Culture as a way to foster mutual understanding

JEAN-Marie Bruno believes that knowledge of the language is important to probe deeply into the culture of others. But as a first step, it is the attraction of one’s culture that precedes language learning and not vice versa. The French ambassador to Slovakia is an advocate of multilingualism and he suggests that young Slovaks should be encouraged to learn at least two foreign languages during their studies at an early age, when learning is easier.

Jean-Marie BrunoJean-Marie Bruno (Source: Courtesy of the French Embassy)

JEAN-Marie Bruno believes that knowledge of the language is important to probe deeply into the culture of others. But as a first step, it is the attraction of one’s culture that precedes language learning and not vice versa. The French ambassador to Slovakia is an advocate of multilingualism and he suggests that young Slovaks should be encouraged to learn at least two foreign languages during their studies at an early age, when learning is easier.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Bruno about the phenomenon of Euroscepticism and whether there is a crisis of European identity, the importance of multilingualism, as well as business links between France and Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Is there any trend of Euroscepticism among the French population?
Jean-Marie Bruno (JMB):
As in any other European country, there are Eurosceptic trends in France but they have been around for some time now. It’s nothing new. Extreme right parties call for the end of the European Union, while some of the right-wing parties want less EU intervention in domestic affairs. Regarding left-wing parties, some are very critical of what they judge to be the excessively liberal agenda of the European Commission and the EU. But there are stronger pro-European trends as well. I would like to underline that a pro-European president has just been elected and stress that, as in Slovakia, there is a strong majority in public opinion and in parliament in favour of Europe, whatever the questions and difficulties our union is encountering.

TSS: Will the change of presidents in any way influence the Franco-German partnership or the role these countries play in addressing the debt crisis?
The friendship between Germany and France has always been at the core of European integration. I do not see any reason why it should change. Shortly after Mr Hollande’s election, Slovak analysts underlined that even though when the German chancellor and the French president were not on the same side of the political spectrum, they have always been willing to work with one another and to achieve significant results. I couldn’t agree more. François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl for instance: not only did they get along well but they very significantly contributed to European integration. Our cooperation with Germany is based on fundamental motivations that will remain, whatever the political context in our countries. It does not mean that this special and necessary relationship is exclusive of others. Mr Hollande mentioned that he would bring special attention to coordinating more with other European countries, including smaller ones and more recent member states.

TSS: Do you think there is any crisis of European identity as some observers have argued?
We are indeed living in difficult times. The sovereign debt crisis has highlighted the fact that, in an era of instant communication, the eurozone does not have enough tools and that the decision-making process is too slow in the EU. The very principles of the EU are being questioned. Its opponents are taking advantage of the crisis to do this questioning. The challenge we are facing is tough but we had to take it up and we are currently addressing it. I believe that this challenge is a unique opportunity to reinforce European integration. As Jean Monnet said, “Europe will forge itself in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”. If the crisis might have adverse consequences on European solidarity, or lead to other ways of envisaging a European future, I don’t believe it will have an impact on our identity as such.

TSS: Several diplomats have said before that culture is the best tool of diplomacy. How do Slovaks respond to French culture? Does the language barrier play any role?
I would rather say that culture is certainly the best way to foster and facilitate mutual understanding between people. Culture is a sensible way to consider the world and others. It therefore comes naturally in first place, when it helps to establish dialogue and, as for diplomacy, when it comes to knowing a country in all its subtleties.

Slovakia and France have a common history in many fields – political, cultural and intellectual, and even military – which has brought us close to each other, especially during the last century. The number of French artists invited to Slovakia and the number of books by French authors in the libraries show that Slovak people are interested in the culture of our country. And the conclusion is the same the other way. To take just one recent example, it is interesting to look at the sales figures of the new collection of Slovak films promoted by a French publisher: Juraj Jakubisko’s films, for example, are selling so well that the publisher will launch at the end of June with the Slovak Film Institute the second part of the collection.

TSS: Košice will become a European Capital of Culture along with Marseille in 2013. How do you view this interconnectedness? Is the French Embassy preparing for this event in any way?
Two European Capitals of Culture in France and Slovakia, this is an incredible opportunity to strengthen ties between our two countries! Relations between Marseille-Provence and Košice have been established since 2007 or 2008, at the time of their applications. Košice and Marseille work together and will do so even after 2013, particularly in the fields of culture, local democracy, the revitalisation of urban spaces, in all areas that are at the heart of the priority issues for European Capital culture. More specifically, many cultural events will be organised in both cities with French and Slovak presences. In Košice, it begins with the opening ceremony in late January with the presence of artists from Marseille, then the All-Nighter, the Triennale of Contemporary Art, New Dance Festival Days, and more. Intellectual exchanges are also planned, such as in the field of urban development.

TSS: How do you assess the teaching of French at Slovak schools and the number of Francophones in Slovakia?
Travelling in Slovakia for almost two years now, I have continuously noticed a lively and noteworthy presence of Francophones in all areas, from politics to the arts, to economy or technology. According to the latest figures, there are currently over 20,000 learners of French in the Slovak education system. It is a significant figure, which does not take into account the learners in language schools or in companies. All of these learners speak at least two languages and also speak English, German or Spanish.

