Interview With The French Ambassador to Russia

The Embassy of France in Russia

Jean-Maurice Ripert, French Ambassador to Russia

It has been a difficult year for French-Russian relations. How has the geopolitical situation affected your role as France's top diplomat in Russia?

All year long, I have been on duty 24/7 together with all my colleagues from the Embassy. This crisis is one of the most serious crises Europe has had to face since the end of the World War II. It has put at  risk the security of the European continent.

We had to inform Paris "live," be in constant contact with the Russian authorities and media and with members of Russian civil society, to be in a position to advise Paris as promply as possible on the evolutions taking place in Moscow and on possible ways out of the crisis. We had to set up two visits of President Hollande to Moscow with only a couple of hours' notice.

I also had to step up efforts to explain to the Russian public the European policy, which combines dialogue and sanctions. We have to convince opinion in Russia that sanctions are the consequence of the illegal annexation of Crimea and further destabilization of Ukraine and are not designed to hurt Russian citizens. And that France doesn't want Russia to drift away from Europe.

On the contrary, France wants to maintain the dialogue with the Russian authorities; to continue to reach out to the Russian population and to look beyond the present difficulties in order to expand as much as possible our dialogue and cooperation regarding the resolution of international crises — Russia and France are permanent members of the UN Security Council and have in this respect special responsibilities to fulfill — as well as our exchanges and business opportunities both ways. Let's remember that Russia still makes a major part of its commercial exchanges with the European Union: more than 52 percent of Russian exports were directed toward the EU in 2014.

I think that the "Normandy initiative" has shown Germany and France's commitment to working in good faith with both Kiev and Moscow to find solutions to the Ukrainian crisis.

French President Francois Hollande was very active in brokering the Minsk peace agreement between the Ukrainian leadership and the separatists in the Donbass. Do you think that this agreement will hold and French-Russian relations can start to improve?

President Hollande convened the first meeting in the "Normandy format" a year ago. He decided to bring in Chancellor Merkel and since then has visited Moscow twice to discuss the Ukraine crisis with President Putin, once tête-à-tête in December, then in a joint visit with the German chancellor. They also met in Milan and, very recently, in Yerevan. He's been in touch with both presidents Poroshenko and Putin over the phone almost on a daily basis at the time. In between those high level discussions, Foreign Affairs ministers are in constant contact.

The French president has put such effort and energy, together with Chancelor Merkel, to keep the dialogue going because restoring peace in Europe, upholding Ukraine's sovereignty and preventing Russia from drifting away from its European partner are essential to us. To us as French, to us as Europeans as well as to the Russian people.

This year the world marks the end of World War II. France and the Soviet Union were allies during the war; do you think this history is a useful place to start trying to rebuild French-Russian ties?

Not sure I agree with the way you put it. There is a serious crisis of trust between Europe and Russia since the illegal annexation of Crimea, but there is no need to "rebuild" our relationship. Cooperation and dialogue have continued throughout the crisis, despite our divergences.

That being said, France is keen to mark the importance of celebrating together with Russia our common historical landmarks. This is the reason why President Putin was invited in France last year by President Hollande to the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. And this is why the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, participated in the ceremonies in Moscow on May 9. We know very well what Europe owes to the people of the then Soviet Union and the Red Army, as well as we know how much we owe to the Americans, the British and all our other Allies from all continents that fought side by side to free Europe and the world from Nazism.

Let me tell you about one epic that epitomizes the French-Russian brotherhood of arms. In 1942 General de Gaulle, who was at that time leader of the Free French Forces based in London, sent a group of French Air Force pilots to fight alongside with Soviet forces on the Eastern Front. Together, French pilots and Soviet mechanics of the famous Normandie Niemen squadron fought in three campaigns on behalf of the Soviet Union up until May 9 1945, during which time they destroyed 273 enemy aircraft and received numerous orders, citations and awards from both France and the Soviet Union.

When we were interviewing you last year you had not been in Moscow long. In the past year you have been to many Russian cities — Rostov, Yekaterinburg etc. What did you  learn about Russia and its regions from these trips?

Since we met last year I have been indeed traveling throughout Russia: Irkutsk, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Kazan, Samara, Tolyatti. In the coming weeks I will be in Ufa and this autumn I will travel to the Far East with a visit to Yakutsk to discuss the impact of climate change on Russian regions. As you know France will host the UN COP21 on climate change in Paris this December. In Yakutsk, the melting of permafrost has a devastating effect.

Wherever I go in Russia I am struck by how much people are attracted to France. This is about culture, about science and technology and of course about business. For example, in Rostov and Kazan we shared expertise on transport and infrastructure ahead of the Euro 2016 in France and 2018 World Cup in Russia. With the Irkutsk local authorities last year we organized a French-Russian forum on prospects for tourism in Siberia and the Far East.

What do you think are the most promising industries for French-Russian cooperation?

France is one of the major investors in Russia. Direct investments are essential because they are a sign of both the confidence of the French companies in the future of the Russian economy and their long-term commitment. Despite current  difficulties, French investors are not leaving the country, we even hope to see a few new investments in the coming months. These investments — which are often in the high-tech sector — are particularly significant as they contribute to the much-needed diversification of the Russian economy and allow for transfer of technical know-how.

French companies are already very active in many sectors of the Russian economy: energy, transport, infrastructures, air and space, and of course the agrofood industry, in particular dairy products and meat.

France is also a growing destination for Russian investors: according to the Bank of France, the stock of Russian FDI in France has risen sharply since 2011, from 150 million euros in 2010 to 745 million euros in 2013. These figures include financial flows, mergers and acquisitions and investments in job-creating projects. Forty-three Russian companies are now based in France.

Russia is a very affordable destination for European travelers now given the value of the ruble compared to the euro. Do you think there are ways Russia can make itself more attractive to French tourists?  

Russia has always been an attractive destination for French tourists, for many reasons but, to my mind, first of all because of that mutual cultural attraction — should I say fascination ? — that has always driven our two people together and that has proven able to resist even the deepest crises. The French are known for their passion of tourism focused on cultural heritage, and enjoy visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In that respect, I wish to draw your attention to the decision we have made, together with my Russian counterpart in Paris, to celebrate in 2016 a "year of tourism and cultural heritage." In this framework, we will organize a number of events devoted to the fascinating heritage both countries possess.

Finally I would like to reiterate that there are no visa restrictions whatsoever for the Russian population to visit Europe, quite the opposite. As far as the French consulate is concerned, only 1.5 percent of all visa applications are turned down, and we deliver 40 percent of multientry visas over up to five years. Russian tourists are definitely most welcome in France!

Jean-Maurice Ripert

French Ambassador to Russia

May, 2015

Russia - France 2015
Russia - France 2015
Welcome to Russia-France business supplement, devoted to strengthening bilateral relations between Russia and France.
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