Interview of HE Mr Yves GAUDEUL in The Nation, July 8, 2007
Your Excellency, the day seen as the day of birth of the modern France, July 14 is known as Bastille Day, what is the day to France and her citizens all over the world?
It commemorates the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. The storming of the Bastille was seen as a symbol of the uprising of the modern French "nation", and of the reconciliation of all the French inside the constitutional monarchy which preceded the First Republic, during the French Revolution.
It came because the people then saw the absolute power of the king as far from acceptable. So the storming of the Bastille and the change of the order was a turning point, hence the celebration.
The other meaning if you go back into more political issues is that at that time, before the Bastille Day, not all the people were equal. Some were privileged. There were three orders, i.e. ordinary people, the clergy and the nobility and at that point, only the ordinary people paid tax. The nobility and the clergy were exempted.
The situation from that day turned out to be such that all became equal before the law. It means that the law no longer places one above another.
It was not that land and wealth were distributed equally but that all French citizens had and have equal rights under the law.
For us, it is a very important event. And it was important for a lot of countries throughout Europe as it was the starting point of an evolution towards an equal status.
Since that day, how has it been for France?
Right after the revolution there was a period of turmoil and terror. Some people wanted to go too far and lots of peoples – clergy and nobility were killed, most of them guillotined. Then there was the Napoleon era from1804 which was another era of dictatorship. He was defeated in the battle of Waterloo, and the King then came back in a period called the restoration. We, from then, had a long period of change spanning two centuries in which we had 17 different constitutions. We have been a stable country for more than 50 years. We went through two world wars but have managed to remain a country, prosperous, and playing our role.
We have since teamed up with several countries of Europe, at the very beginning with Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany to form what is now known as the European Union. We were six at first; we got to 9, 12, 15, and now 27.
The main trend now is to build the EU and to grow and prospere; and integrate new countries, particularly those within the old Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, though we have some difficulties with Turkey.
We must admit that we have had a troubled history, we have however moved on such that we are now well placed to face the global economy. More than this, we have maintained an enviable position in the community of nations.
At the end, the people of France are free, they are rich, not everybody though, we are in peace, and we are members of important international economic and political bodies.
In what ways has France’s global economic and political status affected her relations with Nigeria?
Nigeria most of the time have similar position to France’s on how to deal with the problems confronting the world, small and big ones. We have had, in this regard, very good relations with Nigeria. And we are also in favour of economic integration in Africa, we are in favour of NEPAD, and want all African countries to work together and pursue their common views.
And Nigeria being one of the largest country in terms of population is very important. It is essential to share opinions and views with Nigeria on account of her position and her prospects in the continent and the world.
We have very good economic relations with Nigeria but there is a lot of room for improvement. Our level of economic relations we must say however is higher than our level of political relations. Even when there was a situation of friendship between former President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Chirac, the level of visits of France government officials to Nigeria was low. We hope to however build on it in the new dispensation.
You mentioned the fact that the level of economic relations between Nigeria and France is bigger than the level of political relations. Is it also true of France and other Africa countries, particularly Anglophone countries, since it is a known fact that relations with the Francophone countries are closer?
I think we are discovering Anglophone Africa. It is true of Ghana with who we have an important relation, though quite new. It was easier with Ghana because she is a smaller country and cooperation doesn’t need as much money as we’ll need in Nigeria. We also have a very good relationship with South Africa and our relationship is important because of the specific realities of the region.
In the Eastern part of Africa, we are developing relationship but such are still low.
In summary, we began with Francophone countries, we have developed relations with Lusophone African countries, and now we are getting more and more committed to and involved with the Anglophone countries. The language problem is not a problem any more.
France’s current president, Nicolas Sarkozy in the events preceding the last election emphasised the need for France to open up more, he said this thing about expanding the use of English language. Is it a carry over of this that France is reaching out to more countries outside the Francophone African States?
