Sunday, June 23, 2024
InterviewFrance: A helping hand, a long-standing affair

France: A helping hand, a long-standing affair

Rémi Maréchaux is the man in charge of fostering diplomatic ties between France and Ethiopia, serving as the French ambassador to Addis Ababa since 2020. He commenced his diplomatic journey in Africa with the French central administration for African and Malagasy affairs in 1994 and has since gone on to hold various posts in French foreign affairs bureaus in Africa.

Maréchaux holds a graduate degree in international relations and has served as the director-general of for Africa at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as ambassador to neighboring Kenya and Somalia, giving him a comprehensive understanding of the Horn.

Although the typical term for the French ambassadorship is limited to three years, Maréchaux has requested for an extension, emphasizing the unique and long standing relationship between Ethiopia and France. He notes that Ethiopia holds a special place as France’s oldest partner in Africa, and the relationship encompasses a wide spectrum of positive interactions.

As France’s permanent representative to the African Union, Maréchaux highlights France’s distinctive impact on culture and education on the continent. He cites France’s involvement in Ethiopian heritage and archaeology, the Ethio-French alliance dating back to 1908, and the upcoming 75th anniversary of Lycée Guebre-Mariam as significant contributions to Ethiopia.

In an interview (conducted on December 15, 2023) with The Reporter’s Abraham Tekle, Maréchaux delves into critical topics, discussing the economic implications of the bilateral relationship between the two countries, particularly in the energy and agriculture sectors, along with active participation in various investment endeavors, as well as the implementation of the Pretoria agreement, among other issues. EXCERPTS:

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The Reporter: How would you characterize the state of economic and bilateral collaboration between France and Ethiopia? Can you spotlight recent initiatives or partnerships between the two nations?

Rémi Maréchaux: In terms of our latest initiative, our primary focus is on supporting the implementation of the Pretoria Peace Agreement. We commend the courageous act of signing this agreement, recognizing that choosing peace over war requires significant bravery. Currently, we are channeling our resources toward the regions affected by the conflict to ensure that the population witnesses tangible peace dividends in their daily lives.

Our efforts extend to aid work, such as the ongoing refurbishment of Dessie Hospital, with similar projects planned for Afar’s Abbalaa Hospital and Adwa Hospital in Tigray. Additionally, we are actively assisting farmers in the war-affected areas of Tigray, Afar, and Amhara, aiming to enhance agricultural practices and reduce reliance on future food assistance. Notably, we are collaborating with Agricultural Transformation Institute (ATI) and the regional administrative offices of the agricultural department.

Another critical component is our involvement in restoring electrical services, including the ten million projects for the repair and refurbishment of the Alamata Substation and the transmission line. This reflects our commitment to prioritizing support for nations courageously engaging in peace processes and signing peace agreements. Looking ahead, our immediate priorities include a concentrated focus on agriculture and energy, responding to the Ethiopian government’s request.

Given Ethiopia’s vast size and population, our strategic emphasis aligns with the country’s needs, and we anticipate significant projects in these two sectors.

How would you assess the current state of bilateral and economic cooperation between the two nations?

While the economic relationship is positive, there is room for substantial improvement, especially considering the size of the Ethiopian economy. I believe our presence could be more significant. Last month, we visited the French National Business Association to explore opportunities for new investments, particularly in agro-business and the substantial development of geothermal electricity.

We’ve secured a substantial investment from the French Investment Fund, Meridiam, to advance geothermal electricity production. Given Ethiopia’s well-known potential in hydro-electricity, this venture is highly successful. As a noteworthy example, Ethiopia, producing 98 percent of its electricity renewably, emerged as a success story at COP28. However, the vast potential for geothermal electricity remains largely untapped.

Despite facing security challenges, a critical French investment is progressing on twin projects of 150 megawatts each. Simultaneously, smaller business projects, notably in logistics and others, are ongoing with the embassy’s full support.

Concerning the recent escalation of famine-like drought affecting Tigray, Amhara, and Afar, has your government contributed to supporting the affected populations in those regions?

