THE SLOVAK people have an outstanding capacity to face and overcome difficulties and to move forward, says Jean-Marie Bruno, France’s ambassador to Slovakia, adding that this has been especially clear since the beginning of the economic crisis. Bruno has been serving in Slovakia since 2010 and says that Slovakia has been a real discovery for him. The Slovak Spectator spoke to him about crisis-related challenges his homeland faces, but also the European Capital of Culture title, which in 2013 is shared by Marseilles and Košice.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): France remains the country with the highest public social spending to GDP ratio, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports. What are the reasons behind France’s top position in welfare spending and what are the challenges that come with this trend?
Jean-Marie Bruno (JMB): The level of welfare spending varies from one country to another and the social options of a nation depend on historical, political, and economic factors. According to the July 2013 OECD report, social spending went up when the crisis started to address a greater need for social support in a recession time. French spending and growth trends are similar to most OECD countries, though it remains the country with the highest public social spending-to-GDP ratio, 33 percent estimated in 2013, when the welfare state absorbs more than 30 percent of resources in Belgium, Denmark and Finland, and 19 percent in Slovakia. The main question is not the level but its sustainability. In that respect, the French government has undertaken ambitious reforms to stimulate growth, to encourage employment and to improve competitiveness in order to reduce the relative share of public spending, including social spending, in the overall French economy.
TSS: The European Commission earlier this year called on France to step up the pace of restructuring of, most importantly, its rigid labour market, while tacking its segmentation. What are the challenges your country faces in labour market policies and how will your government address these?
JMB: The French government took note of the EC recommendations, even though each government retains the competence over the best manner to respond to economic and social challenges. President François Hollande has promised to reverse the unemployment trend in France before the end of the year. Decisive action has therefore been taken to implement an agreement between employers’ and workers’ unions in order to better secure employment. The employment rate of older workers will be enhanced thanks to inter-generational work contracts, which will make the young unemployed benefit from the support of their elders. In 2013, the scheme “Emploi d’avenir”, which is partly financed by the state, aims at giving a job to 100,000 low qualified young people. In addition, the reform of vocational training is under way.
TSS: Earlier this year several French investors announced they were moving their production from countries such as the Czech Republic or Germany, to Slovakia. What is, in your opinion, the reason behind this? What advantages, if any, does Slovakia offer in comparison with other countries?
JMB: Different surveys show that foreign companies are satisfied with the investments they have realised in Slovakia and that most investors don’t regret their choice and would renew it today. In my opinion, the reforms undertaken before joining the European Union in 2004 and adopting the euro in 2009 were paramount. In addition, French managers have often mentioned to me the high quality of Slovak workers and their loyalty at work.
TSS: French public support for nuclear energy is increasing in advance of the French government deciding on its new energy policies, according to Bloomberg. What role will generating nuclear power play in France’s energy security and energy mix in the future?
JMB: Indeed, an important part of the French population is still supporting nuclear energy. A recent poll shows that 47 percent of French citizens see benefits in nuclear energy and 40 percent see drawbacks. In addition, 61 percent of French citizens are convinced that climate change is a reality and is due to human activities. In this context, nuclear energy, which, in addition to its advantages in terms of independence, security of supply and competitiveness, is one of the energies with the lowest emissions rate of greenhouse gases, is taking, now more than ever, its rightful place in the future energy mix. Last year, on September 28th, the Nuclear Policy Council reassessed France’s confidence in its nuclear technology and industry and its ambition to develop nuclear exports, based on the highest level of safety.
At the same time, this committee recommended the implementation of the measures derived from the so-
called “stress tests” and the reduction of the share of nuclear energy in the mix of electricity production to 50 percent by 2025, which is unavoidable in the context of increased use of electricity in the French energy mix. However, that does not mean a step towards phasing nuclear out; it’s only a step towards the EU requirements regarding the share of renewable energy by 2050, and realism.
By 2030, 49 of the 58 existing nuclear reactors will have exceeded 40 years, starting with the shut-down of the oldest power plant, Fessenheim, by 2017, when its reactors will be 40 years old. In parallel with the closure of old plants, this means that new units should be built, following the first EPR, which is under construction in Flamanville.
TSS: France is one of the biggest investors in Slovakia, but for which segments of the Slovak economy is there unexplored potential for cooperation between Slovakia and France?