There are two aspects to the question. The first is that we want to continually develop the French language and make it one of the most important internationally accepted languages in international organisations. Either in the UN or other international bodies, we ask for bilingual interpretations and documentations, so that we can have documents written in French.
At the same time, we realise more and more, especially in business even in politics that we have to be open to other cultures, the culture of the UK and the US as well as other countries, we are also open to the German speaking countries. We are in favour of a diversity of cultures. As you know a convention has been signed at the level of UNESCO of which Nigeria is a signatory on the issue of diversity of culture.
The underlying philosophy is that the world will be better with many cultures. If we have just one culture, it will be boring and the people will not understand the differences and similarities between themselves and others and be able from there to be more open to others.
We realise this and that is why young people in France are aware of the need to understand English. It is will be very difficult to make any career in France now without having a satisfactory level of understanding of English language.
For instance, as with computers it is becoming increasingly difficult to live now without it, foreign language is as important. For peoples of Europe, the future for instance will demand that they have working understanding of at least two other languages apart from the one of their countries.
Other countries of Europe are doing better than us now in that direction. The Netherlands, Germany and Spain have put more emphasis on other languages than we did so we are trying to do better so as to at least draw level.
France had elections almost at the same time as Nigeria. There were no disputes about the results as we have here. At the earlier stages, most European countries were forthright about the truths of the Nigerian polls, but not long after that, Europe and indeed the rest of the World are urging Nigeria to move ahead by accepting the product of the polls. Has the involvement of France, and by extrapolation all the other European countries, been sufficient in the democratic evolution of Africa. With Nigeria as a reference point, have you done enough? Can you still do more?
That is an interesting question. It is true that we sent observers for the last election. It was a European team with many nations represented. I think we had about 150 observers with the chief being from the Netherlands. Also, the French embassy sent a few individuals to observe for our own purposes. It is true from what we saw that the elections were not free and fair and this much every other observer, mission and country have said.
It has been said publicly by the EU, and the European parliament also made another statement, which was well reported here.
The truth however is that you have a president. INEC has announced a winner, and we have to accept the process as done by Nigerians, who have not revolted against this fact of life. There are voices raised in disagreement with this reality and some are in court challenging the result. Be that as it may, there is a president who is at the head of the government of Nigeria and that reality is sufficient for relationships.
It is sad for Nigerians who feel that the outcome did not reflect their democratic decisions at the polls. But, I must confess that I have no idea if the PDP would have won or lost had the elections been free and fair. So, that is an option we never got to see materialise.
In life, it is such that you have to go forward. What we have is a president who in honesty admitted that the elections were flawed. That is a good way to start. Also, he seems to have a clear idea of the problems. He wants to fight corruption. We also saw him quickly implement the judgement of the Supreme Court as in the Anambra State.
He was open, at the last strike, to dialogue and an agreement was found. So we may have to look at other parameters to judge the man. We must also be conscious of what he is doing. The Nigerian people seem to like what he is doing. The president seems to want to work in a progressive direction by listening to the courts, listening to the opposition and engaging labour in dialogue. I think we have to give him a chance.
France is a big player in Africa, and there are crisis points here and there on the continent; Darfur, Sierra Leone, Somalia, etc. Even in Zimbabwe there are problems. What has been the role of France in maintaining, or evolving peace, as it were, in Africa?
In Sierra Leone and Liberia, though we were not at the forefront, we supported what the UN and ECOWAS have been able to do. You have to remember that ECOWAS has displayed efficiency and effectiveness in peace keeping and finding political settlement to crisis in the sub continent.
On Darfur, we had an important ministerial meeting on Monday 25 June in Paris with several dignitaries present under the chairmanship of the new French Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr Bernard Kouchner. Mrs Condoleeza Rice was there, and the UN Secretary General was there among many others. I think it was a successful conference and we hope that the outcome is a step in the right direction. We do not pretend that everything has been solved. Going back to Liberia, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf was in France and was received by President Sarkozy.
