A Positive Start Interview with French ambassador Salina Grenet-Catalano
The French government has recently proposed to extend the country’s COVID-19 state of emergency until July 31 next year. If this happens, how will it affect France’s economy and when do you believe it will recover to pre-pandemic levels?
Our government is seeking parliamentary approval to enact some measures to fight COVID-19 until July 31, 2022, including the ability to implement our equivalent of the SafePass. This doesn’t mean that we have a pessimistic outlook when it comes to the pandemic; it is a precaution to cover for the limited decision-making capabilities of our institutions in spring 2022, as we will be holding presidential and legislative elections. In fact, we are actually doing pretty well at the moment, despite the colder weather. New cases and hospitalizations are under control while 75% of the population is now fully vaccinated. As everywhere, we should remain careful during the winter period. Our economic recovery is well underway. After an 8% recession caused by the pandemic in 2020, estimates show that the French economy has grown by more than 6% in 2021 and predict 4.2% in 2022, basically erasing the impact of the crisis almost entirely this year and for sure next year. This is one of the best performances in the EU and the eurozone, definitely because our support schemes have been pretty extensive and avoided permanent damage to businesses. We are now implementing an ambitious €100 billion recovery plan, focused on the green transition but also with competitiveness and cohesion aspects. It is supported by €40 billion of the Next Generation EU fund, which marks a major step forward for the European Union as it is based on the joint borrowing of money on the markets and, therefore, true solidarity.
The European Commission has approved €30.5 billion to support electricity generation from renewable energy sources in order to help France achieve its 2030 target of producing 33% of its energy needs from renewables, which feeds into the EU commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050. How do you asses this project? Are these targets feasible?
Transitioning away from fossil fuel is absolutely necessary and, frankly, unavoidable. The sooner we can achieve it the better, in order to limit the effects of global warming but also so as to be more resilient facing market variations such as the ones we are now witnessing. At the moment, France can produce around 20% of its electricity through renewable energies, therefore a 33% objective by 2030 is feasible, provided that the necessary political will exists and the right investments are made. In addition, thanks to nuclear energy, France already produces 97% of its electricity from low carbon sources. As president Macron recently announced, we will be relying on the balance between renewables and nuclear energies to achieve our carbon neutrality goals. European Commission support, not just to France but to all member states, is critical in order to achieve our goals. In island countries such as Cyprus, the challenge of getting away from fossil fuels is even greater and new technologies such as the storage of solar energy can be a game changer, as well as interconnectivity with other grids.
The longstanding problem of illegal crossings between France and the UK has increased dramatically since 2018. Do you believe that the problem has worsened due to Brexit? What is your position as regards the overall European migrant and refugee crisis?
The question of illegal crossings between France and the UK is indeed a longstanding problem but there has always been a very effective cooperation with our neighbours across the channel to tackle this issue. This is embodied in the Le Touquet agreements, by which France helps the UK protect its borders while the UK contributes to the costs of this effort. Brexit has not in itself worsened the problem but it has unfortunately polarized the matter. France has always respected its commitments on migration vis à vis the UK and we therefore expect the same from them. Furthermore, these matters are not just bilateral, as you know. We need an EU-wide agreement with the UK on asylum and illegal migration in order to deal with the question of returns. The UK should also respect what it signed with the EU on fisheries and regarding Northern Ireland. As for the overall European migration and refugee crisis, we are of course very concerned by what is happening in Cyprus, along the Central, Eastern and Western Mediterranean routes and more recently at our Eastern borders with Belarus. This is a common challenge; nobody can pretend to be unaffected. More effort should be made both to tackle people smuggling and to secure our borders while sticking to our values and not rebuilding the walls we have fought to take down. Smoother asylum processing is also of the essence, plus proper accommodation and screening, and the effective returns of those denied asylum. Overall, there is a balance to be found between strengthening the responsibility of each Member State and ensuring solidarity with first entry Member States, with the EU doing more on the ground. An ambitious migration and asylum pact is currently under discussion within the EU and it is critical that we put aside our differences to move ahead. Our upcoming Presidency of the EU Council, which begins in January, will of course pursue the efforts to reach an effective compromise.
You have stated that France supports a bizonal, bicommunal federation with political equality in Cyprus. Do you think that your country – or, indeed, any other EU member state – can help revive negotiations between the two communities? How could a solution to the Cyprus problem affect the issue of natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean?
France does indeed support a solution to the Cyprus problem based on the parameters of the United Nations, that is to say a bizonal, bicommunal federation with political equality. This should not be seen as a dogmatic approach detached from realities on the island: quite the opposite. First of all, there has always been room to manoeuvre within the parameters. In addition, we already came twice very close to reaching agreement based on that model, both with The Annan Plan in 2004 and at Crans-Montana in 2017. Of course, setting up a federation comes with many challenges, from proper power sharing to functionality, without forgetting the need to establish a new security arrangement fit for the 21st century. But other models simply do not work. The unitary state model is largely utopian, while the so-called “two state solution” is not a solution, as it would basically perpetuate the problem of the division of the island. In practice, it would mean, at the very best, the status quo. France would, of course, like the discussions to be revived between the communities and those involved. Being able to talk is already a step forward and would improve the political climate. Provocations such as in Varosha should also stop. France and, I think, the EU as a whole, is ready to help, in large part because the Cyprus problem is an EU problem as well. But for us to actively support a process, a process needs to actually exist at least in a minimal way. Solving the Cyprus problem would, of course, affect very positively the way maritime delimitation and energy issues are handled in the Eastern Mediterranean. That matter cannot be seen as a zero-sum game; cooperation, such as that promoted by the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, of which France is now a member, is the way to go. We are seeing the matter from the standpoint of international law, more precisely UNCLOS. Cyprus’s sovereignty over its EEZ should, therefore, be respected.,
French exports to Cyprus amounted to US$149.84 million in 2020, while Cypriot exports to France stood at US$114.98 million. Do you believe that the two countries have the potential to expand their bilateral trade? If so, in what areas?