JMB: According to the National Bank of Slovakia, France ranks at the eighth position as an investor in Slovakia, with a stock of inward direct investment of €1,558 million, less than 4 percent of the total, after correction of statistical bias, due to company registration, for example, in the Netherlands or in other countries. French investments are directed towards three main sectors: manufacturing at €317 million, particularly automotive, production and distribution of electricity, gas and steam, and services and wholesale trade, including car repair and financial and insurance activities. As for Slovak capital, it is almost non-existent in France.
TSS: Marseilles and Košice share the European Capital of Culture title in 2013. What were the challenges this title brought for Marseilles and how has the city managed these so far? Have you noticed any differences in the approach of the two cities, Košice and Marseilles, to fully exploring the opportunities this title brought?
JMB: The projects of Košice and Marseilles for their European cultural capital year are very close and they even follow the same line and both have put forward three themes: developing their city, bringing together inhabitants on federating projects and increasing direct democracy opportunities, even if the two cities are quite different in terms of geographical surroundings, economic activities or size.
The second French city has an ambivalent image: a dynamic, open and cosmopolitan city which, nevertheless, suffers from social problems and which needed a prospective project. For Marseilles the year 2013 is already a success: the festive programme has been very popular, a lot of infrastructure has been built to host new and challenging cultural infrastructure. Marseilles is more and more attractive for tourists and is developing an image of a creative and innovative city. During these past years, I have been noticing that Košice is exactly on the same path. All the projects implemented are successful. With Biela Noc, Spots, the Kunsthalle, for example, Košice has started a new dynamic and has been innovating in Slovakia with new concepts.
I am glad to notice that the two cities have worked together not only on specific projects but, more importantly, on key concepts to find an answer to common challenges: how to develop inhabitants’ involvement in public affairs? How to make it possible for culture to be a source of economic development?
The French Institute has, of course, been closely involved in this cooperation. For the last three years, the dialogue with the Košice 2013 team has been intensive and led to ambitious projects. The Institute has mainly supported innovative and festive projects: all projects which bring in Košice a new vision, a new way of doing culture, of thinking about the city. In the first rank of course is Biela Noc/Nuit blanche, one of the Košice’s flagship cultural events: for its 4th edition in 2013, five major French artists will be invited. But I could also mention the new Contemporary image Triennial, Use the City, the conferences cycle “Innovative city”, etc.
TSS: The French Embassy has supported the launch of the Slovak-French University Institute at Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica. What is the mission of this institute and what is its contribution to Slovak-French ties?
JMB: The Slovak-French University Institute (SFUI) is a Slovak association launched in 2011 by the French Embassy and Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica. One of its most important aims is to develop French programmes in Slovak universities. Since its creation SFUI has gathered 12 'French-Slovak dual degrees' and has contributed to the exchange of students, teachers and researchers between French and Slovak programmes. SFUI is also a link between the members of the French-speaking education communities: high schools, universities, firms and individuals using French in Slovakia.
It gives them the opportunity to network thanks to conferences and workshops organised by the SFUI. These events enhance partnerships between members: between Slovak and French universities, between universities and firms, etc. SFUI, for example, introduces French speaking schools and universities at student fairs and also talks about French firms in Slovakia and their recruitment policies.
SFUI’s contribution to the French-Slovak relationship is important insofar as it involves all the actors of the French speaking community: from children at schools to business managers working with France and Slovakia, including teachers, students and researchers.
TSS: Do you see Slovakia as a country that is attractive to French tourists? Which aspects of Slovak history and culture could lure French tourists?
JMB: French tourists certainly like to discover your country, which is still a kind of hidden secret in France, although we share some common history. General Štefánik embodies somehow our relationship. French and Slovak people fought together during World War II. These two examples are not the only ones. We are currently preparing an exhibition dealing with our bilateral relationship and our research shows that ties are ancient and numerous. This exhibition should be opened during the visit of President Hollande this fall.
TSS: Hw do you assess the interest of Slovaks in learning French in light of the competition with other languages?
JMB: I do not look at languages in terms of competition. I recently met Mr [Dušan] Čaplovič [the minister of education] and we agreed on the fact that multilingualism should be a priority in Europe. It is in that spirit that we support four French-Slovak bilingual high schools and 12 French university study programmes in Slovakia. Slovak students have therefore more possibilities to spend part of their studies in France, obtain a joint degree and start an international career in a French company or in the public service. This sounds to me like an efficient way of supporting linguistic diversity in Europe.
Furthermore, I’ve been amazed during my mission in Slovakia by the interest devoted to France, its language, its culture, its model and its values. Keeping this interest alive, keeping the possibility for Slovak students to discover other foreign languages, was one of the most challenging and rewarding tasks that I’ve dealt with in this country.
9. Sep 2013 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová