Hard work … humility: A convergence of ideals now takes her seat for France

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French Ambassador to Kuwait Her Excellency Claire Le Flécher

France quickly started to build up a military force and launched Operation Daguet, which involved the deployment of 18,000 soldiers, a dozen ships and 40 aircraft to take part in restoring the independence of Kuwait. As soon as Kuwait was liberated, a medical task force and two engineer battalions were redeployed in Kuwait City to support the return of Kuwaiti sovereignty. I would also like to stress the very important role after the liberation because France provided medical support to the population. Our soldiers cleared the city of 13,000 mines and disposed of 430 tons of dangerous munitions and unexploded ordnance. Many Kuwaitis do not know how big a threat it was for Kuwait after the war. Many people do not remember the ordinance left behind. I would like to stress that two French soldiers died while doing this very difficult and dangerous task. Moreover, I would like to pay tribute to their memory because they died for the freedom of Kuwait.

Gender equality is at the centre of much of France’s work worldwide. France is following up on its commitment to fight gender imbalance through its 2018-2022 International Strategy for Gender Equality. Since 2012, France has progressed in employing more women in high-level positions in the Foreign Ministry. Between 2010 and 2018, more women have been appointed as ambassadors than in earlier governments. The tradition of French women in diplomacy goes back to the early twentieth century. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France opened to women as early as 1928. Suzanne Borel was the first French woman to join the Foreign Ministry in 1930, but the road ahead was not easy. In 1972, Marcele Campana became the first French woman to be appointed Ambassador of France.

 In recent times, Kuwait has had two stellar French women represent the Embassy for two consecutive terms.  The present French ambassador, HE Clare Le Flecher, has a story of empowerment and hard work.  It is the story of a young girl from Brittany, born into an ordinary underprivileged background, who knew early in life that there was no alternative to education and hard work. She dreamed of travelling, meeting, connecting with people, and learning about cultures. Diplomacy or joining the Foreign Ministry was the perfect way to realise her ambition.

Clare Le Flecher’s career is as varied as her education. A graduate of Sciences Po Paris, one of France’s highest learning seats, she also studied Arabic. She began her professional life with budget and economy before she rose to be Deputy Director for Russia and Eastern Europe at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. Before Kuwait, she was in Yerevan in Armenia. Here, she speaks of her journey as a diplomat, about the strong and close bond between Kuwait and France and her work in further strengthening the relationship.

AT – Why did you choose diplomacy as a career? Was it something that you wanted to do as a child?

Ambassador Le Flecher – First of all, thank you for asking me this because I would like to share a message for all the girls in the world who have big dreams. I am not from a diplomatic family. I do not come from a wealthy family or a high-level society, but it was my dream since childhood because I was fascinated by the world and its diversity.  I had many dreams as a child. I thought being an ambassador was something amazing. When I grew older, I wanted to have a political impact. I decided to take up this career because it allowed me to have a political impact and discover different cultures.

AT -Did you join it very early in your professional life?

Ambassador Le Flecher – No.  I started my career with the Ministry of Finance and was involved in politics in France.  I turned to diplomacy when I was in my early 40s. So again, I would like to send this message that as a woman, you can have different careers in different stages of your life and be successful in different fields. If you are determined, you can achieve your goals and fulfil your dreams.

AT – It is an inspiring story of a middle-class French girl who rises through the ranks and works hard, makes a mark and achieves a dream she had been dreaming of so long. Which part of France are you from?

Ambassador Le Flecher – My family comes from Brittany. It is in the western part of France and has a special spirit and history. The history of Britanny is very close to the history of Kuwait because men used to go out of their homes for a very long time to fish. They were in the sea most of the time. The women looked after everything. They cared for the family and the kids but also worked and organised their social life.

AT – Yes, it sounds very like Kuwait. So how interesting and challenging is diplomacy as a profession?

 Ambassador Le Flecher – It is extremely challenging. It is a lot of work and requires many competencies. Personally, it made me grow a lot. I am very involved in my task. My amazing team, who are also extremely dedicated to improving the bilateral relationship between France and Kuwait, supports me. Before arriving in Kuwait, I thought it would be challenging. I did not expect the very warm support Kuwait provided me since my arrival. It gives me much strength because Kuwait has a very positive spirit towards France and me.

AT -The French are well-loved in Kuwait. I have met many young Kuwaitis who opt to study French in school. So yes, France is a country with which Kuwait has had a very close, warm and friendly relationship. Kuwait is your first posting in the Middle East, and as you said, the experience has been very interesting and warm since you have been here.

Ambassador Le Flecher – Exactly. As I was mentioning earlier, I was surprised by the very strong role women play in Kuwait. I have met a huge number of amazing women from all fields – education, economy, culture, and politics. We should take the example of Kuwait in this aspect.

AT – Going back to Kuwait’s relations with France. How important is the relationship? What are the sectors that both countries partner in?