This is a chance for them, and I want to emphasise this notion of multilingualism that is promoted in the European Union.

The French Embassy has long been engaged alongside the Slovak Education Ministry to encourage multilingualism, promote language learning, improve the quality of teaching and enable Slovak students to go further with bilingual education. I sincerely believe that language learning is a necessity and should be encouraged so that young citizens learn at least two foreign languages during their school years, at an early age, when learning is easier. In this respect, I still regret the decision made last year to impose English as the first compulsory foreign language in Slovak schools.

TSS: France is one of the biggest investors in Slovakia, with about 350 French firms here employing approximately 35,000 people. Do you think opportunities for economic cooperation have been fully explored? In what areas do you see more room for cooperation?
Nearly all large French companies are present in the Slovak market and many have invested in Slovakia. The majority of them came here shortly after the market-oriented reforms that took place in the late 1990s and in the early 2000s. SARIO [the Slovak Investment and Trade Development Agency] has been an efficient intermediary to many newcomers.

To name a few, among some of the best known French companies in Slovakia are: GDF-Suez, shareholders in SPP; PSA Peugeot Citroën in Trnava and its subsidiaries Faurecia and Gefco; EDF in SSE; Orange; Dalkia (Veolia group); Vinci; Accor hotels; Cheque Déjeuner; AXA; Air Liquide; Société Générale; Bongrain; Valeo; Lafarge; Legrand; Saint-Gobain; Schneider; Bouygues; Sanofi; and so on.
Many SMEs have followed and found good business opportunities in the Slovak market. As you mentioned, these companies employ more than 35,000 Slovaks. Yet, success brings success: Peugeot Citroën and other car manufacturers in Slovakia have attracted a number of subcontractors and service companies. Without being exhaustive, I can name some sectors with room for more cooperation, also subject to government policy choices, and these are the energy sector, specifically the nuclear sector and decommissioning and also construction. In the field of research and development, for example, the Allegro project offers a solid base for R&D in the nuclear sector and possible cooperation with Slovak experts. I would also name public-private partnership (PPP) construction projects for new infrastructure and management of public utilities.

It seems essential to give companies the opportunity to expand their activity and better serve the Slovak economy, even before trying to attract more new companies. But it is also the law of business: some companies might leave the Slovak market, whatever the reasons, such as banks or utilities. Some others are increasing their activities and sometimes encounter difficulties finding the qualified personnel they need.

TSS: Both Slovakia and France operate nuclear power plants. Is the attitude of your country changing regarding the use of nuclear power? How do you assess Germany’s decision to move away from nuclear energy and what impacts could this have on France?
The Fukushima disaster has stirred fears in public opinion about the use of this energy source. The completely unexpected technical consequences of a major natural disaster reminded the world of the paramount importance of safety in nuclear installations. This leads to two fundamental questions: how to prevent such accidents in existing nuclear facilities? In the longer term, is it necessary, reasonable and possible to consider phasing out nuclear, given the advantages and risks of this energy?

Concerning the first question, France welcomed very positively the EU request for stress tests, even extending the exercise to all nuclear facilities, not only the power reactors but also fuel and reprocessing facilities, as well as research reactors. Moreover, it was decided to have an open and transparent process. The French stress tests report was positively assessed by the EU peer reviewers. ENSREG, the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group, welcomed very favourably the wide range of improvement actions recommended by ASN, the French Safety Authority, to enhance the safety of French nuclear facilities beyond the safety margins they already have. Among these improvements, most are currently being implemented by EDF.

Regarding the second question, we know that it has given rise to debates of different intensity within countries that use nuclear energy or plan to use it. Some countries, like Germany, have chosen phasing out. Fourteen other countries in the EU, among them Slovakia, have expressed their will to continue operating their existing facilities by ensuring that this is done with the highest level of safety.

In France, this issue was one of the topics of the presidential campaign. You might be aware that President Hollande has set ambitious objectives regarding climate change and energy policy. Concerning nuclear energy, he proposed a reduction of the nuclear share, bringing it from 75 to 50 percent of the national electricity mix by 2025-2030, starting with the closure of the oldest plant, Fessenheim in Alsace, by 2017, when its reactors will be 40 years old.

However, that does not mean a step towards phasing out nuclear; it is only a step towards reaching EU requirements regarding the share of renewable energy by 2050. By 2030, 49 of the 58 existing nuclear reactors will be over 40 years old. This means, in parallel with the closure of old NPPS, that new units should be built, following the first EPR presently under construction in Flamanville, Normandy, whose ‘generation 3+’ reactor meets the highest safety requirements.

Finally, let me point to the fact that France and Slovakia have common interests and are in a position to develop further partnership to support the smart development of nuclear energy in the EU by promoting the principles which guarantee sustainable and responsible use of this energy: research of the highest levels of safety, security, non-proliferation and proper management of decommissioning and radioactive waste.

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