French President François Hollande visited Astana and Almaty on Dec. 5-6. This is the third visit of a French president to Kazakhstan, after François Mitterrand in 1993 and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009.
These visits roughly reflect the dynamics of French relations with Central Asia. It seems that after an initial fascination culminated with Mitterrand’s visit to Kazakhstan in September 1993, French interest in the region went into decline, except for a short boost during the anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan. In the past few years, however, we see a reengagement of France with Central Asia, with Sarkozy visiting Kazakhstan in 2009 and Hollande in 2014. I studied French policy towards post-Soviet Central Asia back in the early 2000s during my time at the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas and I recall that at that time France was still trying to figure out what Central Asia could offer to France and vice versa.
Of course, speaking in economic terms, France remains one of the largest foreign investors in Kazakhstan and is largely present in the country’s oil and gas sector. Total, the French energy major, is involved in the North Caspian Operating Company as well as in the giant Kashagan oil field exploration. Several dozen French companies operate in Kazakhstan, including Alcatel-Lucent, Alstom, Areva, Vicat, GDF-Suez, Danone, Maury, Sanofi-Aventis, la Société Générale, Thales, Total, Schlumberger, Thales Engineering Kazakhstan and Ifastar Rollers. This is all very important, indeed. There is, however, one area where France possesses a major resource that remains largely underused – that is education and culture.
Back in my student days, learning the French language and going to France for studies was considered somewhat outlandish, exotic and at times even bizarre compared to the “mainstream” outflow of students to the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. Even today, although the situation has improved, France still significantly lags behind in numbers of young Kazakhs choosing French universities for their studies. This is why it is a particular pleasure to see that besides political and economic issues, this visit also focused on education. I’m pleased to see that during his visit to Kazakhstan, Hollande took part in the educational forum and in the grand opening of the Sorbonne-Kazakhstan Institute campus in Almaty. The Alliance Française is expanding its operations across the country, making learning the French language more accessible.
New initiatives are offered to French students and scholars interested in Central Asia. I hope that this, along with the facilitated visa regime, will bring more French students to the region and help to establish new contacts and expand existing ones. I believe that connections between peoples and countries become stronger not just through a general fascination about a country, but through those personal contacts, interactions and friendships.
Back in the day, when France still had a compulsory military service, some young Frenchmen had an option and preferred to go abroad (including Kazakhstan) to teach the French language and promote French culture. This programme tremendously helped me and many other young Kazakhs to improve their French language skills and make a choice in favour of studying in France. I hope all this will help to keep the prestige of French education among younger generations of Kazakhs and more students will pursue their studies there.
I’m also pleased to hear that a new, direct flight between Astana and Paris will be launched in March 2015. I recall that an intergovernmental agreement on this was signed back in 1993. It took a good 22 years for this wonderful initiative to actually happen. One would only hope that future cooperation initiatives will not have to wait that long.
The author is a PhD and Assistant Professor at Nazarbayev University.