Ambassador Le Flecher – Firstly Kuwait is a privileged partner for France in the Gulf region and within the Arab Muslim world. We started a strategic dialogue last year to develop and enhance our bilateral cooperation in all fields. An example of this convergence is the military exercise. As you know, we have a defence agreement between France and Kuwait. Of course, it takes its origin in the terrible episode of the invasion and the liberation of the country. As you know, France stood beside Kuwait in the darkest hours of its history. That is why France and Kuwait signed a defence agreement after the liberation, which is still very active today. Economically, Kuwait remains one of France’s main clients. For example, France is a top provider of aircraft for airlines in Kuwait. In addition, France is a primary destination for financial investments, including in the extremely dynamic tech sector. We also have a close relationship with Kuwait in the cultural and scientific field, thanks to the presence of the Institut français du Koweït. We are very busy furthering exchanges in the field of higher education. You mentioned studies in France earlier in the interview. France has several world-class universities offering curricula not only in the French language but also in English. That is why we hope that more Kuwaiti students will come to study in France in the coming years.

AT – Ambassador, you did mention France partnering with Kuwait during its darkest hours, so rightly said. I have read that France was very firm about implementing the UN resolution, payment of compensation, return of Archives and the remains of Kuwaiti soldiers. Tell us about that time. How did France partner with Kuwait during that very difficult time?

Ambassador Le Flecher –  You know, the response of the government of Francois Mitterrand at the time was particularly quick. On August 29, during his speech at the United Nations, Mitterrand took a firm and resolute position visa vie the Kuwaiti question. He recalled the sovereignty of Kuwait and solemnly asked Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops. The French military intervention took part within the wider framework of an international political process in which France was part of the leading nations under President Francois Mitterrand.  As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France took part in the passing of 12 UN resolutions, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, including resolution 660, adopted on 3 August 1990. So after these very strong political positions, French naval assets played an important role in the blockade and implementation of the sanctions against Iraq. Moreover, France quickly started to build up a military force and launched Operation Daguet, which involved the deployment of 18,000 soldiers, a dozen ships and 40 aircraft to take part in restoring the independence of Kuwait. As soon as Kuwait was liberated, a medical Task Force and two engineer battalions were redeployed in Kuwait City to support the return of Kuwaiti sovereignty. I would also like to stress the very important role after the liberation because France provided medical support to the population. Our soldiers cleared the city of 13,000 mines and disposed of 430 tons of dangerous munitions and unexploded ordnance. Many Kuwaitis do not know how big a threat it was for Kuwait after the war.

AT – Many people do not remember the ordinance left behind.

Ambassador Le Flecher – I would like to stress that two French soldiers died while doing this very difficult and dangerous task. Moreover, I would like to pay tribute to their memory because they died for the freedom of Kuwait.

AT – I think what you have just told us shows the comprehensive and close involvement in all quarters before and after the invasion. I think cooperation during that time was so important for what happened late. Otherwise, history might have been different. So as the ambassador, what are your priorities? What is it that you want to focus on?

 Ambassador Le Flecher – As you can see, we have very deep cooperation in many fields, which is quite specific, because France does not have that level of very strong cooperation and deep friendship with all countries in the world. As an ambassador, I attach great importance to strengthening our relationship in these different fields.  I want to promote the attractiveness of France and the influence of French companies in Kuwait. I also, with my team, encouraged France’s influence through culture, education and the French language. In addition, I want to improve   Kuwaiti student mobility to France. I want to enhance some of our cooperation in the legal field by developing University exchanges and research by involving prestigious organisations, especially in the field of health, because we also have a tradition of cooperation in the health sector between France and Kuwait. In addition, of course, improving military cooperation between France and Kuwait by reinforcing the training actions with the National Guard and the Kuwaiti police.

AT – Ambassador, you did mention commercial ties between the two countries. I believe the France-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue took place recently. What was the outcome of that dialogue?

Ambassador Le Flecher- Well, Kuwait is an important commercial partner for France. Our bilateral trade is vibrant. Our exports span the entire economic spectrum, from aeroplanes to fragrances, from farming to chocolate, and of course, not even mentioning dresses and bags, from electrical material and chemicals to fashion and many other fields. Kuwait is also an important investor in the French economy. Consequently, we share important economic interests, which justifies the establishment of a structured Strategic Dialogue. I am delighted to announce that this dialogue has upgraded last spring to the ministerial level, following the visit to Kuwait last March by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. This strategic dialogue encompasses all key dimensions of our bilateral relationship through five inter-ministerial subcommittees, including a subcommittee for trade, investment and cooperation. France is very grateful to His Excellency Sheikh Mishal Al Sabah from KDIPA, who accepted to chair this subcommittee from the Kuwaiti side.

AT – I have heard that Kuwait has an upcoming delivery of 25 Airbus aircraft, which will support trade in the coming years.

Ambassador Le Flecher – Yes, it is true. Kuwaiti airlines are important clients for Airbus. Airbus has significantly increased its market share in the last few years and now dominates Kuwait’s sky.  Kuwait Airways and Jazeera Airways are important clients for Airbus, and five aeroplanes have already been delivered in the last few weeks.