Yes. Recently, in Dire Dawa, alongside my Danish counterpart, we initiated a pilot project named Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR). This project involves implementing techniques, successfully used in other countries like South Africa, to replenish underground water resources using groundwater. Launched recently, the project aims to be successful, and upon achieving this, we plan to scale it up in collaboration with regional and national authorities to help local populations adapt to climate change.

After the political transition in 2018, there’s been talk of a significant shift in governmental affiliations and bilateral relations between the two countries, evident in your involvement in various initiatives such as joint efforts to boost tourism between France and Ethiopia. Specifically targeting cultural attractions, historical sites, and other points of interest, where do you envision the trajectory of this project, and is it demonstrating effectiveness?

Let’s begin with your initial assessment. Currently, the two countries enjoy a strong political relationship. In the year 2023, our leaders had three in-person meetings and maintained regular communication. It’s important to note that all the projects we are currently involved in have been requested by the Ethiopian government.

Regarding our efforts in cultural heritage, there is a clear connection between heritage and tourism. France is globally recognized as a top tourist destination, attracting around 100 million visitors annually. This is not solely due to beautiful beaches or wildlife attractions like the “big five” in neighboring Kenya. Rather, it is because of our focus on preserving and showcasing our rich heritage. We aim to replicate this success in Ethiopia.

To that end, one of our initiatives involves transforming the Jubilee Palace into a palace museum, intended to be a compelling tourist attraction for travelers passing through Addis Ababa. The government’s plan is to encourage tourists to stay in the capital for one or two days, instead of merely transiting. Addis Ababa has much to offer, and we believe it can justify a longer stay for tourists. However, our primary project is centered in Lalibela.

In Lalibela, our ongoing project focuses on urgent repairs and improvements. We have trained locals to skillfully craft stones for repairing stairs, bridges, and other structures. Additionally, we plan to renovate the electrical systems of the churches and provide new flooring. This first phase encompasses all the necessary emergency work in the castle.

Moving on to the second phase, as requested by the Ethiopian government, we aim to replace the existing shelters over the churches. Extensive studies have been conducted to understand the nature of the stone, leading us to conclude that the best approach for preserving the churches is to install new shelters. We have submitted a detailed plan to the Ethiopian government, and it has been approved. Instead of individual shelters for each church, we propose covering the two groups of churches together.

It’s crucial to emphasize that this project aligns fully with UNESCO’s guidelines, as Lalibela is recognized as a world heritage site. Any alterations or modifications to the castle require UNESCO’s approval. Therefore, the project’s core principle is to repair the shelters, a plan that has already been approved by UNESCO. However, UNESCO has requested three additional technical studies, which are currently challenging to conduct due to security concerns. Nevertheless, we remain committed to completing this project.

The first phase focuses on preserving the churches, followed by a comprehensive renovation. Once these steps are accomplished, the third phase will involve leveraging this exceptional asset to develop tourism in and around Lalibela.                                                                         

 

What is France’s perspective on its role in fostering stability in the Horn of Africa, and what potential collaborations would you request from the Ethiopian side. Are there any considerations underway to achieve this goal?

We do not simply ask for collaboration; we are fully at the disposal of the Ethiopian government. Our experience in EU economic and political integration is unparalleled. Prior to launching these EU projects, Europe was plagued by frequent and devastating wars. Within a span of less than a century, we found ourselves at war with our neighboring country, Germany, on three separate occasions. In order to prevent further conflicts and foster long-lasting peace, we realized that economic integration was the key solution.

Our journey began with six countries, and today we have grown to 27 member states within the EU. Regional economic integration has proven to be a tremendous benefit, providing Europe with unprecedented peace and stability. It has also addressed crucial issues, such as the current debate in Ethiopia surrounding access to the sea. Among the 27 EU states, five are landlocked, yet they enjoy unrestricted access to neighboring ports thanks to regional integration.

