Nepal and France, although far away in terms of geography, stand shoulder to shoulder at several fronts, including peace-keeping operations, and people to people contact. France is the fourth country after UK, USA and India to establish diplomatic ties with Nepal. On April 20 this year, Nepal and France celebrated their 70th Anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations. Ishwar Dev Khanal of Khabarhub caught up Mr. Francois-Xavier Leger, Ambassador of France to Nepal to discuss Nepal-France relations. Excerpts:
It’s almost a year now; you are in Nepal. How is Nepal treating you?
Nepal is treating me very well. I feel very comfortable here. I started my tenure in September 2018. I have been meeting very many people from different walks of life since then. And yes, I am also getting a very warm welcome from them. People here have a very good image of France. It’s really a pleasure to be here.
Allow me to use the term ‘milestone’ as Nepal-France have been celebrating their 70th anniversary of bilateral relations. How do you feel and how do you plan to move ahead from this ‘milestone’ — a celebration of 70-long years of bilateral relations?
The 70th anniversary has given us the opportunity to materialize lots of potentials that we have in various sectors, for instance we had a visit of Nepali Prime Minister K P Oli to France in June and during that visit the two sides had engaged in official talks on a range of issues such as international politics, peaceful resolution of conflicts, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of press, among other issues. We, in fact, share several similarities between us warranting strong mutual engagements on various fronts. It’s really amazing. However, I remember there was a time when both the countries didn’t have much political dialogue — it was a state of political deficit of engagements which didn’t arise from hostility rather it came from the absence of any outstanding issues (or problems) between the two countries in their bilateral relations. Things between the peoples of Nepal and France are so settled and smooth-sailing that we don’t have much to talk. My priority as a diplomat here is to further strengthen bilateral relations between France and Nepal by visiting each other country. Frequent meet of officials and common citizens from both countries help strengthen the ties. This is my priority as a facilitator diplomat here.
At the moment, how strong or weak is the Nepal-French relationship after 70-years of the diplomatic journey together? What is at the top of your mind in terms of France’s priority in Nepal at the moment?
My first priority is to do research on the bilateral relations between France and Nepal. Currently, Nepal’s image in France is the same old one as it existed during 2006 or 2008 — the era of political stalemate. Now, Nepal has gone ahead undergoing fast political change with transformation clearly visible at socio-economic life pattern of the Nepalese people. I must say France reassessed and restructured the image of Nepal and Nepalese people so that people of France know what the political, social and economic reality of Nepal is in 2019. Today, Nepal is a democracy with all the human rights guaranteed to people and enjoys political stability. Nepal’s economy is growing faster than before. This is a good sign as a number of French companies are showing interest to start a business in Nepal. I honestly believe that the French government would reassess its position in Nepal to show all the much deeper commitment by being the development partner of emerging Nepal. I am feeling happy to tell you France has already decided to reinstate facility to extend loans to Nepal at a concessional rate. I am sure this will go a long way to further deepen our mutual relations.
Nepal and France enjoy a multidimensional relationship in several areas of human activities besides politics and economics. For example, the two countries have special ties in mountaineering and film-making. Just take French movie-maker Erik Valle for a reference. His movies received an Academy Award nomination. How do you look at the whole thing?
Nepal and France have had a long partnership — a bond of togetherness. French people love Nepal. When I was appointed here, French people used to tell me how lucky I was to get appointed to a beautiful country like Nepal. Since Nepal has a very positive image in France, we need to build on this very image in France. A Frenchman Erik Valle, like many other French people, has made special contributions to promote Nepal-France relations. We, in fact, must connect to people like Erik Valle as they help collect and mobilize all the strengths that the two countries have. They are the kind of people who bring a new image of Nepal not only to France but to the whole world.
Embassy of France in Kathmandu is trying its best to report Nepal which is transforming like anything at all the fronts political, economic and social. France should know the real Nepal of 2019 and this is why we appointed Miss Nepal 2018 Shrinkhala Khatiwada as a Goodwill Ambassador who will convey all the positive image of Nepal to French people in France. I am quite satisfied with this mission which has turned out to be a success. We have also put up on her a YouTube channel. Will you believe that the channel attracted more than 180 thousand views in just over a week? This mission is to reach all across France and will definitely increase tourism here, among others.
You talked about promoting tourism and creating a positive image of Nepal in France. In this context, Nepal is celebrating VNY 2020 with the aim of bringing in around 2 million tourists. Can Nepal expect an increased number of French tourists then?
In fact, the issue is not to bring in tourists here once or twice. The issue should be to ensure that tourists spend more money in Nepal. Let me emphasize two points: Firstly, how we can diversify as a destination by bringing in more numbers of tourists in different places across the country not just in the peak season but also during the off-season. We also need to try to upgrade the standard of hospitality business directly catering to the tourists so that tourists make their stay relatively longer and spend more money than they used to do earlier. Nepal as a society has to remain very open and helping in nature. Such attitudes attract tourists anywhere in the world.
Does this mean that the number of French tourists will go up in the coming years?
