The French con­nec­tion

France may be hop­ing its new am­bas­sador to SA can help pave the way to a lu­cra­tive nu­clear power deal

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France most likely meant busi­ness when it asked one of de­fence com­pany Thales’ top guys, Christophe Far­naud, to be­come its am­bas­sador to South Africa. The 51-year-old is so tall he has to stoop to fit through the doors of the French con­sulate in Cape Town, where he at­tended the open­ing of Par­lia­ment and is es­tab­lish­ing gov­ern­ment part­ner­ships in fields such as health and small busi­ness.

The re­served, suave man has been the talk of the an­nual round of diplo­matic cock­tail par­ties in the city for the past three weeks. Even on Twit­ter, tongues wagged about “the French guy”, who is im­mac­u­lately groomed on a pic­ture next to less-well-turned-out Trade and In­dus­try Min­is­ter Rob Davies.

The so­cial-me­dia cringers, how­ever, mostly missed the tweets about the to­tal trade be­tween South Africa and France – grow­ing by 6.2% a year on av­er­age be­tween 2010 and 2015 – and South African ex­ports to France, which in­clude ve­hi­cles, air­craft and ma­chin­ery. France in turn brings us phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, elec­tri­cal and elec­tronic equip­ment, turbo jets, vac­cines and open­ing this week the fa­mously de­lec­ta­ble bak­ery chain Paul.

There is also the French bid for South Africa’s ten­der for nu­clear power sta­tions, which is now fac­ing stiff Rus­sian com­pe­ti­tion. When news of Far­naud’s ap­point­ment broke in Au­gust, pub­li­ca­tion Je­une Afrique re­ported that Paris hoped Far­naud could help se­cure the bid.

Far­naud, a ca­reer diplo­mat, landed in Pretoria last month fresh from a four-year foray into the pri­vate sec­tor, first as vice-pres­i­dent: in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, then as vi­cepres­i­dent: Africa, for Thales. The de­fence, aero­space and trans­porta­tion be­he­moth was tainted by al­le­ga­tions that it paid kick­backs in the 1990s arms deal with South Africa.

One ten­der se­cured dur­ing Far­naud’s ten­ure at Thales was a R1.87 bil­lion rail­way sig­nalling con­tract from the Pas­sen­ger Rail Agency of SA in 2013, which was then led by CEO Lucky Mon­tana, who has since been dis­graced.

Far­naud ad­justs his po­si­tion in the chair and shifts his long legs when asked about Thales, stress­ing that his po­si­tions in the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors “are sep­a­rate things”. He re­turned to diplomacy, he says, be­cause the of­fer of an am­bas­sador­ship to the “great and beau­ti­ful” South Africa was ir­re­sistible.

“The fact that I worked in the pri­vate sec­tor for the past few years helped me un­der­stand the con­straints of the com­pany. There are no di­rect links be­tween my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and this project,” he says.

“The nu­clear project is an im­por­tant one for this coun­try, and po­ten­tially for us as well, but de facto, France and South Africa al­ready have a part­ner­ship in the nu­clear field.”

The French were in charge of build­ing and pro­vid­ing the tech­nol­ogy for the Koe­berg Nu­clear Power Sta­tion in the 1970s, and French com­pany Areva was awarded the ten­der to re­fur­bish it in 2014. Far­naud vis­ited Koe­berg al­most two weeks ago and says the French-South African nu­clear en­ergy part­ner­ship had helped de­velop skills.

In busi­ness, things might be fairly civil, but, po­lit­i­cally, lead­ers such as In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions Min­is­ter Maite Nkoana-Masha­bane have been dis­dain­ful about France’s pres­ence in Africa.

There is a per­cep­tion in gov­ern­ment, for ex­am­ple, that the fiercest op­po­si­tion against for­mer AU Com­mis­sion chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s ten­ure came from Fran­co­phone coun­tries. France is widely seen as con­tin­u­ing to med­dle in its for­mer colonies’ af­fairs, and the fact that the French me­dia pub­lished crit­i­cal ar­ti­cles about Dlamini-Zuma’s per­for­mance at the AU has not smoothed Far­naud’s path.