We take pride in our unique experience and are eager to share it. Moreover, we are fully prepared to support any endeavors towards regional integration in the Horn of Africa.

Are there collaborative initiatives in place to tackle shared security challenges or foster peace within the region?

We express our broad support for the Ethiopian government’s endeavors to promote peace and the ongoing mediation efforts aimed at resolving the conflict in Sudan. We endorse the actions taken by both the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) of the African Union (AU) and the Ethiopian government. Furthermore, we collaborate closely with Ethiopia to foster stability in neighboring Somalia. It is worth noting that the EU has been funding all salaries for the force deployed in Somalia, previously known as AMISOM and now referred to as ATMIS.

Consequently, we actively back this financial flexibility and the region’s collective efforts to stabilize and reconstruct the Somali state. Additionally, we extend our full support to the incumbent Somali government in assuming responsibility for the country’s security. In doing so, we pledge to intensify our assistance to the Somalia National Army (SNA) to ensure that they can independently address the threat posed by Al-Shabab in the future, minimizing their reliance on assistance from neighboring nations.                

Could you also share with us your reflections on the signing of the first military cooperation agreement between Ethiopia and France in 2019, as well as the subsequent renewal of the agreement?

Indeed, the initial military cooperation agreement was signed in 2019. However, due to the conflict in northern Ethiopia, the implementation of this agreement was temporarily halted. Presently, we have resumed training activities, albeit not at the full extent. To fully restore and expand our cooperation, we are waiting for the implementation of the Transitional Justice system. Nevertheless, we have already resumed the training of Ethiopian officers who provide assistance in peacekeeping efforts and contribute to the development of a new Ethiopian navy.

The conflict in Sudan has escalated over time and has now reached a perilous level. What is your country’s perspective on this conflict? Do you consider it to be a regional threat?

Absolutely! There is a genuine concern that the ongoing conflict in Sudan could lead to the division of the country along different factions, potentially widening the divide. This division poses a significant risk to the region as it could facilitate uncontrolled arms trafficking, generate a spill-over effect with a large influx of refugees, and create overall instability.

As mentioned before, we support and acknowledge the peace efforts undertaken by IGAD and the AU in addressing this issue. We actively contribute to all initiatives aimed at establishing a platform for civilian forces because we believe that the future of Sudan should not be determined solely by either of the two military leaders.

The Sudanese people participated in the 2019 revolution with the goal of establishing a democratic system, which is a deeply ingrained aspiration within Sudanese society. By supporting the formation of a unified platform for civilian forces, we consider it a significant contribution to the overall peace process. This process necessitates the initiation of a ceasefire and dialogue between the two military leaders, and we are aware of the active involvement of the Ethiopian authorities in this regard.

You are well acquainted with the Ethiopian government’s pursuit of obtaining access to a sea port. How does your country perceive and assess the significance of this quest?

We believe that the Ethiopian government’s pursuit of obtaining port access is a legitimate claim, which is not only our viewpoint but also aligned with the principles outlined in the UN charter. It is important to note that the Ethiopian government has emphasized the peaceful resolution of this claim, as we have previously discussed. The experience of regional integration, such as the example of the European Union (EU), demonstrates that peaceful means can be employed to address such issues. For instance, Austria, a landlocked country in Europe, does not seek port access from Slovenia to reach the Mediterranean Sea. This is because regional integration ensures the free access to sea ports for all member countries.

This practice is not limited to Europe; it is also observed in the African continent. For instance, within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a customs union allows landlocked countries in the region, like Burkina Faso, to freely utilize the ports of neighboring countries such as Ghana, without financial obligations for their imports and exports. Similarly, countries like Zimbabwe benefit from unrestricted access to the ports of Mozambique and South Africa. These examples highlight the value of regional integration frameworks in facilitating seamless access to ports for landlocked countries.

Let us talk about the human rights issues that are being raised in Ethiopia. What is France’s approach towards addressing these concerns?

