Ambassador: "When I arrived at the French Embassy on Rassul Rza, I felt I was back in Paris" - INTERVIEW

Ambassador: "When I arrived at the French Embassy on Rassul Rza, I felt I was back in Paris" - INTERVIEW
# 22 November 2019 15:04 (UTC +04:00)

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the French Republic to the Republic of Azerbaijan Zacharie Gross’ interview to APA

– Ambassador, for a while you are in Baku. It would be interesting for us to know your initial impressions...

My first impressions, literally, were that of a warm welcome by your State protocol at a very modern Airport, wonderfully lit up in the night. It was mid-September, the air was warm. As we drove to the Center, I was struck by all the very contemporary buildings lined up, left and right, the Olympic Stadium, the Heydar Aliev Center. I felt this was a city that was building its future. And when I arrived at the French Embassy on Rassul Rza, in the beautiful and lively XIXth Century part of the city, I felt I was back in Paris, which was quite striking.

– How do you evaluate the current status of relations between France and Azerbaijan, and what are your priorities as an ambassador for further development of relations?

– French and Azerbaijani interests are strategically aligned. This is fundamentally what defines our relations. France is keenly interested in an independent, prosperous and stable Azerbaijan, a secular, modern, tolerant country, connected to European and international markets, that can project stability in the region. French and Azerbaijani citizens, like all citizens in Europe and beyond, want security. With security, our peoples can build their future. France has no hidden agenda in Azerbaijan. We want to be part of Azerbaijan’s future and we want to help solve some of our continent’s challenges together because security, stability, and prosperity are issues of continental dimensions. We are particularly keen to see progress in solving the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, in a lasting and peaceful manner, in accordance with international law. And as co-chair of the OSCE Group of Minsk, France has a responsibility to promote such a solution. This is an active process. There have been some positive signals recently, but more must be done. More generally, we see Azerbaijan’s future in its people – so we are proud to be part of important educational projects as the French-Azerbaijani University in Baku, and the new French Lycée that are preparing future generations with the highest international standards. We want deeper ties, more Azerbaijani studying in France, more cultural exchanges, as well as stronger and more diverse economic relations.

– France has always stressed that Azerbaijan is the main trading partner of your country in the region. What are the areas of this partnership?

– When Economics and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire visited Baku last July, we jointly decided to concentrate on five key areas where Azerbaijan and France can build a strategic economic partnership: the environment, transport, energy, security, and two-way investments. In all these areas, there are major French companies that have identified key projects that can help transform this country’s future and cater to the needs of the people - cleaner water, cleaner lakes, better transport, renewable energies- and can help protect key infrastructure. In terms of investments, international energy company Total is ready to significantly increase its footprint in Azerbaijan. And France has made offers to Azerbaijan to join key projects at the heart of our economy. There are other important areas, for instance, agriculture. The message is that France has its hand extended to Azerbaijan.

– What is the volume of trade turnover between France and Azerbaijan? Compared to last year this figure has increased or decreased?

– There was a decrease in our trade relations over the last couple of years compared to 2014-2015, but if we look at the first nine months of 2019, there has been a reversal in this trend, with a positive uptick. In 2018 our bilateral trade was 614 M euros according to our customs figures. French exports to Azerbaijan were quite low at 114 M euros, while Azerbaijani exports to France were nearly five times higher, at 500 M Euros. So France still has a large trade deficit with Azerbaijan. We hope this will change and our trade relations will be better balanced in the future. This is quite possible because French companies know the Azerbaijani market well, they know the country’s needs and have business offers to match these needs.

– How many French companies are currently operating in Azerbaijan and how many companies owning Azerbaijan capital work in France?

– Our estimate is that there are 60 companies actually active in Azerbaijan on a regular basis, either with an office here or with a permanent trading partner. There are many more that do business on a case by case basis.

– In so far how much has France made an investment in the economy of Azerbaijan?

– The main area of investment, which will come as no surprise, is that of energy. It is first and foremost the large investment made by Total. In 2018 the Banque de France estimated that the current stock of French investments in 2018 in this country was roughly 600 M euros. That is indeed way under the potential of a business that could be realized by French companies in Azerbaijan. The business climate, although improving fast, is still not always easy for foreign investors.