We are less involved in Zimbabwe. It is more of a matter for the British but we have tried to convince President Mugabe to make reforms, to listen to his population. I think he is leading the nation to a catastrophe. But we want to help him, not to punish him. We have to help the Zimbabweans to get out of what is a political as well as an economic crisis.
It is a difficult situation, because oftentimes in the process of making the leader of a country accountable, the people suffer. Apart from these, we are also involved in the settlement of difficulties in Chad, CAR and we try to do our best.
Looked at in a wholistic form, it is obvious that Africa is going through less periods of crisis now than in the immediate past. It is more peaceful than 3 or four years ago and that is encouraging. Also, the growth of Africa is not as bad as it used to be. It was estimated at about 6% as at last June. That, you will agree with me, is not enough for the millennium development goals, but we hope that the AU summit in Ghana have set the tone for further growths and development.
What do you think was interesting about the AU summit?
That is a question that should be directed at the African leaders. But I think that because it looked at the prospects of strengthening the Unity of Africa, it is interesting. My understanding of it, though I am not qualified to exercise any deep knowledge of the underlying politics, is that some countries prefer to work within the ambit of sub-regional institutions i.e they want Africa to begin from the basics. But some others are more ambitious and want to create immediately a federation of African states with an army, a common currency and all the trappings. Another group think it is too early to do that and that there are too many problems to be solved. The decision is one that is best left for Africans to take. What we know is that we are willing to continue to help Africa to achieve her potentials.
Candidly, what would you say are the specific interest of France in Nigeria?
To be very sincere, we do have clear economic interest. You are a huge country with a large population and that means Nigeria is a huge market. Also, we are interested in the oil and gas that Nigeria has in abundance. French companies are working here, though it sometimes gets tough to do so. We are pleased with the results we get. Not only with Total or other companies in Nigeria, but we are talking of consumer goods like cement, and some other important consumer goods, so economic relations is certainly the first area of interest.
Secondly, Nigeria is hugely influential in sub-Sahara Africa. In peacekeeping and security, we need Nigeria. That is why we are building on our relations with Nigerian on the political sphere. We must confess that Nigeria has done creditably well in recent years in arresting crises in Africa, if you look at Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Liberia and even in Darfur. The agreement on Darfur was signed in Abuja and Nigeria has three battalions in Darfur, a costly exercise in human and material terms.
We know Darfur is a different place to deploy soldiers and Nigeria has lost a number in Darfur. So Nigeria is quite important to the peace of Africa. You have men in most places, and that is to Nigeria’s credit.
On culture, Nigeria is one of the countries in Africa having a diverse and vast culture. One Nigerian Director, Wale Adenuga, was rewarded in Ouagadougou with the first price and his film on the child-soldiers was good, very interesting. You also have good music which could be further developed. You have good literature with two of your people recently honoured with awards for their literary works. So essentially, a country that is able to have what Nigerian has and its diversities cannot help but interest every serious player in the international system. Above all, Nigeria with its diverse cultures and people is big enough and interesting enough to attract attention.
What, in your opinion, has France lost or gained from the crisis in the Niger Delta?
I do not see what we can gain from the crisis at all. But we are losing a lot. We have had our people taken as hostage, though fortunately released.
The situation has made operations much more difficult and expensive. More is being expended on security and logistics and that is not helping at all. Also, since the quantity of oil and gas produced has reduced, this has impacted negatively on the prices of these international goods. Even if the increases are a few dollars they count in the long run. French companies in Nigeria are as a result of this not making as much as they could have made and so that had too.
I think much has been done already to realise that perhaps the people of the Delta region have not been treated in a fair way in the past by the federal government, by state and local governments as well as by the companies.
But we must say that French companies have a fair understanding of the needs of the region and are ready always to pay maximum attention.
We hope that now that we all know what the people want and there is a realisation that the problems would have to be solved, the condition of living of the people will begin to improve.
Really, I do not know what you mean by “gaining” from it. We really cannot be gaining from the crisis.