There are two key elements to consider here. Firstly, we actively engage in an ongoing dialogue with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, appreciating their dedication to preventing human rights violations. We highly value their efforts in documenting incidents and publicly recommending actions to the authorities. We wholeheartedly endorse and support the Commission’s actions.

Secondly, accountability and the fight against impunity are crucial aspects worldwide in mitigating human rights violations. We observe that impunity contributes to lessening the escalation of such violations globally. The Ethiopian government’s initiative to establish a Transitional Justice mechanism is a commendable step in addressing accountability issues in the country. We are in regular discussions with the Ethiopian government, both on the current situation and the forthcoming mechanism. We are prepared to provide our support, recognizing its significance for national reconciliation, unity, and the prevention of human rights violations.

Amidst ongoing scrutiny and other unresolved conflicts, your government appears to have normalized its relations with the Ethiopian government despite questions surrounding the complete implementation of the Pretoria Agreement. Could you provide insights into this development?

To begin, I challenge the idea of normalization as our cooperation has been continuous; even during the war, our development projects persisted without any EU sanctions. Notably, the AGOA benefits and the EU’s duty-free trading mechanism illustrate this uninterrupted collaboration. The only pause involved certain military cooperation projects, which, as mentioned earlier, are poised to resume with the establishment of the Transitional Justice Mechanism.

It’s crucial to emphasize that we refrain from dictating actions to the Ethiopian government. Throughout the conflict, our stance has centered on advocating for a political resolution, recognizing that a military approach lacks lasting efficacy. Our dedicated efforts towards implementing the Pretoria Agreement reflect this commitment. Following my recent visit to Tigray, tangible improvements are evident in public services such as banking, transportation, and education. While progress is visible, there remains much work to be done.

The challenge lies in addressing the disputed territories. We believe that the government’s proposed plan is pertinent for reinstating federal security in these regions. The strategy involves locally electing political authorities, facilitating the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and organizing a referendum—a comprehensive approach to resolving the issue. Acknowledging the complexity, it’s comparable to the time-consuming nature of DDR processes in post-conflict nations, requiring careful identification, training, and reintegration.

In essence, the implementation of the Pretoria agreement has made progress and positively impacted the population in the three war-affected areas. However, there remains significant work ahead, particularly concerning DDR and resolving issues related to disputed territories and the reintegration of Tigray into federal institutions.

How much do you contribute to or exert influence in resolving the other ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, similar to your involvement in the Pretoria agreement?

We don’t claim to exert influence in this situation, as attempting to do so would be inappropriate for Ethiopia. However, we are prepared to offer support. Enabling the population to experience the benefits of peace not only strengthens stability but also demonstrates to communities affected by neighboring conflicts that a credible and achievable political solution exists.

Can we infer that your government has confidence in the implementation of the Transitional Justice initiative?

Due to our longstanding relationship and the deep mutual trust between us and Ethiopia, we choose a direct and respectful approach when communicating with Ethiopian authorities. We prioritize face-to-face discussions over public statements, recognizing the importance of respecting Ethiopia while still expressing our perspectives. While we offer our views, we understand the delicate nature of guiding a nation like Ethiopia and strive to maintain humility as a dependable partner.

In the context of Transitional Justice, we engaged in a meeting with [Justice] Minister Gedion and all 22 EU Ambassadors. During this meeting, Minister Gedion shared preliminary consultation results and future priorities. We await the initiative’s implementation, and should the Ethiopian authorities seek assistance in investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity, we stand ready to provide support.

Finally, tell us something about the World Creditors Committee, chaired by France and China. What strategies do you have in place to mitigate the impact of debt on Ethiopia?

In the immediate term, significant progress has been made; by the end of November, the creditors committee granted a two-year suspension of public bilateral debt payments. Upon finalizing the agreement with the IMF, it will be set for signing, and the creditors committee will focus on restructuring Ethiopia’s public debt. In the midst of the financial crisis, fulfilling our responsibilities as the co-chair of the creditors committee, we have taken all the necessary actions.   

[speaker]
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