ASTANA – The new French ambassador in Kazakhstan says he has a clear vision for improving bilateral ties during his tenure in Astana: “Densify, intensify, diversify and another D-word, discover.”
“Densify means we want to make our political dialogue more dense and meaningful; intensify means we want to intensify our economic and trade partnership; diversify means our common focus on diversifying economic ties into new areas; and discover, because this is a huge country and so is the challenge of discovering it,” said Ambassador Francis Etienne, who arrived in Astana in September 2013 and officially began his mission in October 2013.
Etienne’s top priority is “fostering what we call the strategic partnership in every meaning of the word, pushing for more political dialogue on every level, promoting ties between French regions and Kazakh regions, promoting economic partnership [and] exchanges in culture and education.”
Political exchanges occur at the highest levels, with a number of presidential visits between the countries in the past two decades. President Nazarbayev paid at least six visits to France, the first one in 1992 and the most recent one in November 2012. He has met and worked with Presidents François Mitterand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. Presidents Mitterand and Sarkozy visited Kazakhstan. Current President Hollande has a standing invitation to visit Kazakhstan, Etienne said, and the possibility is being considered although no precise timing can be fixed yet.
France is also working with its European partners to support the negotiations between Kazakhstan and the EU over a new enhanced partnership and cooperation agreement.
Kazakhstan, five times larger than France in terms of territory, with a population of 17 million, is the main trading partner for France and the European Union in Central Asia. France is also the third largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan, after the Netherlands and the U.S., according to the French Embassy in Astana.
France is currently the third largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan, according to the French embassy, and Kazakhstan is their biggest trading partner in Central Asia. The two countries have enjoyed growing trade in recent years due to increasing sales of transport machinery (which makes up 48 percent of the total export volume), industrial and agricultural machinery, cosmetic and chemical products and pharmaceuticals by France to Kazakhstan.
In the first 11 months of 2013, French exports to Kazakhstan grew by 49.3 percent compared to the same period in 2012 and reached 629 million euros ($857 million) . Imports from Kazakhstan, 95 percent of which are hydrocarbons, grew 0.6 percent to $4.8 billion euros ($6.5 billion). In 2012, French exports grew 85 percent and reached 484 million euros ($659 billion); total trade in 2012 reached $5.2 billion.
One of the highlights of the year, according to the ambassador, is going to be the Business Council session on Feb. 13-14 in Astana, in which some 50 French business people are expected to take part.
“I had a discussion with Minister [of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Erlan] Idrissov, and I am sure he is quite interested in facilitating more business exchanges,” Etienne said.
“Kazakhstan is the biggest uranium producer in the world, so one way or another we are interested in cooperation in that field,” Etienne said, adding that cooperation is already ongoing between French company Areva and KazAtomProm. The two companies are working on extending cooperation in other fields.
French companies are also planning to participate in the much-anticipated EXPO 2017 in Astana in various ways, said the ambassador.
“For instance, we are quite interested in offering a simulator-example of the sustainable management of a modern city of the 21st century,” he said. “We are going to offer the city of Astana a system where you can see in advance what’s going to happen in terms of transport with twice the number of cars or what’s going to happen in terms of energy consumption or water consumption. … Besides that, in terms of buildings being built and services being provided, as well as energy sources and technology, we are interested in everything, in every step towards EXPO 2017. One particular area is city transport, and whatever the Astana Akimat (city hall) may choose, we can offer.”
Smart management and saving energy are the keys to a sustainable future, the ambassador said, not only expanding into other energy sources.
“For me, the big question is saving energy. It is not only about providing energy, but also the way you consume it and manage it. It takes a lot of effort to change people’s habits … [but] little by little it makes a huge difference.”
A region in France, Nord Pas de Calais, has been implementing a system of energy consumption-conscious living over the past few years. It is experiences like this that France can share, Etienne said.
At the same time, nuclear energy accounts for around 80 percent of France’s energy consumption, according to the ambassador.
“There is certainly a future for nuclear energy. But there are plans to balance nuclear and renewable energy by 2020, going towards reducing to 50 percent [nuclear energy’s share] and steadily developing more solar and wind energy.”
At the same time, France, one of the five recognised nuclear weapon states and permanent members of the UN Security Council, believes its current nuclear posture is sustainable, the ambassador said.
“As for nuclear weapons, we are not expanding the numbers; we are just maintaining them at the minimum level consistent with our needs. We think we have a sufficient level [of nuclear weapons] and that is it,” Etienne said, adding that “we are supporting Kazakhstan’s efforts to prevent proliferation.”
In addition to energy, the ambassador hopes to foster cooperation in education. Developing education is a priority for Kazakhstan.
“We will push for more cooperation between universities and schools on every level—technical, social, economic, engineering, et cetera—[as well as] student exchange programmes and combined events where we can cross experiences,” the ambassador said, adding that France can provide top quality education at all levels.
Starting from 2014, Kazakhstan’s students will able to study at France’s Sorbonne University without leaving Almaty, as the two countries signed a memorandum last September establishing the Paris Sorbonne University at the Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University and making a prestigious Sorbonne education available there.
“Cooperation between the Sorbonne and Abai University is just beginning. We want to do the same with the Nazarbayev University here and other institutions,” Etienne said. “We want to show that what you have done in a few years, most countries have done in decades; you’re speeding up the process, which is quite extraordinary, and you can learn from our experience.”
The French community is planning to show the reality of “Francophonie” in March as “we want to show that [Francophone culture] is alive and not only among diplomats. The French language is spoken by around 250 million people around the world in more than 50 countries,” the ambassador underscored.
Before coming to Astana, Etienne headed the French diplomatic mission in New Zealand for three years. There are similarities and differences between the two posts, he said.
“In terms of development, how you deal with infrastructure, how you deal with the situation regarding economic development and national identity—this is what I would say [is similar]. In terms of differences, the climate in New Zealand is mild and here it is sharply continental, and there is the main difference. But as I was brought up in the mountains, I like the cold and the winter.”
“I brought over my skis and go cross-country skiing on weekends, weather allowing,” the ambassador said and added, smiling: “You have been living in a cold climate for thousands of years. I am sure I can cope with it for two or three years.”