But he in­sists re­la­tions are strong: “South Africa for us is the big­gest part­ner in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa and even one of our big­gest part­ners world­wide.”

Be­sides its nu­mer­ous com­pe­ten­cies, in­fra­struc­ture, in­dus­trial ca­pa­bil­i­ties and strong democ­racy, South Africa is in­flu­en­tial in the re­gion and a player on the in­ter­na­tional stage, he says.

“In cli­mate change, we did an ex­cel­lent job to­gether, France and South Africa, on COP21 and the adop­tion and im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Paris Agree­ment,” he says of the 2015 con­fer­ence.

Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s state visit in July was also a suc­cess.

Far­naud says France will keep sup­port­ing peace-keep­ing ef­forts on the con­ti­nent, some­thing South Africa has been heav­ily in­vested in. He ad­mits, though, that in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions have be­come more com­pli­cated, say­ing: “Never have there been so many in­ter­cul­tural ex­changes, but never have there been so many oc­ca­sions for mis­un­der­stand­ing.”

Diplo­mats, jour­nal­ists and artists, among oth­ers, are needed to build bridges and help peo­ple un­der­stand, he says.

In line with its prin­ci­ples of soft diplomacy, the em­bassy this year will be stag­ing Molière’s fa­mous com­edy Tartuffe in a num­ber of South African the­atres.

“Some coun­tries say there is in­ter­net, [so] we don’t need anal­y­sis, or be­cause there is in­ter­net and Twit­ter, we don’t need diplo­mats. It is ex­actly the con­trary. Be­cause there is in­ter­net and Twit­ter, you need diplo­mats,” he says.

The im­por­tance of this is ev­i­denced by a right-wing wave sweep­ing Europe af­ter the UK’s de­ci­sion last year to leave the Euro­pean Union.

In France, far-right anti-im­mi­grant can­di­date Marine Le Pen stands a chance of be­ing elected as pres­i­dent in May, but Far­naud does not want to make pre­dic­tions.

“You must not take for granted that be­cause there was Brexit and there was [US Pres­i­dent Don­ald] Trump, the same will hap­pen in France and later on in Ger­many,” he says.

Far­naud says peo­ple have a deep-seated fear, “not just re­lat­ing to eco­nomic changes, but they have ques­tion marks about their own iden­tity; they have ques­tion marks about the ef­fi­ciency of their po­lit­i­cal sys­tems. All of these go to­gether.”

For now, the line is that what­ever hap­pens, the elec­tion won’t af­fect France’s in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

“You can be sure that South Africa and Africa will re­main a pri­or­ity for the in­ter­na­tional pol­icy of France,” he says.

Far­naud’s diplo­matic ca­reer be­gan in Cairo in 1994 and he did his first am­bas­sado­rial stint in Athens from 2007 to 2011. In be­tween, he was in the Mid­dle East and back in Paris as the prime min­is­ter’s diplo­matic ad­viser.

Far­naud’s wife, Hélène Far­naud-De­fromont, a di­rec­tor­gen­eral of ad­min­is­tra­tion in the foreign af­fairs min­istry, will stay be­hind in Paris with their three chil­dren, who are 19, 16 and 12.

Any de­ci­sions on how to get the fam­ily to­gether again will have to wait un­til the mid­dle of the year, when the school year ends, he says.

“We are not ac­cus­tomed to a di­vided fam­ily. Skype and What­sApp are help­ing, but it has its lim­its,” he says, shrink­ing slightly. Un­til then, his fo­cus will have to be on the job.

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DIPLO­MATIC TIES French am­bas­sador-des­ig­nate to South Africa and for­mer de­fence ex­ec­u­tive Christophe Far­naud

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