AT- That is wonderful. So now, how do you see the cooperation between the two countries as far as facing energy challenges is concerned? France is very conscious of sustainability and the energy challenges that the world as a whole is facing.

Ambassador Le Clare – Historically, France has played a significant role with Schlumberger in oil exploration in Kuwait. Our companies are still present alongside KPC and its sister companies to modernize all infrastructures and help Kuwait accelerate towards greener extraction. Renewables are the new frontier for the world, the region and Kuwait. The country has important potential with regard to hydrogen production and solar generation.  France is ready to work with Kuwaiti authorities and stakeholders to help the country fulfil its full potential.

AT – You mentioned inspiring more Kuwaiti students to study in France. How do you think has Kuwait’s perception of French education changed over the years? I do know that the Kuwaiti government has introduced French language teaching in state secondary schools. Kuwait has a young population, and a large part of that population goes out for higher studies. How do you think you will be able to attract many of these students to go to France to study?

Ambassador Le Flecher – First, I confirm that French is the second foreign language taught in Kuwait, and it is because there is a very strong tradition of teaching French in the educational system in Kuwait.  French has been taught in public schools in Kuwait since 1966.  There is a French school in Kuwait since 1989. Sometimes I joke with my colleagues that they should not speak French in public because even if Kuwaitis are shy and do not speak, they understand French. There is a strong and old Francophonie in Kuwait, even if most Kuwaitis are shy.  They do not speak French spontaneously, but most have studied it at school. We also have a French Institute in Jabriya, which opened in 2012. It teaches the French language and culture and promotes French education. In addition, I would like to mention that Kuwaiti institutions are also going ahead with the French language. The French department at Kuwait University opened in 2014. Kuwait has asked to join the International Organization of Francophonie, and the Council for the Promotion of Francophonie has been set up in Kuwait, whose honorary president is His Highness Sheikh Nasser al Mohammed Al Sabah. My predecessor created it in Kuwait in 2021. Last year, we signed an MOU with regard to the reinforcements of the French language in Kuwait, where we can account for 1300 French teachers and approximately 40,000 learners enrolled each year. So our cooperation in this field is active and intense. I would also like to pay tribute to the amazing job done by all the teachers of French in Kuwait, not only in public schools but also in all the schools, in Indian Schools, Canadian schools,  Armenian schools and British and American schools. It is also thanks to their effort that Francophonie is improving in Kuwait.

AT – We are looking forward to the next Francophonie festival. Culture is also an important sector of cooperation between the two countries. The French Centre for Archaeology and Social Sciences was established in Kuwait in 2016. I remember writing about it. I also remember writing about the art and the research work that is going on in Failaka. Please tell us more about the work that is going on as far as culture is concerned.

Ambassador Le Flecher – So, thank you for asking me this question. I will answer with great pleasure. We are extremely lucky to have the Centre of Research in Kuwait, which is researching the whole of the Arab Peninsula. CEFREPA is part of the network of French research institutes abroad. It covers the seven countries of the peninsula – Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. It is based in Kuwait City and has two branches in the Sultanate of Oman and the United Arab Emirates. CEFREPA organizes numerous scientific events, an intensive course in Arabic, and many cultural activities, exhibitions, and debates. It supports young researchers through internship, doctoral and postdoctoral scholarships. It also manages the scientific projects of several regional French archaeological missions. The archaeological mission in Failaka has done an amazing job in the past years, and it is still going on.

AT – Everybody knows how popular France is as a tourist destination, but have you seen an increase post-COVID? Have you seen the numbers go up?

Ambassador Le Flecher – Let me tell you, the numbers have not increased they exploded.  I would like to take the opportunity of the conversation to express the fact that I know there are many frustrations about the appointments for visas, and I am truly sorry for that. We are victims of our success, if I may say that. My team at the embassy and our partner Capago are doing an amazing job and doing their best. Just to give you a few figures, we deliver about 350 visitors daily and have only three people to do it.  The people at the embassy are doing more than 100 every day; I want to express my gratefulness to them because they are working like crazy.  I am so sorry. I know it is not enough, but we cannot do more.  We really, really regret it.  I also want to say that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Salem is very concerned about this problem and addresses it strongly. We had a very close dialogue with my EU counterparts, the minister himself and the ministry’s team. We know how difficult the situation is, but believe me, we are doing our best to improve it

AT – In 2020, France and Kuwait celebrated 60 years of relationship. How do you see the relationship going ahead?

Ambassador Le Flecher – As I mentioned earlier, France was one of the first countries to recognise the state of Kuwait in August 1961. This strategic partnership continues, and we work together to take it to a new level by conducting our strategic dialogue at the ministerial level.  I think France- Kuwaiti relationship is blooming. We had the pleasure of hosting the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister in France. This was an important moment to reinforce our bilateral ties.

By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times

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