The year 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Nepal and France. The two countries have not only been organizing different programs to mark this anniversary but also have made a resolve to further enhance and expand areas of cooperation. Few days back they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to establish bilateral political consultative mechanism that will pave the way for the two countries to identify additional areas of cooperation including in economy, tourism, climate change and others. Kosh Raj Koirala talked to Director for Asia and Oceania in the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs Thierry Mathou, who was in Kathmandu last week to hold political consultations with Nepali leaders and sign the MoU. Excerpts:
Nepal and France signed a MoU to establish bilateral political consultation mechanism. How is this mechanism going to work?
The idea is to conduct regular consultations between our two administrations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and on the Nepali side at the level of a Secretary/Joint Secretary to touch upon all kinds of issues political, multilateral and economic aspects. During our meeting, we had representatives from different ministries including Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Tourism and other stakeholders. I am sure we will have the opportunity to elaborate different sectors where we intend to be more active and more present. We have already identified some specific projects. We are working on with Nepal government. This mechanism will give us regular opportunity to exchange views and move forward based on government-to-government discussion. Eventually, the objective is to make private sector businesses and other stakeholders more involved and active in Nepal.
Time has come for us to enhance our presence in Nepal because France has a global strategy to reinvent its position in Asia. We have a very good relation with your two big neighbours, China and India. Nepal has a strategic position. We want to be more active in different sectors, mainly in economy. It was interesting for us to notice that the values of the French Republic ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ resonate with Nepal. So based on our common views on multilateralism and on the needs to fight against climate change, there is a need now to put more flesh around the bone and to put more content in our relation.
How do you see Nepal in the French diplomacy in general?
France has a very good relation with different stakeholders in the region, namely India and China. In fact, we are part of Asia. We have territories in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific also. We want to be more present, more active to contribute to a better geopolitical balance in the region. We see our goal as a contributor to this balance and want to be involved in development.
For us, Nepal is an important country because we have this geopolitical situation and also because we already have many opportunities to interact. Let me mention two examples. First, it is the peace keeping operation. It is amazing that you are not a very large country but your influence is big in peacekeeping. Most of the peacekeeping operations take place in Africa. It means that your soldiers have to deal with the French language. So French Embassy is providing them French language lesson.
Second is climate change. France is happy to lead the climate change initiative. We are active supporter of Paris Agreement. The focus usually is on island countries but we all realise that the issue is as important in mountainous countries. Nepal has the ability to take the leadership on this issue. We are very happy to learn that your country is organizing Sagarmatha Sambaad in April, 2020. This is an opportunity to interact on a bilateral level in different sectors like sustainable tourism, management of water and new energy like solar energy.
With India, we launched the solar alliance. We propose that Nepal also becomes the member of this alliance because Nepal can also benefit from this initiative. We can also cooperate on the management of forestry. There are different sectors where there is an opportunity for France and Nepal to interact.
France is one of the largest trading partners of Nepal. How do you see the possibility of further enhancing our trade relations?
I think there is a huge margin for improving on both sides. For you to export more to Europe you need to do more in terms of branding Nepal abroad, especially in Europe. We can help you in developing the concept of geographical indications. Also, there is a room for French companies to be more active in Nepal in terms of investment. We have identified a few sectors. I will mention three of them. First is the climate change. It is not only a question of advocacy but a question of concrete projects to implement in different sectors. Solar, water and herbal medicine are a few other sectors in this regard.
Second is tourism. Visit Nepal 2020 is starting soon. This is a very welcome initiative. France is one of the top destinations in the world in terms of tourism. We have a great expertise in all sectors like infrastructure and technology. So it could be a very good idea to identify sub-sectors, where we could provide support, services, and products to Nepal to improve its objective to become a top country in terms of tourism, especially in the perspective of developing sustainable tourism in Nepal. Another project we have identified is satellite. Your country is considering buying a satellite. France is a top technology country and is eager to contribute in this.
Cable car is another project. This is clearly a need in your country also in the perspective to fight against climate change and its consequences. Nepal is in need of a printing facility for official documents like passports.
The three companies which are involved in those projects are very eager to move forward. The French government is also supporting this initiative. I am confident that we can move forward and eventually conclude those important contracts because for us it will be not only significant in terms of the involvement of French businesses in Nepal, but also will pave the way for further investment and involvement of French government and French businesses in your country.
Let me add something to our interest in providing printing facility. So far France is the only one in the market to propose to Nepal the involvement of a state agency on our side. Our companies are the most ancient in the world. The printing and the manufacturing involved in this project was set up in France in 1538. Besides, French minister of finance is eager to support and provide good financial conditions.
