FRANCE – THAILAND
The Soft Power of
Christophe Chommeloux & Yves Liger
25 October 2017
Having just returned from Ambassadors’ Week, during which he met the country’s new leadership, Gilles Garachon, Ambassador of France to Thailand, spoke to Latitudes about his optimism for the future.
While the political landscape of Metropolitan France has just transformed and the Macron presidency promises to usher France into a digital age that echoes the willingness of Thailand 4.0, Gilles Garachon calmly prepares for the second part of his office in Bangkok. The Ambassador of France to Thailand shared his enthusiasm with Latitudes.
Mr. Ambassador, what did our president tell you?
He gave us a speech on foreign policy, as is tradition. It turned out to be very good, because it was different from what I had heard from his predecessors, who generally conducted a review of the various current world crises, evaluating each situation and its perspectives. It was instead an explanation of the major principles with which the president intends to guide foreign policy. Emmanuel Macron’s intervention revolves around three principles: first, security, emphasizing the terrorist threat and the priority response it should provoke; then, affirmation of the independence of France’s foreign policy, which the country wants to pursue differently from that of other major countries, such that it continues to assert our identity; and finally, he strongly emphasized strengthening our ability to influence, in all areas. What stood out about his speech, as well as those of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is the dynamic brought about by the arrival of this new leadership. They encouraged us to make the most of this dynamic so that France may progress in all areas and strive to advance as much as possible on major issues. I think that’s the essence of the message.
Has this dynamic already been demonstrated by the fact that France has just been ranked first in the world in terms of soft power? We’ve also seen Emmanuel Macron chosen by Fortune magazine as “the most powerful person under 40 in the world.” This seems significant…
We are undoubtedly witnessing a rejuvenation in terms of France’s image abroad. Undeniably, something happened, and that becomes integrated into foreign policy. Many Thai people have told me, “Oh, your new president is lovely!” Beyond this rather trivial aspect, I think it essentially shows a particular resonance with them. What our two nations have in common is their independence, particularly in terms of foreign policy. The Thais have always tried to balance their relations with other countries, and currently in international relations, they are inclined to work with a dynamic partner, thinker, and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and therefore able to play a balancing role in a certain number of issues. From now on, it’s up to all of us, the French leadership and, of course, this embassy, to propose to Paris methods of action that will benefit French and potentially Thai initiatives.
I am very confident–Asia is one of the most economically dynamic regions, and ASEAN in particular is turning out to be very promising. We see Thailand as a unique country because politically, it is one of the leading countries of ASEAN. It has taken a lot of political initiatives in the region over the past 30 years, and we have particularly substantial economic relationships. Of course, our market share is still relatively modest (1.4%), but compared to the other ASEAN countries, we are very well positioned in Thailand. Clearly, this economic performance remains insufficient, and we can do better. But there is a very significant French presence in Thailand, if we estimate that we have roughly 35,000 to 40,000 French residents and that last year, 730,000 tourists arrived from Metropolitan France. For that matter, the French are among the top resident communities in Asia, and the continent as a whole is one of the most popular tourist destinations for our fellow citizens. So Thailand is important to us, and our Asian policy inevitably takes its unique features into account.
With such an “entrepreneurial” president, does this Asian policy rightly emphasize business a little more than politics?
It was reaffirmed during this Ambassadors’ Week that in addition to the political aspect, economic diplomacy remains a major priority for us, as is the influential diplomacy of soft power. We’re going to try to do much better in terms of economics and influence, especially through the French-speaking communities, our artistic actions, our actions of cooperation, and our university exchanges. I believe that previous French generations in Thailand have already done remarkable things, but it falls to us to find new ways, and they do exist. I am very confident in our ability to make progress.
Speaking of economics, insiders note that there has been a huge improvement in French leadership, in organization, and in cooperation between the different structures, that we’re already on the right track…
Absolutely. The dynamic was already there before, but it’s a key point, and our Thai friends understood that we were close to them and that we wanted to go even further together. The trust is there, and in regard to the collective, I’m fortunate enough to have a very good team at the embassy, especially economic, and within the French community, we have leaders and actors, including the Chamber of Commerce, Foreign Trade Advisors, and many French entrepreneurs who are invested in promoting the interests of our business and our community. This group is quite mobilized, and we’re all moving in the same direction since we’re taking full advantage of our network of influence, to prove ourselves to be more present and seize all opportunities. We practice sharing more and more; if that term sounds a bit barbaric, [you could say] the pooling of means and networks is becoming increasingly developed. We are now in a real period of transition in Thai history: The period of mourning will conclude at the end of the year, and we feel that there is a real mobilization for the Thai economy to pick back up. We must therefore assume battle formations to respond to all requests.
Obviously, France and French companies have assets in the newly emerging Thai economy…
Of course, this Thailand 4.0 constitutes a real program of reforms. Like France, Thailand must be modernized to face current challenges: increased infrastructure needs, the innovation required to obtain added value, and the obligation we all have to transform our education system.