The question of what is being gained came in because the arms that are being used in the region are not home-made. They probably came from countries outside Africa. The question then is, if we want genuine solution what has friends of Nigeria done about it.
It is true that arms are getting into the region. We see and hear of guns and explosives. Guns may be getting in from abroad, but sincerely I have no indication that such are with the authorisation of the governments of their countries of origin.
France, and I believe other countries, have in place stringent conditions, tough procedures, which must be met before arms are allowed to be exported. We have never received any report of French involvement in arms importation. We have as always traffickers who work against known international laws to profit from gun running. It is possible that some of them are established in Europe but I know they are not authorised.
But you have raised a good question which hinges on how to fight trafficking in small arms. It is known across nations that small arms kill more people than major weapons. I was, as I told you, at the Foreign Affairs Ministry recently to discuss a proposal by the UN Secretary General to reinforce and to establish international rule on the trafficking of arms. We passed our position to the ministry which is of our firm support for the UN secretary’s initiative. We have along that direction forwarded our statement of commitment to the UN secretary, to support him and encourage him to follow up on this matter. We hope also that Nigeria will go along the same direction so that we can rid the society of traffic in small arms.
You know that in ECOWAS, you already have rules on small arms. The 15 countries have signed and all it needs now is the ratification of the different parliaments of the member countries of ECOWAS. That is one sure way of fighting the problem of trafficking in small arms.
We have a new French president and an admixture of old and new hands in the cabinet. What are the things that will change as a result of this reality?
Yes, it is a new government. There is, first and foremost, a generational shift. But that is not necessarily to say that there is a change in the political reality. Both the incumbent and the former president are of the same right wing party.
I must say however that the way we consider Africa will change. After independence, we had perhaps a paternalistic relation with Africa, French speaking and the rest. That had its good as well as its bad sides. Perhaps the relationship became too intimate between us to the extent that we were interfering in the policies of some of these countries. I think that aspect will change. Also, we are increasing the amount of funds committed to Africa but we hope Africa will increasingly take her destiny into her own hand. We are however still at the disposal of Africa.
The other aspect is the question of immigration. We have a lot of West Africans in France some from Nigerian but mainly from francophone countries. The idea now is to, as being championed by President Sarkozy, make immigration a win-win situation in the sense that we’ll accept some immigrants having in mind that they will not forever be in France.
They can get better education and jobs but will have to go back at some point in time to put their knowledge at the service of their countries. Also, the idea is that because they earn money in Europe, some of the money will have to go back to Africa not only in paying school fees, building new houses or paying for other things, which is obviously the case at the moment, part of this money could go for medium and small enterprises or initiatives. In this case, it is possible that this money may be augmented by both the Nigerian and the French governments since the direction is the improvement of the economy. The details are still to be worked out but that is the general idea and we have to see how it can be implemented. I am sure that is the way President Sarkozy wants to genuinely deal with the immigration problem.
What message do you have for the average French citizen in Nigeria and friends of France ahead of the forthcoming Bastille Day?
I have not yet written my speech for the day, through I am sure it will be a short one. First, I would say to the French people: thank you for the work you are doing here. We are not numerous, we are just about 2000. I say: “you are working very much; you are gaining market for France, selling French knowledge, technology, projects and winning for her new friends. Through your work, many people find jobs in France, because we are exporting what is produced by those employed at home. You are at the frontline, sometimes in difficult situation, we thank you”.
My fellow citizens are doing well and they are well accepted and integrated by Nigerians. They are open to Nigerians and Nigeria are very open to them too. So it has been good. To our Nigerian friends, we say thank you for accepting us, the way you have always welcomed us, we are pleased to be in your country. We assure that France is devoted to the growth and progress as well as the peace of Africa.
Nigeria has enormous prospects, great future and what is left is for the country to be well-led and have good-governance. Nigeria needs only to be well-organised to make better use of your resources. Oil and gas will not be there for ever and so Nigeria should think of the future. Invest in what could be sustained in the long run. We wish you well. You have been our great partner.