I think it will be a good sign both politically and economically to tell our companies and businesses to come in Nepal and invest in other sectors including IT. Your economy is moving very rapidly. In India, we are active in the sector of Smart Cities. This is something that can also be applied in Nepal. There is a wide range of initiatives that we can develop with Nepal.
Do you think there are particular products that Nepal could export to France?
You have excellent agricultural products. The only issue is how to brand them. Actually, Nepal as such has to become a brand as you have great asset like wonderful scenery and culture. This is why I referred to the notion of geographical indication because it is like a canopy for foreign markets, especially in Europe and for foreign customers. So, it is not a question of which product because you already have the products. Some of the products are already exported to Europe. Now the question is how to market them.
Nepal is increasingly looking for technology transfer and FDI from France. What are the prospects and challenges in these sectors?
Like I said, we are hoping to become more active and more present in Nepal and encourage our companies to come here. We just need clear indication, clear signs of what kind of investment you need and in which sector you need it.
I spoke of tourism earlier. Visit Nepal 2020 will be more useful to attract more tourists but at the same time it also gives you the opportunity to highlight what kind of specific contribution you need in this sector in terms of investment. It’s a kind of a surprise for me to notice that none of our major tourist stakeholders are present in Nepal. So the major issue is to match the supply and the demand. So assuming that we would have a clearer idea of what are your needs, obviously we would be very happy to match those needs in terms of technology transfers. I mentioned this satellite issue which is very important if we succeed to make the deal. It could be a start of a long-term cooperation in other sectors.
Nepal aims to bring at least two million tourists in 2020. How can France help Nepal to achieve this goal?
I think the issue of Visit Nepal 2020 is not only about number. Of course bringing in more tourists is the objective but it’s also a question of quality. You need more tourists who are able to spend more and contribute to sustainable tourism. That means tourists have to contribute to the development in terms of currency, while also helping Nepal to protect and preserve its biodiversity. In this context, we are holding discussion with the government of Nepal. We would be happy to welcome a high level delegation led by Minister for Tourism and businesses to come and meet in Paris to exchange with our government and businesses to see how we can provide support and services to help you meet those objectives.
We don’t have any vested interest in Nepal. We do not have any hidden agenda. Our only objective is to meet your demand. France is the third destination for tourism in the world. So we are quite eager to provide support and expertise to Nepal in various levels. I hope 2020 will give us the opportunity.
As a mountainous country climate change has been one of the biggest areas of concern in Nepal. Since France has been taking the lead in the fight against climate change, how can Nepal and France work together in this area?
I have proposed to your government that France and Nepal could work on a Green Road Map. We can team up on this important issue for the fight against climate change is also very important to mountainous countries. Nepal and France are both mountainous countries. We see the melting of the glaciers on the Alps. There is a direct link between the melting of the glaciers and climate change in the island countries. Thus we have to team up together. This means Sagarmatha Sambad should not only be a national initiative. It should expand to international levels including at the United Nations. France is very eager to support any such initiative. We are eager to become the part of Nepal’s Sagarmaatha Sambad.
This idea of the Green Road Map also has an objective to identify what we can do at the bilateral level and how we can work together on climate change and biodiversity. I think we have to think about this and adopt Green Road Map before the April conference, so that it could be a kind of framework of our cooperation in the future. This is important because it deals with both political and multilateral levels. We do not have an ideological approach with Nepal. We want to work on a project-based approach.
What are the key areas in which Nepal and France can collaborate on major issues of international concern in various multilateral forums?
I already mentioned two areas. One is climate change which is a major concern for your country and is a major concern for us. There is a clear roadmap for us to be more interactive. Second is peacekeeping operation where you are present and active and France is also very much involved.
We should also mention the importance of the WTO. At this moment we face some challenges and issues and it’s important to modernise WTO because it has a key role in the field of multilateralism. Thus, climate change, peacekeeping operation and trade are three major areas where France and Nepal can collaborate.
Britain—one of the key members of the European Union—is headed toward exit from EU. Will that affect the overall support we are receiving from the EU?
Definitely not. We regret the British decision. But it is the choice of a democracy. Eventually we will be a family of 27 nations. That does not mean we will not have good relations with the UK because France and Europe have a close relation with the UK. We will find new ways to interact with our British friends. As far as EU is concerned, EU is very important in Nepal. France is the second largest contributor to EU budget. That means we are very much involved with the EU in Nepal and will definitely support the growing involvement of the EU in this country. France will always support the EU in Nepal as a major aid donor. Yes, the UK is about to leave the EU but this will not change the position of the EU and France in South Asia, especially Nepal.