That’s a key point: One of the main reservations regarding Thailand 4.0 or the current Thai economy concerns education…
In a way, we have the same challenges. We must educate today’s youth. They will be joining the workforce in a few years, and we must give them the means to face the challenges ahead. Thailand and France are in the same boat. One of our assets lies in the fact that France, in terms of the size of its population, its area, its role as a crossroads, its ancient culture, is very close to Thailand. We have around 600 Thai students in France and try to bring French students to Thailand because we have everything to gain. This is possible because more and more students are being sent to Thailand by French schools and universities. Start-ups are an equally new phenomenon in terms of exchange. All these young people who start service businesses in France know that Thailand is a leading country in the field. They are in contact with local partners over the Web and will test their ventures here in person soon enough. There are many things taking place in the area of exchange. If we educate someone in France, we make the most sustainable investment possible because we’re creating a link between the two countries for as long as they live.
The state of mind in France, with the development of start-ups and a certain liberalization of the economy, can no doubt be compared to the Thais’ very natural reactivity to what could be called “uberization.” As soon as a smartphone, delivery, or taxi service becomes available, the Thais immediately implement it…
We have the same dynamic approach to these developments, which will only accelerate. We will have to invent more and more services and products that respond to and anticipate a new demand. But there’s also infrastructure, for which we are very well known. We have very big companies that work in areas such as water sanitation, energy, roads, airports, and transportation, which makes what the French have to offer very diversified. The Thai are as aware of our technical achievements as of our cultural appetites and our love of good food…
Good food, now there’s something we have in common!
An important commonality between France and Thailand lies in the quality of life, sophistication, especially for what you could call “the art of living,” culture. Our languages convey extremely sophisticated concepts, and our literatures are very rich and are part of our DNA.
Incidentally, it is these features that led France, a long time ago, in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, to develop an almost unique network of global embassies, comparable to that of the United States, and to create cultural networks, not just economic and diplomatic ones. Right from the beginning, we designed them with this wonderful 19th-century invention of the Alliance française, which is a rather extraordinary thing since the idea is to share with our friends a project that they themselves own. On their soil, these associations aim to spread not only general French culture but also the cultures of all the French-speaking countries that share it with us. Today, we have 375 Alliances françaises all over the world! To be more accurate, we have implemented a dual system, which includes both French Cultural Institutes, which are fewer, and Alliances françaises. They have the same mission–the difference is more institutional. Alliances françaises are associations of local law, while French Cultural Institutes are embassy agencies. It’s tied to history; from the beginning, we had countries with Alliance française and others where the embassy ran cultural activities.
In Bangkok, the embassy’s cultural services are obviously very close to those of Alliance française…
The very good relationship between cultural service and the Alliance Française allows us to pool our resources, implement a program with a very important common core, and communicate together about this program. This level of goodwill is almost a textbook case, so we thought, “Why not have a common vision?” The public is not always aware that some events are financed by the embassy’s cultural service and others by the Alliance. So we use the La Fête logo to endorse as many events as possible.
Culture plays a leading role in soft power…
That’s what we’re counting on. On the entire planet, but particularly in Thailand, we know the richness of our culture, our visceral attachment to culture in general. We’re counting on the French-speaking communities, on all the cultural activities as well as the spread of knowledge and culture, and on university cooperation. We have always been very focused on this. In Paris, a significant portion of the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long been devoted to the general branch of Cultural Affairs and Cooperation. We were pioneers in this area, and we continue pushing forward because culture remains a central concern for the French. Art and artistic creation are truly a factor of our enjoyment of life and have always been part of our diplomatic activities. Now we have made it all official and take it fully upon ourselves. With 83 million visitors last year, France is the top tourist destination in the world. These tourists come for its culture, and we have to make it live abroad. This is where not only our Alliances Françaises, our institutions, and our cultural services but also economic services and Business France enter the fray, now in a coordinated way. Influence starts with attractiveness…
Is there not rightly a rather recent realization of this influence and its demonstration in economic terms?
I believe that what’s new is that we understand the link that exists between attractiveness and influence in all areas, especially the importance of coordinating between politics, economics, and culture, better than before. For example, if we want to sell a French product, let’s say a technological product, isn’t the first thing to do to work upfront with the universities on site in order to explain the steps and technologies so that this cooperation then leads to concrete, practical, and economic applications? The link between university cooperation and the sale of a product is now evident, and we try to promote it. We want the embassies’ cultural services to work with the economic services, and the same applies to French influence. For example, when we have 730,000 French people in Thailand, we need French-language guides and infrastructure.
Today, interaction is encouraged, made the most of, and systematized. Of course, we now have new technologies and forms of communication, but this development demonstrates a real will. Laurent Fabius really made it official in a very clear and structured way. I should add that he went further, specifically in terms of sharing, of rationalization of the whole. For example, he merged AFIE, the agency in charge of investments in France, with UBIFRANCE, which worked in French investments abroad. These two sides of the same subject were brought together as Business France. We reduced the number of actors, and as part of these reforms, foreign trade and international tourism have been entrusted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. COP21 was also a unifying event. We spent a year together, all over the world, informing each other and being deeply mobilized. It has become a concrete demonstration of these reforms of rationalization and sharing that were in progress.
To round this up, you seem rather optimistic about the period ahead…
I believe in 2018, which should turn out to be an important year for both Thailand and France. Thailand will experience a year of change, the end of the transitional period, a new start. What’s going to happen will be extremely important. In my opinion, the maximum mobilization must now take place. 2017 will have been a year of mourning, but 2018 will be the beginning of a new era. It will be a very exciting time during which everything that has been invested in terms of network and preparation will have a chance to materialize.