The French connection

2017-03-05 06:01
Ambassador-Designate Christophe Farnaud came into office on 27 January to succeed Elisabeth Barbier, photographed here in his office at the French consulate in Gardens, Cape Town. Picture: Lerato Maduna Photo:Lerato Maduna

Ambassador-Designate Christophe Farnaud came into office on 27 January to succeed Elisabeth Barbier, photographed here in his office at the French consulate in Gardens, Cape Town. Picture: Lerato Maduna Photo:Lerato Maduna

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France most likely meant business when it asked one of defence company Thales’ top guys, Christophe Farnaud, to become its ambassador to South Africa.

The 51-year-old is so tall he has to stoop to fit through the doors of the French consulate in Cape Town, where he attended the opening of Parliament and is establishing government partnerships in fields such as health and small business.

The reserved, suave man has been the talk of the annual round of diplomatic cocktail parties in the city for the past three weeks.

Even on Twitter, tongues wagged about “the French guy”, who is immaculately groomed on a picture next to less-well-turned-out Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies.

The social-media cringers, however, mostly missed the tweets about the total trade between South Africa and France – growing by 6.2% a year on average between 2010 and 2015 – and South African exports to France, which include vehicles, aircraft and machinery.

France in turn brings us pharmaceuticals, electrical and electronic equipment, turbo jets, vaccines and opening this week the famously delectable bakery chain Paul.

There is also the French bid for South Africa’s tender for nuclear power stations, which is now facing stiff Russian competition.

When news of Farnaud’s appointment broke in August, publication Jeune Afrique reported that Paris hoped Farnaud could help secure the bid.

An "irresistible" offer

Farnaud, a career diplomat, landed in Pretoria last month fresh from a four-year foray into the private sector, first as vice-president: international relations, then as vice-president: Africa, for Thales.

The defence, aerospace and transportation behemoth was tainted by allegations that it paid kickbacks in the 1990s arms deal with South Africa.

One tender secured during Farnaud’s tenure at Thales was a R1.87bn railway signalling contract from the Passenger Rail Agency of SA in 2013, which was then led by CEO Lucky Montana, who has since been disgraced.

Farnaud adjusts his position in the chair and shifts his long legs when asked about Thales, stressing that his positions in the public and private sectors “are separate things”.

He returned to diplomacy, he says, because the offer of an ambassadorship to the “great and beautiful” South Africa was irresistible.

“The fact that I worked in the private sector for the past few years helped me understand the constraints of the company. There are no direct links between my personal experience and this project,” he says.

“The nuclear project is an important one for this country, and potentially for us as well, but de facto, France and South Africa already have a partnership in the nuclear field.”

The French were in charge of building and providing the technology for the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in the 1970s, and French company Areva was awarded the tender to refurbish it in 2014.

Farnaud visited Koeberg almost two weeks ago and says the French-South African nuclear energy partnership had helped develop skills.

Mixed perceptions

In business, things might be fairly civil, but, politically, leaders such as International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane have been disdainful about France’s presence in Africa.

There is a perception in government, for example, that the fiercest opposition against former AU Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure came from Francophone countries.

France is widely seen as continuing to meddle in its former colonies’ affairs, and the fact that the French media published critical articles about Dlamini-Zuma’s performance at the AU has not smoothed Farnaud’s path.

But he insists relations are strong: “South Africa for us is the biggest partner in sub-Saharan Africa and even one of our biggest partners worldwide.”

Besides its numerous competencies, infrastructure, industrial capabilities and strong democracy, South Africa is influential in the region and a player on the international stage, he says.

“In climate change, we did an excellent job together, France and South Africa, on COP21 and the adoption and implementation of the Paris Agreement,” he says of the 2015 conference.

President Jacob Zuma’s state visit in July was also a success.

Farnaud says France will keep supporting peace-keeping efforts on the continent, something South Africa has been heavily invested in.

He admits, though, that international relations have become more complicated, saying: “Never have there been so many intercultural exchanges, but never have there been so many occasions for misunderstanding.”

Diplomats, journalists and artists, among others, are needed to build bridges and help people understand, he says.

In line with its principles of soft diplomacy, the embassy this year will be staging Molière’s famous comedy Tartuffe in a number of South African theatres.

“Some countries say there is internet, [so] we don’t need analysis, or because there is internet and Twitter, we don’t need diplomats. It is exactly the contrary. Because there is internet and Twitter, you need diplomats,” he says.

The importance of this is evidenced by a right-wing wave sweeping Europe after the UK’s decision last year to leave the European Union.

In France, far-right anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen stands a chance of being elected as president in May, but Farnaud does not want to make predictions.

“You must not take for granted that because there was Brexit and there was [US President Donald] Trump, the same will happen in France and later on in Germany,” he says.

Farnaud says people have a deep-seated fear, “not just relating to economic changes, but they have question marks about their own identity; they have question marks about the efficiency of their political systems. All of these go together.”

For now, the line is that whatever happens, the election won’t affect France’s international relations.

“You can be sure that South Africa and Africa will remain a priority for the international policy of France,” he says.

Farnaud’s diplomatic career began in Cairo in 1994 and he did his first ambassadorial stint in Athens from 2007 to 2011. In between, he was in the Middle East and back in Paris as the prime minister’s diplomatic adviser.

Farnaud’s wife, Hélène Farnaud-Defromont, a director-general of administration in the foreign affairs ministry, will stay behind in Paris with their three children, who are 19, 16 and 12.

Any decisions on how to get the family together again will have to wait until the middle of the year, when the school year ends, he says.

“We are not accustomed to a divided family. Skype and WhatsApp are helping, but it has its limits,” he says, shrinking slightly. Until then, his focus will have to be on the job.

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