Let’s be honest, the numbers you have quoted for the bilateral trade between Cyprus and France are not very big. Our economic relationship is not at the level of our excellent political ties and my ambition is to try to do my best to fill that gap. There is, indeed, potential to expand our relations, not just via the trade of goods and services but also investments like those which took place in the past – in the airports for example. For that to happen, the business circles of the two countries need to know each other better. The introduction of direct flights would also help and recently our agency Business France published its first country guide to Cyprus. Regarding the various sectors, France has a lot of expertise to offer to Cyprus when it comes to its green transformation objectives (energy generation, storage, green transportation, etc.) as well as in the digital sector. Cyprus could also become a more attractive destination for French tourists. A positive trend in that direction was already seen this summer and we hope it will continue. French companies could also take advantage of Cyprus’ geographic location: in the EU but on the doorstep of the Middle East.
This year, Kamala Harris became the first female Vice President of the United States, Ursula von der Leyen is the first woman to lead the EU and it would appear that more women are taking their places at the world’s decision-making tables. However, according to the UN, only 25.5% of national parliamentarians are women. As a woman in politics, do you think that change is really happening or we are taking one step forward and two steps back?
All changes take time but I do believe we are on a good path with regard to women in politics. France, for example, has made great progress recently. Our parliament in 2012 had 26.9% women while in 2017, that number reached 38.7%. We have also achieved parity when it comes to members of government. New appointments as ambassadors are now roughly 50/50 and so is the intake at our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Preconceived ideas about women as public decision makers are on the decline and men are also part of this movement. Key figures like Kamala Harris and Ursula von der Leyen are important because they demonstrate that it is possible, they inspire women to fight for their rightful place in society, including politics. In Cyprus also I can see things moving forward as well. The election of Annita Demetriou as Speaker of the House of Representatives is paving the way. As part of our feminist diplomacy, we are actually engaged with Cypriot authorities on the important issue of gender equality and sharing best practices. I mentioned the Cyprus problem earlier and I share the view that women should be better represented on the negotiation teams, for example. Beyond politics, we should also not forget the question of women’s representation in the business sector, as CEOs or Board members. There is a lot to be done and I have met people in Cyprus who are very invested in this issue as well.
You served in several cities around the world including Damascus, Rome, Beirut and Zagreb before coming to Cyprus. What impressions of the various countries will remain with you following your various postings?
Being able to serve in different countries, to experience different cities and cultures is really what makes the diplomatic career special and different from any other kind of public servant job. In Damascus and Beirut, I discovered the Middle East, which is the region I specialized on. There is a special way of life I really enjoyed; people I grew attached to. Of course, this is a region that has endured a lot of hardship. I was in Beirut during the recent harbour explosion and I cannot but think every day about what people are going through not far from here. I hope a little bit of stability will eventually materialize. In Zagreb, I discovered EU affairs at a critical time in the country’s history as it was joining the EU. Rome is also very special to me; due to the very close relationship we enjoy and my regular trips there but also because it is where I met my husband! Here in Cyprus, I find a bit of everything I have had in my career so far: a Middle Eastern ambiance and EU affairs combined.
What are your impressions of life in Cyprus? Have you had the opportunity to visit many of the island’s attractions? What are some of your favourite things about living and working here?
I arrived in Cyprus in December 2020, a period which was still marked by the pandemic, meaning that I couldn’t really enjoy the full potential of the island at the time. Overall, I can say that life is pretty enjoyable in Cyprus, combined with quite complex issues to deal with, politically speaking. Recently I have had more time to discover Cyprus, from West to East. Not only are there beautiful beaches but a lot of history, which French archeological missions have contributed to uncovering. It is particularly interesting to see that France has left its mark on Cyprus’ monuments as a result of the Lusignan period. Also, there is a lot to discover about the Cypriot traditions best found in the small villages. The food here is also great (even for a French woman married to an Italian!). I think the best thing is that, due to the relatively short distances, many activities can be combined within the same day, such as visiting an archaeological site, wine tasting and enjoying the beach, for example. Workwise, I would say that the best thing is the openness and friendliness of our Cypriot interlocutors and their “no fuss” attitude, which make things as easy and practical as they can be.
What would you like your legacy to be when the time comes to leave diplomacy?
Well maybe it is a little early to speak about my legacy, since this is my first posting as ambassador and I am not that old! I hope there are still many adventures ahead for me and a lot to be done, including here in Cyprus. Of course, I would like my stay here to be positively remembered, perhaps for deepening our already excellent bilateral relationship, trying to advance a solution to the island’s division and promoting the use of the French language.