FRANCE enters its six–month presidency of the Council of the European Union aiming to focus on challenges posed by climate change, the need for energy and food security, immigration and Europe's desire to establish its own security and defence structures. However, the pursuit of these priorities will be seasoned with France’s traditional passion for Europe’s cultural dimension, according to Henry Cuny, the French ambassador to Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): From July 1 until December 2008, France will hold the presidency of the Council of the European Union. What will be the priorities of the French presidency and which aspects will affect Slovakia the most?
Henry Cuny (HC): The French president wants the European Union to react better to the problems and expectations of its citizens. Bearing this in mind, and after consulting partners, the president has set four priorities for the French presidency of the Council of Europe during the second half of 2008:
In the area of climate change and progress in European energy policy, France will do its best to get a framework agreement signed by the end of 2008, involving the 27 EU countries in what we call the energy-climate package. It is a set of laws to achieve reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and boost the volume of renewable energy sources. As far as European energy policy is concerned, the French presidency will submit proposals regarding secure energy supplies and focus on foreign energy policies with countries outside the EU.
France’s effort to increase energy security in Europe greatly concerns Slovakia, which is to a large degree dependent on supplies of natural gas and nuclear fuel from Russia. The goal is greater unity in the approach of EU members and transparent communication with world suppliers, including Russia.
France will also present to its partners the “European pact on immigration and asylum”, a document which will make it possible for the 27 EU members on the one hand to better organise legal migration and asylum policies, and on the other hand to more effectively control the external borders of the EU, in order to fight illegal migration and make the states support sustainable development.
Slovakia’s successful entry into the Schengen area and the economic development which makes Slovakia even more attractive poses greater challenges for Slovakia in this area since its border with Ukraine has become the external border of the European Union.
In the area of security and defence, the renewal of European defence is among France’s priorities. Though the EU is a leading business, industrial, agricultural and financial power, it does not yet play the role it could.
France aspires to develop a European defence system fully compatible with NATO. In the second half of 2008, based on the progress achieved by Javier Solana [the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy], the European security strategy will be updated. It was adopted in 2003 and today it must better respond to the needs of the EU, which has grown from 15 to 27 members, along with new challenges such as energy and food security, the fight against arms-trafficking and the need for cyber-defences.
As another priority, the French presidency aspires to finalise discussions about a "health-check" of the Common Agricultural Policy. It is neither another reform of these policies nor a reopening of budgetary issues before 2013, but rather a certain modification of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), in line with the proposals presented by the European Commission in November 2007 and May 2008. France wishes to re-launch the CAP after 2013, mainly because of the current increase in food prices and the growing worldwide demand for agricultural products.
The shortage of food products only underlines how much the EU must protect its agriculture so that dependence on food is not added to dependence on energy, and so that Europe can continue assisting the poorest countries.
Slovakia and France share the goal of protecting Europe's high quality agriculture.
TSS: France has been a strong advocate of the "culture is the best diplomacy and promotion" notion. What are the most notable cultural events that your embassy has backed and how responsive are Slovaks to different aspects of French culture? What aspects of Slovak culture are interesting to a French audience?
HC: France has traditionally had a significant presence abroad as far as culture is concerned. Currently we have 149 cultural centres and institutes, along with 1075 branches of the Alliance Française, of which four are in Slovakia. This is not to mention the 26 research centres, 176 archeology teams and 269 public school subjects all around the world.
The upcoming period will be significant since the French presidency will be accompanied by the European Cultural Festival which will be presented both in France and also in Slovakia. We are already planning a soirée called “Debussy Evening“ at the Design Factory in September, along with the Comédie Française at the Slovak National Theatre in mid-December presenting Moliere’s play Les Précieuses Ridicules, or The Affected Young Ladies, along with a contemporary Sicilian play La Festa, or The Fiesta.
Slovaks are fantastically receptive to French culture. The audience appreciates our classic cultural heritage but also contemporary art. A solo performance by the leading dancer and choreographer Josef Nadj, who performed within the festival Bratislava in Motion confirmed this.
Slovak and French artists will jointly present Hummel’s opera Mathilde von Guise in November at the Maison des Arts in Laon, at Château de Chantilly and the Saint Etienne Opera. The libretto is French, the music and the orchestra are Slovak, the conductor and members of the chorus are French and of the eight performing soloists four are Slovak and four French. One cannot imagine a more balanced partnership.
Slovak culture in France is still relatively unknown, since Slovakia is itself still relatively unknown. I think for the French audience everything is interesting which relates to Slovak culture: from the Gothic wooden sculptures and carvings - I have in mind the beautiful altar of Master Paul in Levoča - through to the amazing lyrical singers and original artists, and on to the latest artwork.
TSS: Slovakia now holds observer status in La Francophonie. You have noted that being francophone means much more than just speaking French. What are the implications of this status for [Slovakia?]
HC: For me, being a francophone means having a different view of the world: being freed of prejudices and stereotypes and considering each country and culture an inseparable part of the world.
For a country it means belonging to the International Organization of La Francophonie (IOF), a body which includes 55 states and 13 observers. However, this membership does not mean only speaking French, since the status of the language itself differs in particular countries. Only in 32 countries is French an official language, either alone or alongside other languages. The status of French in each country certainly plays a key role in its membership of La Francophonie.
The French community prepared a new document in November 2004, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of francophone countries, which sets priorities such as promoting the French language and cultural characteristics; support for peace, democracy and human rights; support for general and professional education, higher education and research; and the development of cooperation in the area of sustainable development and solidarity.
The document clearly defines that with the status of “observer” comes certain responsibilities for Slovakia, which of course embrace the language but also reach far beyond the limits of language cooperation.
TSS: The role of regions in Slovakia often remains underestimated. France, however, seems to have discovered even its remote regions. What has inspired this interest and how successful has the regional cooperation between France and Slovakia been?
HC: The powers that the Slovak regions (VÚC) have taken over are generally very similar to the powers of French regions and departments. These parallels play a crucial role in the development of decentralised cooperation between French regions and departments and Slovak regions.
Observe, for example, the cooperation between the Hautes-Pyrénées department and Prešov Region, which pertains to the areas of tourism and social and health care, or the partnership of Nitra Region and the Champagne-Ardenne region in the area of education and administration.
Altogether, we have about 30 examples of decentralised cooperation, of which 15 are currently happening at the level of towns, offering new approaches to real challenges, for example urbanism and master plans between Nanterre, Petržalka and Žilina or participatory democracy between Lyon and Košice.
The competition for the title of European Capital of Culture 2013 has inspired both Slovak and French candidate cities to cooperate in the area of culture. Lyon and Toulouse signed memoranda with Košice; Marseille and Bordeaux plan to develop ties with Nitra, Martin, Prešov and Košice.
The Žilina Region in June 2008 organiSed the 9th French-Slovak conference on decentralised cooperation. The Bratislava region is right now seeking a French partner and based on the latest contacts we have received we can hope to sign new agreements soon.
TSS: Slovakia has made several attempts to reform its education system, under the pressure of an increasing lack of qualified labour, but also in order to build a knowledge-based society. What, in your opinion, should be the priorities for education reform in Slovakia or in any country in the Central European region?
HC: The challenges you talk about, mainly the ones linked to the lack of qualified labour, are extremely important in association with any education reform in Slovakia or in neighbouring countries.
The knowledge of foreign languages is the first condition of success. In today’s world, the triumph of every Slovak will be a knowledge of his mother tongue; a knowledge of English, which is today definitively a tool of world communication; but also of French. It is the working language of the European Union and the language of three main European cities (Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg); the language of European law and, last but not least, the language of France, the country of top technologies such as Airbus, Ariane, TGV high-speed trains, and nuclear energy.
In Slovakia, French is the language of the most significant investors such as PSA, Gaz de France, Électricité de France, Orange, Veolia, Axa, Sanofi, etc. France is also the top source of foreign direct investment in Slovakia.
Guidance is another key point, since study must bring the student to a concrete job. Though the motivation and desire to study what truly interests each young person directly conditions the successful completion of their studies, it also is very important that young people know where they are heading. They need to be supported to also consider the courses offered and the practical application of their studies after graduation.
TSS: Is France a popular academic destination for Slovak students?
HC: In order to achieve all the listed requirements, some young people opt to study in France. Some already go to high school there: for example, four students have been attending the Camille Jullian high school in Bordeaux every year for the past 18 years. The decision of Prime Minister Robert Fico to send abroad, over three years, 1000 final-year students, so that they master one of the six most significant European languages, could mean that from next year France, if it is possible, will accept 50-80 young Slovaks.
Also, France is the second most-frequently visited country within the Erasmus project, after Germany and followed by Spain. Though these aspects are very fruitful and significant, domestic education also needs to continuously develop. France is already helping Slovakia through different means of cooperation.
TSS: France has, overall, been supportive of Slovakia’s ambitions to enter Schengen and join the eurozone. What, in your opinion, are the main challenges that Slovakia as a post-Communist country now faces after formally reaching these milestones?
HC: Slovakia’s entry to the Schengen zone wraps up a process that began with the creation of the EU’s external border with Ukraine in satisfying conditions in terms of law, techniques and processes. Within the EU, this date meant the beginning of free movement of goods and people without customs checks between the involved countries. It will now be important to find a balance between the free movement of people and the security of the European Union.
This new challenge brings some difficulties that could emerge in much larger volumes than before: illegal migration, organised crime, or terrorism. Slovakia, by entering Schengen, indirectly agreed to enforce the European strategy targeted against these phenomena. Thus the country must become fully engaged in these activities.
This development requires Slovak state officials to get a “second wind” after the post-Communist phase. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is important to improve decompartmentalisation of services, develop modern management, internal and external communication and achieve transparency in decision-making.
France will be standing next to Slovakia in this process, not as a model but rather as a source of experience. France would like to extend its cooperation with Slovakia in the area of training the police, in the courts, and in the fight against terrorism and cyber-crime etc.
Slovakia, by entering the EU, has become part of a movement which is without equal since World War II either in political, economic or historical dimensions. It is impossible not to stress, that Slovakia, also thanks to its approaching entry to the eurozone, today belongs among the first in the class as far as new member countries are concerned.
Total area:550,000 sq. kilometres
Source: EU website