12 Jul Jacques Lapouge
12 July 2019
In office since last September, Jacques Lapouge became France’s ambassador to Thailand at a pivotal moment in the country’s history.
A graduate of ESSEC and ENA, former European adviser to President Chirac, and diplomatic advisor to Prime Minister Fillon, Jacques Lapouge has already served as ambassador to Malaysia, South Africa, and most recently Sweden, just after having been put in charge of climate change negotiations.
Former deputy director of the UN in Paris, a specialist in economic and multilateral diplomacy, and a fan of rock music for whom culture and business are the two complementary sides of France’s soft power, he has taken up residence along the Chao Phraya River in a particularly rich context, offering him the opportunity for a real revival of relations with our host country.
Mr. Ambassador, after these 8 months in Bangkok, can you make an initial assessment of the state of relations between France and Thailand, and what is your analysis of them?
I just passed the first threshold in my mission since I handed my credentials to His Majesty the day after his coronation, after exactly 8 months. The first thing I’d like to say is that this period has been particularly active for Thailand, with preparations for elections and the coronation, as well as the presidency of ASEAN since January 1, which is of particular importance for diplomats. This has been a lot of work for the embassies, because our job, beyond representation and influence, is also to follow what is going on in the country, analyze it, report it to Paris and, for a new ambassador, make as many contacts as possible to have feelers and keep ourselves involved. All of this has been a big part of my job and was particularly interesting. I was lucky to arrive now, rather than the previous period, given the political situation that prevailed at that time.
Of course, it’s still a bit too early to take stock, but I’ve launched an action plan that was approved a few months ago, for all areas: the development of diplomatic relations, economic issues, cultural and university policies, consular issues, etc.
Franco-Thai relations are good because they have been revived since the European Union lifted, at the end of 2017, the restrictive measures it had imposed on Thailand. This allowed last year’s resumption of contacts at the political level with, first, a visit to Bangkok by Jean- Baptiste Lemoyne (Editor’s note: Secretary of State to the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs), followed by that of Prime Minister Prayut to France in June, during which he met President Macron at the Elysée and was received by Airbus in Toulouse. On this occasion it was agreed we would work together and Mr. Prayut returned to France to celebrate the end of the First World War on November 11.
We’ve already had many important exchanges at the senior official level in 2019, including the first contact for several years between the secretary general of Quai d’Orsay and his Thai counterpart, during which new dates for high-level political consultations were decided, as well as the celebration in September of the 333rd anniversary of the second Siamese diplomatic mission to France, dispatched by King Narai in 1686, during which Ambassador Kosa Pan landed at the port of Brest before continuing his voyage to Versailles and the court of King Louis XIV.
The long-awaited parliamentary elections have taken place, what comments do they inspire regarding French diplomacy?
This is an essential step in Thailand’s return to democratic institutions. These elections were held under peaceful conditions, with high participation and in accordance with the deadlines set by the constitution. Having an elected lower house should change a lot of things, about passing laws, voting budgets, and controlling the government. It will also lead to the disappearance of the famous Article 44 (Editor’s note: Article 44 of the Interim Constitution, which gives the Prime Minister the power to make decisions having the force of law without passing through Parliament).
We’re now waiting for the formation of the government, and we will work with it, not least because Thailand is an important partner in Southeast Asia, one of the main ones. At the same time, of course, this won’t prevent us from remaining attentive, in Thailand as in all countries of the world, to respect for the rule of law, human rights, and the freedom of action for political parties.
The next step should be the resumption of negotiations on the free trade agreement between the European Union and Thailand, sus- pended after the coup. Economic issues are important because we have a lot of exporting companies in sectors where tariffs are very high, such as wines and spirits, cosmetics, luxury goods…
What impact might this represent for French companies in Thailand?
The impact may be positive in different areas, such as infrastructure, particularly in the context of the development of the Eastern Economic Corridor. A real modernization policy is being set up, symbolized by Thailand 4.0, which aims to boost Thai growth through technological innovation and sustainable development.
The people of Thailand themselves recognize that they have not invested enough in the last decade, but now projects are moving forward that offer French companies many opportunities, in sectors where we’re strong: aeronautics, railways, engineering, urban planning (in particular water and waste treatment), smart cities, etc.
Most of our large companies already have high-level contacts, but some of them still rely on the embassy, which guides them. A very moderating project is naturally that concerning the future U-Tapao Airport, an MRO maintenance center (Editor’s note: Maintenance, Repair and Operations), which was entrusted to Airbus during Mr. Prayut’s visit to France. We also have our eyes on the call for tenders for the renewal of Thai Airways’fleet of medium and large carriers, now passed in cabinet. We could also mention the contract for the manufacture of Thai passports, the first step of which was won by a French company.
We’re less aware of it, but you also do a lot of work promoting Thai investments in France…
The Thai economy is maturing and large groups are investing abroad. Indeed, promoting France to them is part of the mission of an ambassador.
I was previously posted in Sweden, which few people realize is one of the main foreign investors in France. Ikea, H&M, Securitas… 100,000 French people work for Swedish companies! When I asked the leaders of these companies why they chose France, the first reason I heard was the quality of human resources, management, engineers, the workforce… After that there’s still the fact that France is at the heart of Europe, its excellent infrastructure network, cheap electricity, and, of course, the quality of life. So we have many assets to bring to our Thai friends.
I would like to add that the high quality of the French community of Thailand is one of these assets. In particular, a structure such as the Alliance française contributes greatly to France’s cultural influence and the strengthening of ties between our two countries, while many associations work for good causes in perfect collaboration with our hosts, particularly in areas of solidarity, education, and the environment.
You’ve been the ambassador in charge of climate change negotiations, and one of your first media outings in Bangkok was to participate in cleaning the banks of the Chao Phraya, what is your view of these environmental issues in Thailand?
Thailand has always been a constructive partner in this type of negotiation, and is very concerned about these issues, especially with regard to air pollution. It’s progressing every day in the transition towards a better energy mix, in particular by developing renewable energies. Thailand has signed a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 7% to 20% by 2020. However, reductions had already reached 12% by 2016, so they are keeping their commitments.
The big topic on which Thailand has a long way to go is plastics. But we’re witnessing a real awareness that I’ve seen since my arrival, and we have projects in the works to supplement that, including with Expertise France, which will drive an ambitious “plastic” project from Bangkok on behalf of the European Union.
You had the privilege of attending the coronation of a king…
Like all ambassadors, I took part in a ceremonial coronation ceremony, which I’ll never forget: the audience with the diplomatic corps at the Grand Palace on May 6.
This was an exceptional opportunity, being able to witness what I saw as a great moment of the Thai people uniting around the monarchy, with great dignity, in a magnificent setting and a ceremony deeply rooted in tradition, with the ancient costumes and the crowd dressed in yellow.