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Sunday, April 25, 1999
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‘The borders are vanishing’

SINCE August 1996, His Excellency Claude Blanchemaison, the Ambassador of France, has been quite successfully trying to reduce the distance between Paris and Delhi. In spite of the high-pressure job that he has, he does not let it drain his lively sense of humour, or the love of life. Born in 1944 in the province of Touraine, he studied at Lycee Descartes of Tours. He did Law and a diploma in economics from University of Paris, and later graduated from HEC Business School and the Institute of Political Sciences, Paris.

He did National Service in 1970, and in 1973 he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and thereafter he was posted as First Secretary for the Permanent Representation of France to the European Union, Brussels. Later in 1982, he was seconded to the office of the Prime Minister as Deputy General Secretary of the Interministerial Committee for Questions of European Economic Cooperation. In 1985, he was sent as Charge d’affaires and First Counsellor, South Africa. He later served as Joint Secretary for the Far East, and was the Ambassador in Vietnam.

Claude Blanchemaison was in Chandigarh on an official visit, and he spoke to Kuldip Dhiman at the Alliance Francaise ‘Le Corbusier’ de Chandigarh. Excerpts:

For most Indians, the idea of France does not extend beyond the Eiffel Tower, and perhaps, the French, too, think of India as a land of snake charmers and sages. Isn’t it time to do something about such stereotypes?

There is a lot to be done in this direction. Although our relations have improved significantly after India won her independence, there are stereotyped views on both sides. We must find ways of understanding each other. There isn’t enough awareness about India’s achievements in science and technology, not enough awareness about its vibrant economy. If you take into account our very good political relationship, the economic relations are not as good as they should have been. I would like to stress here that we have great love for India in general and the beautiful city of Chandigarh and its people in particular. We are very proud to be a part of its growth.

After India opened its doors to foreign investment, the Americans have come in a very big way, the Germans, Japanese and Koreans are here; the French are here, but no one is sitting up and taking much notice.

That’s very true. But some of the big French players are here already, and we have many joint ventures in the pipeline. Earlier, most French business people were wary about setting up businesses in India. The climate is more favourable now, and the mood is very positive, and things are steadily moving in the right direction.

How are the plans about the expansion of the Airbus, and the starting of the Delhi-Kanpur superfast train shaping up?

The Airbus industry is a joint venture between France, Germany, Spain and the UK. France and Germany have the biggest stake in the venture. There is a lot of scope for cooperation between the Airbus industry and India. Discussions are afoot. As far as the railway project is concerned, the French minister for transportation was here a few weeks ago, and all these things are being reviewed. I am not aware of the status of certain specific projects such as the one you just mentioned.

Two flags, one of France and the other of the European Union, can be seen flying at the French Embassy in New Delhi. Is the gesture symbolic, or is there more to it?

Well, some other countries are also flying two flags. The German Embassy, which is not very far from ours, also hoists two flags. I think it is an important symbol. France sees herself as a nation, and also as a part of the European Union that has been shaping up over the last 40 years. Our latest achievement is the single currency that has been adopted by 11 of the 15-members states. We are very committed to the European Union because it is a very important part of our foreign policy.

There used to be impregnable walls and barriers in parts of Europe, could we now expect the borders to blur altogether?

Of course, the borders are vanishing. People can move freely, goods can move freely in the European Union.

Do the French have any fear about losing their identity by becoming part of the European Union?

I think each European country has its own strong culture identity, and would very much like to retain it. We are not going to lose our literature, art, architecture, music, and cinema because of the European Union. We are Europeans and we have certain things in common. I think, if we want to have a say in the next millennium, we must be part of the European Union and yet retain our cultural identity. We are sure it is possible to do so. It is a big challenge, no doubt, but that’s what we have been trying to achieve in the last 40 years.

Take the case of the German reunification; here people have the same culture, the same history, the same language, and yet they are finding it difficult to come to terms with each other. In the case of the European Union you have to reckon with more than a dozen countries and cultures.

When you talk about the same culture for Germany, it is very true; when you talk about the same history, it is only partly true. East and West Germany have had a different history for some time, and that’s the root of the problem. Although originally they were one, the political social and economic structure of East Germany was different from that of West Germany. The political philosophy was different, the perceptions and aspirations were different for some time. And Germany is overcoming its problems and challenges very well indeed.

In the case of the European Union, too, there might be difficulties, but we are determined to overcome them. Competition could create problems for a while. It could lead to unemployment and redundancy in some cases. And with the single currency, fiscal and momentary policies will limit the possibility of the national government having its own economic policy. But at this stage of our development, it is the best we can do. There is a lot more to gain than lose. Anyway we cannot go back on the European Union now; the move is irreversible.

In this age of information explosion, the Internet, and the advance of the English language, do the French have any fears of losing their culture and language?

Language is not a big problem. We have to come to terms with the fact that all over the world most scientific people tend to use English for communication. Newton wrote his theories in Latin, because that was the language of his time; now it is English. Once this problem of communication is solved, we can talk about foreign language. French is doing very well in India, because it is one of the first foreign languages preferred by educated Indians, and that is because you have already solved the problem of learning English and I don’t think we have any fear or resentment of American culture. In France we have very big festival of American films and we like them very much. Of course, we like French films, as well!

However, a couple of years ago there was some talk about the Academie Francaise imposing fines on people using foreign expressions.

L’Academie Francaise is a very prestigious institution, and I don’t think they fine people; they don’t have that power. Their objective is to keep the French language as pure as possible, but they are very pragmatic and they include new words and expression from time to time. They have always maintained a good balance. The truth is, it is they who follow the people rather than the other way round, because people are the real custodians of language and culture. As you might be aware, we just celebrated the Francophonie Day, the day of the lovers of the French language. The French language does not belong to France alone, it belongs to the whole world, to anyone who loves to speak it.

You have been a foreign diplomat for a very long time, do you remember any case where you were instrumental in, let’s say, ‘shaping history’?

I firmly believe that a civil servant should never write his memoirs, although I don’t criticise others who choose to write. I am not going to disclose any big things that you might be expecting me to. It is the magnitude of our job that, at times, we are associated with big events, and, at times, we are instrumental in policy making, but it’s not fair to talk about it and take credit for it.

Do you remember any embarrassing moments; times when you found yourself in a tight spot?

Of course, I have had my moments, but I am here today, it proves that I have overcome those situations.

The popular belief is that a foreign diplomat’s life is very easy, full of fun, games and cocktails. Comment.

That’s probably the old literary and romantic image of the diplomat, and you find it depicted in literature of the past, even in the French literature. In Proust you have a beautiful, traditional image of diplomats. I think the world has changed, and diplomats have been doing very difficult jobs, at times dangerous jobs, and at times they do have pleasant experiences. It is a great privilege to do that job, but it is a very demanding high-pressure job. But it is fascinating, c’est fascinant!

Once you leave a country do you miss it, or does it become just another posting?

Every posting is an everlasting experience. It stays with you in memories long after the experience is over. You don’t forget, but you have to get on with life. La vie continue.Back

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