Valuing cultural and artistic heritage

THE TRADITION of a very social management style within French companies and a very unique way of life must surely be of interest to Slovaks that mingle with French citizens who have settled here, says Jean-Marie Bruno, the French ambassador to Slovakia, who added that he is quite gratified and impressed by the interest shown by Slovak students in the French language.

Jean-Marie BrunoJean-Marie Bruno (Source: Courtesy of Parlamentný Kurier)

THE TRADITION of a very social management style within French companies and a very unique way of life must surely be of interest to Slovaks that mingle with French citizens who have settled here, says Jean-Marie Bruno, the French ambassador to Slovakia, who added that he is quite gratified and impressed by the interest shown by Slovak students in the French language.

In an interview with The Slovak Spectator, Bruno said that Slovakia and France share the same desire in valuing their cultural and artistic heritage as well in supporting artistic creativity and that these shared values make communication between the nations and their citizens much easier. Ambassador Bruno also offered his sage opinions about energy security and nuclear safety, the significance of the Visegrad Four within the European Union, and the importance of building cultural and social ties between smaller towns and cities of Slovakia and France.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): As the Visegrad Group celebrates its 20th anniversary the French Institute for Research in Social Sciences (CERES) has co-organised a conference devoted to this occasion. What is the importance of the Visegrad Group (V4) for France and what in your opinion is the significance of the region as it relates to the European Union?

Jean-Marie Bruno (JMB): First of all I wish to applaud the Slovak presidency [of the V4] for the great effort and work put into organising such a successful event. It reflected perfectly the notable work which has been done throughout the entirety of its mandate. Moreover, it was a great honour for the French Embassy in Slovakia to be able to host the opening session of that conference in our embassy’s premises.

Indeed, the Visegrad Group is a very important and essential collaboration between four EU member states in central and eastern Europe, not only for France but for the whole Union. Strong and dynamic regional cooperation is also a way to ensure a fruitful and thriving Europe. The strong relationship that France shares with Slovakia is thus extended towards the other members of the V4, allowing an easier and more productive exchange of economy, culture and ideas between France and the eastern European countries.

The work already accomplished and the goals which have been achieved by the Visegrad Group are commendable and such motivation and determination could be an example for other European states. Indeed, having managed to be part of the European Union, NATO, WTO, the Council of Europe and many other associations and organisations, these four countries, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have already proven themselves more than once within the eyes of the EU and all of its other member states. Yet they persist in continuing to work together in order to achieve even more. That is exactly what the EU stands for: confident cooperation for the sake of our peoples.

TSS: Prime Minister Iveta Radičová met with the French minister for industry, energy and digital economy, Eric Besson, in Prague where among other things they addressed the issues of energy security and nuclear energy. Minister Besson suggested that Slovakia and France have similar goals in the area of nuclear energy. What, in your opinion, are these shared goals?

JMB: More than half of Slovak electricity is of nuclear origin and this proportion reaches roughly 80 percent in France. The acceptance of this decarbonised source of energy is strong in both populations. However, the issue of safety in this field is fundamental and an accident such as that of Fukushima ought to motivate us to reinforce this aspect once more: this is precisely what is happening at the moment with the so called “stress tests”.

Let me remind you that in Fukushima it was the massive tsunami that was to blame. Even though no tsunamis threaten the nuclear plants of both our countries, this accident forces us to ask ourselves what can and should be done to improve and strengthen our safety systems. Quickly restoring the cooling system of a nuclear plant appears to have become a critical factor and methods for securing the systems for restoration must also be studied. One should also not forget human risk (including terrorist acts). Slovakia and France are fully agreeing on these issues.

TSS: Banská Bystrica Region has been maintaining significant ties with France, especially with the town of Saint-Etienne. What are the concrete forms of this partnership and how can these contribute to the two nations learning more about each others’ culture?

JMB: French-Slovak cooperation depends on about twenty active partnerships between regions and cities as well as French and Slovak state ministries. Each partnership comes with its own specificity but the projects that are being undertaken are mainly based on the sharing of experiences and good practices and touch on various fields: education, culture, youth, tourism, urban development, research and innovation.

For the Embassy of Slovakia in France as well as for the French Embassy in Slovakia, encouragement in bringing together local communities and local governments is another way of building the Europe of citizens.

The partnership between the cities of Banská Bystrica and of Saint Etienne, the main city of Loire local government, is an interesting one. It parallels the long-lasting partnership and cooperation between the Loire local government and its counterpart, the Regional government of Banská Bystrica. This partnership has been influenced by cultural exchanges, notably between the Museum of Modern Arts of Saint Etienne and the Central Slovak Gallery of Banská Bystrica.

In October, Banská Bystrica will host the 2011 edition of the French-Slovak decentralisation days. It is an important moment on our bilateral agenda and the chosen themes this year are culture and education.

We will also seek to establish and maintain strong bonds between Košice and Marseilles. The choice of these two cities to be European Capitals of Culture in 2013 allows France and Slovakia to plan ambitious projects on the topics of cultural and intellectual exchanges.

TSS: Slovakia has in recent years been the destination of several large French investments. Does the presence of French businesses bring a greater appreciation among people in the towns where the French companies are located? Are they now more familiar with French culture in the broader sense of the word?

JMB: French people are not very numerous in Slovakia (around 1200) and their presence is not really visible. On the other hand, there is a clear trend in French companies to entrust more and more responsibility to Slovak executives once they have been accustomed to French management habits. Nevertheless, we believe that French companies brought something to the cities where they settled, not only jobs, investments and local taxes.

TSS: For many French-speaking persons being a Francophone means much more than just speaking French. In your experience is there an intense interest in the French language in Slovakia and what do you perceive as indicators of that interest? Are there particular initiatives to promote French language among students?

JMB: I have the feeling that interest in the French language is not decreasing in Slovakia, though we would obviously wish for a higher number of Francophones. With a total of 25,000 individuals studying French in the Slovak educational system, French is being taught in roughly one high school out of three throughout the country. As a matter of fact, 15 high schools have chosen to set up “reinforced French language” sections and have increased the weekly number of hours that French is taught. Finally, five bilingual French-Slovak sections which have been established in four high schools which, because of the excellent reputation of these sections, have become the pride of our bilateral cooperation in the educational sphere. Nor have universities been overlooked: there are six French departments and five Francophone courses of studies. The interest that Slovak students have shown for our language and culture is very gratifying.

The French language still holds a significant place in the economic world as well as within European and international relations, especially in the legal and diplomatic sphere. French has always been regarded as an international communication tool and this is still true within the European Union. However, the most convincing and important argument for learning French, which is by the way valid for all languages, is that in today’s world, it isn’t sufficient to learn only one foreign language. In global competition, multilingualism is no longer just an asset but has become a must.

The promotion of our language has developed through different means. In the educational field, the initiatives taken are numerous: one can note the presence of about twenty French lecturers, the promotion of our DELF-DALF certificates, donations of French handbooks, support to scholar exchanges, grants for students, help for the continuing education of teachers not only in Slovakia but also through professional training in France. In other words, the Institut français and the Alliances françaises in Slovakia offer French classes and organise cultural events aiming at promoting the intercultural dialogue between our countries.

TSS: Slovakia holds observer status in the International Organisation of the Francophonie. What does it mean for a country to hold observer status in this organization?

JMB: Fifty-six full members and 19 observers currently constitute the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). One can therefore see that the Francophonie has gained meaning and value within the eyes of numerous states. Not speaking French as an official language does not hinder a country from becoming a member. Indeed, what is significant is the importance of the French language within the country and the way it is used. Slovakia has been an observer since 2002 and has actively participated in all the summits to which it has been invited. OIF has now become a recognized international political organisation, focusing on promotion of democracy, good governance and cultural diversity.

Being an observer grants a country the possibility to attend official Francophonie meetings. However, an observer cannot participate in committees and work groups where more substantial work is done.

This year, the Francophonie has been celebrated throughout Slovakia. The festivities in Bratislava ended with the 13th edition of the International Francophone Film Festival in Bratislava (FIFFBA).

OIF also supports the teaching of French language within Slovak institutions. Since the programme's inception in 2006, about 200 Slovak officials have been taught French each year, most of them from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as other ministries.

As an observer country, Slovakia thus plays a significant role when having to promote the French language within the European institutions.

TSS: Slovakia has already absorbed some considerable French investments. What areas of Slovakia’s economy offer interesting opportunities for cooperation between the countries? Where do you see the largest potential?

JMB: The most visible and clear investment is that of PSA and its automobile subcontractors. Nevertheless, almost 400 French firms are established in Slovakia. These companies employ over 35,000 people representing cumulated investments of over €4 billion. Some of these businesses have resulted from participation in privatisation, but many others are ground-up creations and they are now present in sectors as diverse as gas distribution (SPP/GdFSuez), telecommunications (Orange), public works (Vinci), urban heating (Dalkia), electrical power (SSE/EDF), urban services (Veolia), pharmaceuticals (Sanofi Aventis, Servier), dairy (Bongrain, Senoble), and many others.

New opportunities exist in numerous sectors. The next round of privatisations might offer the possibility of witnessing more French investments in Slovakia. The nuclear sector where both of our countries have developed a real expertise could be a new field of cooperation. Partnerships could also be developed in the fields of mechanics and the plastics industry. Nonetheless, it is by multiplying direct contacts between companies that new areas of cooperation can emerge.

TSS: What aspects of French culture are the most appealing for Slovaks based on your experience here? What are the most significant cultural events your embassy has underwritten or planned for the rest of the year?

JMB: Slovakia and France both share the same will to value their cultural and artistic heritage as well as to support artistic creativity. These shared goals make it easier for our cultural institutions and artists to meet.

Indeed, one just needs to look at what has been going on in the past two years. Whether it is the performance of musical works by Hummel played by bi-national musical ensembles, the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the “Month of Photography”, the enthusiastic welcoming received in Paris to the exhibition of Gothic Slovak art or even more, the appearance of young Slovak photographers in Paris-Photo, it all comes to show just how important and real the dialogue between Slovakia and France is.

I also wish to highlight three important partnerships: the Slovak National Gallery, which has forged strong links with the Museum of the Middle Ages (Paris), the Central European House of Photography working since the early 90s with the European House of Photography Paris, and also the City Gallery of Bratislava which exchanges with the contemporary art fair of Montrouge.

But BHS, Divadelná Nitra, Jazz Days, the Days of Architecture and Design also regularly welcome French representatives. Moreover, Schools of Fine Arts multiply exchanges: in itself VŠVU has 5 ERASMUS partnerships with France and not only sends Slovak art students to Nancy, Strasbourg and Nantes but also receives French students.

For the future, the participation of Tramway, the contemporary art network in Paris at the second edition of the annual Bratislava Art Festival in September and the closing of the 20th Divadelná Nitra festival by a French play, are the two closest coming events. Ahead of us we will have the combination of Marseille and Košice as the European Capitals of Culture in 2013 which will hopefully enable us to expand our bilateral relations around issues which have become essential to our contemporary societies: how to experience diversity and dialogue among cultures; how culture can contribute to the revival of a city; and how citizens can get involved.

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