It is rare a high-ranking foreign diplomat to play an active role in the internal affairs of a country, especially when this is being done in public. Moreover, when this role is focused on a sensitive area as justice. Even rarer is when this is being met by a broad media and public support and manages to unite the civil society around a cause. Such a case was the "Borilski" trial, in which the ambassador of France Etienne de Poncins got personally involved. Except this case, there were many other occasions when the French diplomat got rid of the diplomatic language to say that something was not right in Bulgaria. After three years of active work in our country, His Excellency is leaving for a new mission. Before departing, however, he said good-bye in the same manner - by making a sort of a report of his 3-year observations in the country.
His lecture was typical for his behaviour as a French ambassador here - concise, brief and precise. There was almost no area that was left untouched in one way or the other. He outlined 5 major priorities for our country for the years to come, during the public lecture, organised by the Atlantic club in Bulgaria. First is the judicial reform. Ambassador de Poncins, who made the "Borilski" case public in Bulgaria, defined the trial as a test. He added that the Bulgarian judiciary "had recovered" and the result was satisfactory but there were other similar emblematic cases which needed to be solved.
Naturally he did not spare Bulgaria's problems with organised crime and corruption, by making a very exquisite diplomatic statement, based upon his own observations. "Of course the interest groups, which had been created in the first years of democracy and which are still very powerful, and which surprised me during my visits in various towns in the countryside. In the 90s it was probably being considered that the return to democracy would very quickly lead to stability with regard to the organised crime and the corruption, but this did not happen exactly like this". This is the reason why fighting organised crime remains Bulgaria's major challenge. The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, imposed on our country with its accession to the EU, was a right tool, thanks to which there had been progress, the French diplomat added.
Another priority, according to him, is energy. France supports the Bulgarian choice, with regard to nuclear power, but before building new plants more attention should be paid on energy efficiency, he underlined. And another problem, of which His Excellency said was hardly touched in Bulgaria - demography. In the next 30 years this problem will become more and more serious for Bulgaria. A decisive public policy was necessary in support of families, he said and gave an example from a recent visit of his in a small French town in the countryside.
There, he said, was something that was disturbing him all the time while he was walking the streets - there were a lot of children. "When one comes back from France to Sofia, the difference is striking, because in Sofia it is rare to see children playing in the streets". His homeland, the ambassador continued, had a similar problem in the beginning of the 19th century but by investing a lot of efforts and through a coherent state policy, France is currently one of the few, maybe the only one, EU Member States with a demographic growth.
Not quite in the context of demography, ambassador de Poncins defined as an important priority the integration of the Roma. His Excellency did not comment on the return of Bulgarian Roma from France but emphasized on the fact that in Bulgaria most Roma people live in "almost catastrophic humanitarian environment". This is why it was very important to use the EU funds, he advised, and why not even creating a special ministerial position, dedicated to the Roma problem.
At first surprising but ambassador de Poncins put among Bulgaria's priorities, historical memory. He said that in Bulgaria people almost do not talk about the victims of the totalitarian regime, but instead there are museums and memorials of Todor Zhivkov. In the context of growing nostalgia for socialism and the revival of some governmental practices from the time, the words of the French ambassador sounded more like a warning. "It would be of Bulgaria's interest calmly and reasonably to know its past during the period of communism", de Poncins said.
In his "report" the economic relations between France and Bulgaria were also included. He defined them as difficult, although there was progress which was far from the possible. Trade exchange was too small, especially in comparison to Romania. And, contrary to the broad suspicions in Bulgaria that France has a special relationship with our northern neighbour, the diplomat said that there was no explanation and excuse for this situation. The reason, he deliberated, could be the lack of any image of Bulgaria in France. People there do not know what is the taxation environment, the quality of life or tourism.
Paris and other European capitals value Bulgaria's stabilising role in the Balkans, Etienne de Poncins underlined. He said that the close relations between Sofia and Moscow were useful for the EU and that Bulgaria should be a bridge between the Union and Russia. The ambassador recommended Sofia to clearly express its position with regard Turkey's membership in the EU and not to suffer from a lack of confidence, because Bulgaria's opinion was expected on the issue.
He gave an interesting idea to the Ministry of Defence - as the process of modernisation of the army is a very expensive and difficult for a small country like Bulgaria process, some form of regional cooperation should be considered, for example the creation of a common fleet with Romania or common air defence with Greece.
In several weeks Etienne de Poncins will leave Bulgaria to take over his next mission - in Kenya with responsibilities for Somalia as well. Whether the Somali pirates would be a bigger challenge for him, after the Bulgarian judiciary, we are yet to see. The fact is that he is one of the rare cases of a heavy-hitter diplomat - useful everywhere where there is a need of a foreign assessment, which could lead to an improvement. Maybe this is why supporters of his created a special group in the Facebook with the main idea to create a petition, asking Etienne de Poncins to remain in Bulgaria for another three years. It is relaxing, after all, that, as he put it himself, "the return of France to this part of Europe" is one of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's priorities.