'We are still at your side in the Indian Ocean', says outgoing French Ambassador to Seychelles
The French Ambassador to the Seychelles, Geneviève Iancu ( Patrick Joubert Seychelles News Agency)
(Seychelles News Agency) - France's ambassador to Seychelles, Genevieve Iancu, left the Seychelles archipelago, situated in the Indian Ocean on Friday after a little over two years spent in the post.
Seychelles and France have good bilateral relations and strong historical ties due to the presence of the first French settlers in the Indian Ocean archipelago as far back as 1770.
France has long been the main tourism market for Seychelles and continues to be the source of a significant number of tourists. According to the latest statistics available on the National Bureau of Statistics website, French visitors to the Seychelles so far this year (7,521) have increased by nine percent this year when compared to the same period in 2014.
France is also a major source of imports for the Indian Ocean archipelago of 115 island with its population of around 90, 000 remaining heavily reliant on food imports.
SNA met with Ambassador Iancu shortly before her departure.
SNA: Ambassador, how would you describe these two years, two months and a few days here in Seychelles?
GI: Well first of all, two years two months goes by very quickly, we barely had time to get used to the country, we always say it takes six months to try to understand something, so here it is four times six months roughly, one hardly has time to get used to what one has to leave behind. But that's the name of the game. I knew in advance, since this was not a date chosen at random, I am 65 and so at my age my generation is taking retirement.
I had no opportunities to go beyond this, so I knew from the start that it would not be more than two years, two months and as you said, some days, so there was no surprise with that. But at the same time at what pace? Because you can spend four years and nothing happens... but here there has been, as I have often said in recent days. There have been two major highlights in terms of visits.
I am not speaking of the [Indian Ocean Commission] meeting in the Comoros where my president came and yours was there. Rather, I speak of presidential visits, which make up important moments for an ambassador. Now, I've had a presidential [of Seychelles President James Michel’s] visit to Reunion... Obviously from that time, it was understood that the President wanted to go to Paris, I knew that I would be leaving on March 13 and therefore it was imperative that I organize the visit before then.
We did our utmost to make this happen in 2014 and the date was set by agreement between the two Presidents, so it was December 3, 2014. And it was a short visit, the president stayed for 24 hours, meaning he spent only one night in Paris.
SNA: Can we say that we are back on track? Cooperation had stopped with the Agence-Française de Développement [AFD, or French Development Agency] and now it has once again improved?
GI: Absolutely, it's a shared decision, there is a real demand, besides, your president has often said the same to me. I know very well that the [then-Foreign Affairs] Minister Adam had received Mrs. Laurence [Breton-Moyet] when she came, now it’s Mr. Matthieu Discour and so I think there was a real demand for the cooperation to resume. And they are not just back for one or two areas, but rather for many.
They will be back I think in April, so there will be some really interesting sectors to be evoked, especially the blue economy and an environmental expert who will come at the request of the Seychelles authorities to prepare for the COP 21 [UN climate change conference]. It is precisely in the hands of the AFD to mount this system and also budgeting and designating the post, so it also depends on the AFD.
SNA: There was much talk of piracy, etc. - there has recently been a meeting on maritime safety between the EU and Africa. Is there still a need to continue to have such a deep cooperation when it comes to piracy?
GI: It's a real issue because [the cooperation] has been observed from the beginning. First, I recall that the authorities have always said how much they were grateful to France for responding immediately when President Michel asked France: ‘Help us, we have pirates attacking us’.
Although it happened very suddenly for the Seychelles, it's not enough just to say, ‘come and help us,’ but thanks to France, I remember [EUNAVFOR Operation] Atalanta was created upon France’s initiative.
There are three forces fighting against piracy: There’s the European Union through Atalanta, we have NATO forces and there is also a third force, CMF [Combined Maritime Forces]. So you could say we never underestimated the threat.
And it is thanks to this presence, thanks to the capture of suspected pirates and thanks to the commitment of Seychelles to accept them, to try them and put them in jail - the prison was built by the European Union. But the Seychelles accepted - and then once tried, through the UN, we could take them [the pirates] home.
So to say it has been ‘successful’, what does that mean? Should we say let’s stop here, we pack up and go? This is what the Seychelles fears most, because we had also said that through the years, the countries of the region - not just the Seychelles - the countries of the region would be strengthened.
So there is also another European mission called EUCAP Nestor, which is a civilian mission mandated to build capacity, for coast guards etc. And so the idea was also on the ground in Somalia... but for that, we cannot have a state that is occupied by al-Shebab and occupied by people who absolutely do not want an organized state, but want a state according to their own norms.
SNA: It seems that economic relations have not taken off with Réunion, how do you see that and why?
GI: I would not say it is not working, I would say that there is a will on both sides, as expressed by the authorities of Réunion, because our home country is far away.
We have many businessmen there, and there is one in particular who just won a huge success - it's ECI – the company was awarded a tender by the SPTC [Seychelles Public Transport Corporationfor the provision of ticketing machines for its buses] - it's almost a million Euros I believe, so it's still very substantial.
