures in France as far as migration from Georgia is concerned.

Now to wine. Georgia might be the cradle of wine, but it’s obvious that French wine is the current king on the market. What’s your take on the future of Georgian wine?

I came here in March 2016. Almost straight away, I was in Telavi, visiting the Georgian Wine Symposium managed by the French people. I got to taste Qvevri wine. So, I was plunged into the cradle of wine for three days – it was a ‘baptism’ of sorts! This country has various ways to develop its wine, with a focus on the top end of the market: with quality wine aiming at a high reputation for Georgia. France is ready to help, even if we are competitors. We decided to create a Franco-Georgian University, which is a cornerstone of our cultural diplomacy. We have two big ambitions. One is agriculture, including wine, and the second is tourism. France has a lot of expertise, as we are the number one tourist destination in the world, and tourism is a field in which Georgia has a lot of potential.

What about the French language in Georgia, namely its diminishing use in Georgia’s education system?

If we look back on our mutual history over the last 30 years, we have two persons who did not necessarily help us. You had Gorbachev who did not help the Georgian wine industry and we had Saakashvili who did not help the French language, although, quite curiously, he is fluent in French. For some reason, he decided that everybody should learn English and that would be sufficient. My position is that he was wrong. If you want to have an international career, you have to speak your own language, Georgian, while I would also encourage people here to speak Russian even if they do not like Putin or English. If you don’t speak the three [Georgian, Russian, English], you can forget an international career. French is the 2nd worldwide spoken language with which you get access to a lot of countries. After learning French, you can easily learn Spanish or Italian. So, it’s a good investment.

We decided to reverse the trend in Georgia, and my predecessor, with the help of the Chamber of Commerce and some French companies, worked to subsidize the teaching of French in public schools. There were 6,000 French language teachers in 2011, and now there are 16,000. Interest in France has increased. At university level, we have more than 37 co-op agreements and we doubled the number of students going to France through Erasmus +. Presently, we have 750 Georgian students learning in France. I think it’s a promising development.
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What are the three things you like and dislike most in Georgia and Georgians?

There are many pluses, but I’ll start with minuses. The first is the lack of infrastructure. Georgia wants to be a #1 tourist destination in the world but does not possess good infrastructure. Not enough and not good enough highways, no good and fast internet, even on the train. And - pollution. I always say it loudly: if you want your country to become not only a cradle of the wine but the jewel of the Caucasus, you have to care about your country. I read somewhere that it is worse to live in Tbilisi than in Beijing. I don’t know how true that is, but pollution remains very high here. Recently, I met Mayor Kaladze, who told me that he is going to address the problem of quality of cars, petrol and parking. Franceand Japan faced the same problems but addressed them in terms of introducing rules on pollution. Forbid access of cars to the city center, focus on public transport. As regards pluses. I will have to start with the hospitality of the people: it must be preserved! Then comes the beauty of the nature. Georgia is a beautiful country and should not be spoiled by plastic strewn across the mountains! I think Georgia should do what the Lithuanians did at a certain stage: announce a National Cleaning Day, with the President and Prime Minister removing litter from certain places on TV. The 3rd is the beauty of Georgian traditions. Georgia is not only known for wine, it’s well-known for traditions like polyphonic songs, national dances, churches, architecture. So, all of these have to be preserved. For me, Georgia has a lot of potential. The message we’re trying to deliver to French people is - Come and see Georgia, the country that’s set to become a real bridge between East and West. Georgia has to develop its touristic capacity and France is helping in that.

Author: Vazha Tavberidze

Source: Georgia Today
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