Definitely, the number will go up. Around 32 thousand French tourists visit Nepal every year. It’s increasing every year. I am optimistic that more French tourists will come to Nepal. I have recorded the evidence that there are many French tourists who visit Nepal several times as one time is not enough for them. It is very reassuring because it shows that they feel happy, easy and comfortable here. They carry a memorable experience from here and sharing the same with others in France in a way act as the marketing of Nepal tourism to the outside world. It is to note here that French tourists visiting Nepal more than once go in favor of Nepal because it proves that tourists feel happy here and they take others along too while visiting for second or more times. Apart from hospitality, Nepal must work on building up other important infrastructures which help the tourists directly such as transportation, communication, policing and health-care besides rescuing the tourists from dangers. This is how senior visitors from France will visit Nepal without any fear of emerging danger in the course of touring the country.
Nepal and France have instigated political dialogue at the foreign secretary-level. Can Nepal expect some high-level political visits from France in the near future?
In fact, I am working hard to have some high-level political visits to Nepal from France. However, I cannot say it outright anything about its real happening. I am still working on it. I sincerely hope that it will take place in the future.
What areas is France expected to invest in Nepal? To recall, the government has given assurance of creating a conducive environment for foreign investments in recently held Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Summit.
We are working in two directions in the context of French investment in Nepal. Firstly, Nepal is to be promoted as a potential destination for foreign investment. Just last April, we organized a business forum in Nepal with the FNCCI at our side and we invited 15 French companies to interact with the Nepali business community and also assess the possibilities of joint and independent ventures here in Nepal by understanding the administrative and political structure of the country. Secondly, we want to launch and support some flagship projects to set in transformation in the economic and social fields of Nepal. These projects will act as insignia and replica symbolizing the friendship between France and Nepal. Moreover, if these flagship projects get successful, it will boost the confidence of other investors waiting in France for getting the right opportunity to make an investment in the country. I have two such projects in my mind — one is the communication satellite and another one is the transportation project for launching an urban cable car in Nepal.
For the launch of the communication satellite, we are negotiating with the Nepali government. Once this project takes off, it will revolutionize the communication world of Nepal including telephones and television reaching as far as remote areas of the country. This will definitely help in bridging the digital gap existing in the country with reference to urban and rural divide in terms of access to technology. Cities like Kathmandu and villages in the remote district of Nepal will have equal access to education, healthcare, and administration once the project of communication satellite gets a go-ahead signal from the Government of Nepal. It will bring in a lot of new opportunities besides spurring economic growth in the country. In the French embassy here in Kathmandu, we are placing all the support system ready through discussions and I am sure a positive outcome will soon come before all of us.
The second project is all about building a track of an urban cable car in and around Kathmandu. A French company has already shown its interest to complete the project in case the government of Nepal clears the bureaucratic formalities. Once the transportation project I am referring to is complete, it will be a great solution to all the traffic jam, traffic congestion in the capital city. A cable car is a great option for Nepal because it will not take longer to complete and it is also eco-friendly and much cheaper. For tourists too, this will be an amazing experience.
A significant number of French NGOs, probably 500 of them, are engaged in some way or the other with Nepal. How do you assess their performance? And what do they basically do here?
Several French NGOs (perhaps over 500) – big and small — have been working in different areas of Nepal engaged in the sectors like human rights, inclusion, and action against hunger which have been actively working in local areas in specific fields. These NGOs have been created by individuals. People from France who usually visit Nepal for tourism develops some human relations with local people in villages. This is how NGOs have come into existence driven by spirit and emotions of empathy and sympathy for helping locals of Nepal.
After returning to France, these benevolent French nationals raise funds to open up NGOs in Nepal. Thanks to these NGOs, many numbers of schools, health posts and community houses at the local level have sprung up making positive contributions in the life of Nepalese people. Actually, it is the best example of people to people contact, which is highly commendable. Initially, French tourists used to come here for mountaineering, trekking, and other activities. Now, they make their stay longer saying, ‘‘Oh! Nepali people are so nice, smiling, friendly and resilient.” The impression cast by common people of Nepal inspires the French tourists to do something for Nepal. Therefore, the element of human relationships between the two countries is more important than anything else. French people come to Nepal again and again because they feel Nepali people are their friends. This is purely people-to-people contact. The Embassy of France only facilitates this relationship. Basically, people of France and Nepal do their activities themselves on their own and take this tie further. These NGOs are working very well to my satisfaction.
How do you analyze Nepal’s current political situation?
As I said earlier, Nepal is a democracy. Nepal had a very historical and significant transition in the recent past, which is exemplary because everything (political transition) went on very smoothly. The world should learn from Nepal’s peace process and political transition from monarchy to democracy that happened without any bloodshed. I am not making any judgment but it was the choice of the Nepali people. Now Nepal has started enjoying political stability. I really commend the political maturity that the people of Nepal have shown in the entire process. And, I am fully convinced that Nepal has a bright future, especially I trust the young generation here. They are really smart, conscious and aware of all issues, including social engagements. The young generation is the real treasure of the country.
Do you have anything more to share?
In Nepal, you have not only ‘Happy Nepali Prosperous Nepal’, but you have also happy friends, and I am one of them!