We were with Minister Morgan, in his former position [as Minister of Home Affairs and] Transport, at the inauguration. So there are things that have been accomplished. Too many ideas I think are harmful, and that is often what has been said by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Tourism and Culture, Adam and St Ange, during that time.
It’s a fact that we did not have air connectivity which is, as they say, indispensable. You cannot do business if there is no regular boat or plane.
So what has often been said, including by [Presidents of the Regional Council of Réunion] Didier Robert or Nassimah Dinda where they said, ‘why are you going to buy your fruits in Asia when you have them next door?’... you have a luxury clientele, who must be given not only local products, even though I love the fruits and local products.
SNA: Air Austral has returned to the Seychelles. Even though the progress is slow, is it at least progressing?
GI: Look, we have to give this project some time because as I also said, I took this air link for granted… It is always a fight to have a full plane. I see that Air Seychelles has had the intelligence to also open up to other destinations, with Madagascar, with Tanzania, when we talk about the region. But I think that we also talked a lot about the Vanilla Islands, having put forward joint proposals, because you offer different things, such as beaches, and hotels, and I think that Réunion with its mountains and volcano and the small town of Saint-Denis and small coastal towns have something else to offer, another Creole style, another type of food.
So someone visiting the two (including Mauritius), will have a real feel of how the islands in the region complement each other. That is why, I think, we should take interest, and I think that we should not sit back and rest on our laurels. It is a fantastic show of strength, fully complementary, do not go against each other - you have to be intelligent – what is good for one should be good for the other.
You have to have this regional awareness that we have developed in Europe, I think, should be more evident and therefore use this to your advantage, rather than buying products via Dubai from all over the world, enjoy the local produce found in the region and it will be to your advantage.
SNA: We were talking earlier about the economic problems in Europe - France is trying to get the maximum amount of taxes, all the money that is due to the country. Do you see the Seychelles as a tax haven?
GI: I've always heard and saw and understood that you have given all the information expected by the OECD. The only problem that the Seychelles has been reproached for was mostly the transmission of information, not that it was a tax haven.
But to be judged by the OECD, which decides how you should be rated in terms of transparency of information in tax matters, the information must be provided. And I think you have taken the measures, and it will be important for you to pass on this information and get off this bad list, and I think you're headed in the right direction.
So as long as I believe that the Seychelles are anxious to appear as the ‘good international student’, that is to say, within the rules... it's not a cold calculation, it may simply be an analysis to say that ‘we could be a tax haven, as many have said’, or else say ‘no, we would rather lose that side but also win [in another way]’.
I think having said ‘no, we do not want to be a tax haven’ but instead wanting to comply with international rules in this area of taxation, the choice has paid off since you are well regarded by the IMF, as well as the World Bank and the European Union.
SNA: Seychelles has strengthened its economic partnership with China and India – is this a concern for France?
GI: No, since we live in such a globalised world, how can France be concerned about this or give lessons to anyone – to say ‘it would be better if you made friends with so-and-so’?
International relations are such that we cannot do without good relations with important countries, and it is not by chance that you cited mainly Asian countries such as China and India.
I also know that Sri Lanka is in the spotlight, since it is the last country that has opened an embassy and a bank here.
So, I mean you can bank on Asia but as we are in the Indian Ocean, you have on your west Europe and on your east you have all of Asia. So you cannot, given your location, say ‘well no, I will turn my back, I am staying with my ancestors, those who have populated this country’... it would be foolish and suicidal to say ‘I want to deal only with Africa and Europe and do not care about Asia or the United States or the Australian continent’, which certainly is far but is also interested in the Seychelles, in several areas.
So, nobody can throw stones at you for that, rather, it is part of a smart policy to diversify your audience and I think in this concern for diversification, the fact that France continues to play an important role, it shows that you do not forget your roots. I think it is a very good policy.
SNA: You leave in the coming days...
GI: Tomorrow [Friday, March 13]
SNA: Has your duty been fulfilled?
GI: Listen, it would be presumptuous and inelegant to leave and say, I'm glad I have done everything very well. I leave satisfied with having done my best to move our bilateral relations forward, raise awareness of France, show our interest in the region, and remind you that we are still at your side in the Indian Ocean.
We fought for the anti-piracy unit of the Indian Ocean Commission to be based here. We have an understanding, based on the instinctive familial relationship between Reunion and Seychelles, so I was very happy to discover this relationship with a French region and even Mayotte too. Because we had economic visits to Mayotte too, and we also visited the academic centre that was very interesting, as it is the youngest in the region which is turning towards the Seychelles, saying there is much to learn from you. So even the young University of Seychelles has something to teach the university centre of Mayotte.
SNA: Will you come back to the Seychelles?
GI: I cannot promise... I can always come back to visit you. But for now I want to go back to France because it's been 10 and a half years that I have not gone back to France, apart for very short periods of time, so I need to immerse myself in France. I need to immerse myself in my family, my friends, to regain a foothold and rejuvenate myself, to travel and who knows? Maybe one day I will return to Seychelles to see you again, with great pleasure.