Voltaire praised Scotland as the place where the French Enlightenment philosophers looked “for all [their] ideas of civilisation”, a testimony to ties that I aimed to strengthen when I went to Scotland seven weeks ago. The melancholic weather that Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson celebrated did not deter us from visiting the construction site of Britain’s new aircraft carrier. Having our carriers Charles de Gaulle and HMS Queen Elizabeth operating side by side – something the French and British armed forces have been doing so well since the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties, in particular – is something to look forward to. I was also very pleased to witness at first hand the strong economic ties linking Scotland and France when I met representatives of a Scottish company (the Weir Group) investing in France and of French-owned iconic Scottish brands (such as Chivas whisky).
A bad egg for Easter
That was my second visit to Scotland since taking up my post in London in September, and I had fond memories of it … until I learned over Easter that an erroneous report about the conversation I’d had with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had been leaked to the press. It kept me busy through the night, as the article had been published online without anyone asking me for confirmation of its content beforehand (I suppose my denial would have diminished the intended media impact of the story).
I guess these kinds of things happen in a tight election campaign but as an impartial diplomat I have found myself in quite an uncomfortable position!
But my travels around the UK have not stopped there. I was given a heart-warming welcome in Wales by key political, economic, social and cultural figures. Visiting the National Assembly for Wales was one of the highlights of my visit. Designed by Richard Rogers, who was also responsible for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the assembly is entirely environmentally friendly, an achievement that we must applaud in the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this December. I’ll try to get my embassy to follow suit.
Taste of the world
Talking of beautiful buildings, the French Residence in London is one of our most finely honed tools for France’s diplomatic influence in the UK. A memorable event we hosted recently was the “Goût de France” reception – a play on words meant to celebrate the fact that France is both “good” and has good taste. It was part of a worldwide project in which thousands of restaurants displayed, on the same evening, typical French menus for their guests. Showcasing traditional French dishes and modern interpretations of classics, with everything from local bistros to fine-dining establishments taking part, the operation was a way of offering fine and gourmet cuisine to all nations and all cultures.
It’s a message that, I am happy to say, the world has received, because since 2010 the French gastronomic meal has been included in Unesco’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Virginia Woolf famously said that “one cannot think well, sleep well, love well, if one has not dined well”. Having resided on several continents, I’m glad to say that, with the global spread of French cuisine, millions all over the planet are perhaps living that little bit better.
At the residence, our head chef, Gilles Quillot, welcomed the Duke of Kent and members of the Commons and Lords, as well as a range of personalities from the arts and media, for a mouth-watering dinner. There, we were reminded how Winston Churchill once roused his troops: “Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s champagne!” And still today, France’s creative cooking is part and parcel of “French flair”, that touch of originality and unexpectedness we show elsewhere – and which I hope we will display at the Rugby World Cup in England this autumn, a bit more than we did at the last Six Nations tournament.
Talking about rugby, on welcoming the Australian and New Zealand high commissioners to dinner at the residence to celebrate the centenary of Anzac Day, I heard the story of two Kiwi prisoners who were asked by the Turks in Gallipoli why they had come from so far away to be gallantly slaughtered in the Dardanelles. They replied that they thought it would be like “playing an away game of rugby”. Well, that particular time they played the away game alongside the French, as some 10,000 French soldiers also died in battle with their British, New Zealander and Australian comrades-in-arms. On Saturday I will commemorate this battle in which, as on so many other occasions, our soldiers fought and died side by side.
Let’s stay together
Given France’s role in almost every major battle in which the UK was involved over the past century, it is always a bit of a shock for a French person who has recently arrived in the UK to encounter the cultural habit of French-bashing on this side of the Channel (there is far less “British-bashing” in France, in both frequency and intensity). This is especially true when it comes to the state of the French economy, whose indicators are increasingly positive.
The vigorous efforts being made to reduce our fiscal deficit are bringing results. Last year it was lower than forecast: 4 per cent and falling. And the French economy is now growing four times as fast as it was last year. France’s exports have also been growing, notably to Britain, which accounts for France’s leading trade surplus. The commercial ties forged between our two countries are therefore paramount to our economies – which is one of many reasons why we hope the UK stays alongside France within the EU, for our mutual benefit.
Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the United Kingdom