– SOCAR and "Total" have been negotiating for the exploration and development of the offshore block, which includes the "Umid" field and "Babek" perspective structure, located in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea. Talks are on which stage, now? Has any agreement been reached?

– To my knowledge, the discussions are still ongoing. I hope an agreement will be found soon. The TOTAL can make a difference to Azerbaijan’s future development through the use of advanced technologies, in an environmentally friendly way. This would benefit competitive markets in the country, and operations in the country at best international standards. As you know these large groups do not invest in a country on a small scale. If no growth can be found, or in this instance agreed upon, at one point they are very likely to leave altogether.

– As already mentioned, the economic relations are more emphasized when it comes to relations between the two countries. Can the same view be said about political relations?

– Definitely. Our political relations are warm, trusting and active at the highest level. Our bilateral relation goes back over a hundred years, since last year we celebrated the centennial of French-Azerbaijani diplomatic relations. President Ilham Aliyev opened a new chapter in our relations when he made his first visit abroad to France, where he met President Chirac, in 2004. President Sarkozy and President Hollande visited Azerbaijan in 2011 and 2014. President Macron welcomed President Aliyev in Paris in 2018. The First Vice-President met with French Prime-Minister and the Presidents of the French National Assembly and Senate in March 2019. And, as I mentioned, minister of Economics and Finance Mr Le Maire was in Baku last July. We also have a regular flow of parliamentary visits. Three French Senators visited Azerbaijan since I arrived in September and two members of our National Assembly are expected in the coming days.

– Is to visit Azerbaijan among Frances President Mr. Emmanuel Macrons' plans? If he does, when this visit is expected? High-level officials' visits are expected to visit Azerbaijan in the near future?

– As a rule, it’s always up to the Elysée to announce the President’s visit. But I can tell you the two Presidents spoke recently. Amongst other things, they discussed the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. France very much appreciates Azerbaijan’s leadership in pledging to reconstitute the UN Global Fund on this important and global issue.

– France repeatedly stated and continues doing so, to its support for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno Garabagh conflict. However, the conflict has got its "frozen" status and has been almost 30 years that no progress has been made in this regard. What do you think why the peace and settlement of the conflict are so delayed?

– As you say, a lasting diplomatic solution needs to be found in the Nagorno Garabagh conflict. France is fully aware of the risks that the current situation carries. France believes in international law and effective multilateralism. We are not a “status quo” power and have no interest in preserving the current situation. The Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group is actively pursuing their mediation efforts.

– The Azerbaijani side says that the Minsk Group countries, including France, want more efforts to resolve the conflict. Do you think that the Minsk Group, including France, may put more effort in order to get a peaceful solution to the conflict? How valid is the idea that "there is negligence in this matter"?

– It would be inappropriate to say there is any negligence, by anyone.

– On the margins of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly held in New-York Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia met. The talks were held with the participation of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. As a representative of one of the Co-chairs country, what can you say about this meeting?

– At this meeting and other meetings, I refer you to the statements of the Co-Chairs.

– On the margins of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly held in New-York Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia met. The talks were held with the participation of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. As a representative of one of the Co-chairs country, what can you say about this meeting?

– At this meeting and other meetings, I refer you to the statements of the co-chairs.

– And some final questions about France's foreign policy related to more global issues... In the international stage among political experts, President Macron's policy on Russia has been criticized. Some claim that President Macrons' efforts to correct "strategic error" of Europe - keeping Russia out of Western fold - are a mistake, considering Kremlin”s assertive foreign policy. What do you think, is it right to give a chance Russia to close Europe in terms of relations?

– France is deeply committed to European security and Russia is, of course, a part of Europe The challenges on our continent are numerous, from terrorism and cybersecurity to frozen conflicts and the Ukrainian issue. Therefore President Macron is, as he has said, "seeking to rebuild an architecture of trust and security". I think this is very much in the interest of France and Russia, but also Azerbaijan and other European countries.

– And about Brexit what is a current hot-debated political topic in the global arena. What is Paris’s position on this matter?

– It is up to the United Kingdom to decide what sort of relations it wants to have with the European Union. Personally, having spent many years in the UK, I will be sad to see the country leave the EU if that is what happens. But whatever the nature of this relation, the UK will remain our neighbor. France and the UK have a long history together and close ties in all areas and this will not change.