It’s a fascinating story - French Envoy | Sunday Observer
France and Sri Lanka: 75 Years of Diplomatic Ties

It’s a fascinating story - French Envoy

25 June, 2023
French Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jean-François Pactet. Pix by Rukmal Gamage
French Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jean-François Pactet. Pix by Rukmal Gamage

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Sri Lanka and all geared up to celebrate the momentous milestone throughout the Year 2023.

The 11th Edition of the French Spring Festival jointly organised by the French Embassy in Sri Lanka and the Maldives and the Alliance Française de Kotte in Colombo kicked off yesterday celebrating the World Music Day, offering a whole day dedicated to French and Sri Lankan music. One of the biggest Cultural Festivals in Sri Lanka, the French Spring Festival has dedicated its 11th edition to celebrate the longstanding friendship between France and Sri Lanka through arts when the two countries are observing an important milestone in their diplomatic ties.

Further deepening the strong, enduring bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and France, President Ranil Wickremesinghe attended a high-level panel discussion at the Global Leaders Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron just two days back on June 23. The Summit was aimed at seeking better responses to tackle poverty and climate change issues by reshaping the global financial system.

The Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka and Maldives Jean-François Pactet in an interview with the Sunday Observer said that the participation of President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Global Leaders Summit for a New Global Financing Pact was significant as it had given the world leaders an opportunity to draw on the experience and proposals of Sri Lanka during the Summit.

Ambassador Pactet added that the 75th Anniversary of the Diplomatic Relations between France and Sri Lanka will be celebrated more meaningfully with pomp and grandeur throughout 2023, but particularly in October 2023, with key events taking place covering all the dimensions of the bilateral relations of the two countries across the fields: cultural, economic, defence and education.

“I would like to use my presence here to encourage research into this common history. We could launch a historical and archaeological cooperation that I think would be very interesting,” he added.


Q: Could you brief us about the French Spring Festival and its cultural significance to Sri Lanka and France? What are its special features/ events for this year?

A: We’re excited to organise a full French Spring Festival in 2023 for the first time since 2019. Mostly because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and also because of the economic crisis to a certain extent, for many people it has been difficult in the past few years to get out, meet friends and do things together. People just stayed home.

And many Sri Lankans I meet today tell me that they want to catch up on lost time, go out, meet people and celebrate being together. The French Spring Festival offers them this opportunity and gives them the possibility to reconnect with a French culture that Sri Lankans know and appreciate - this is the 11th edition of the festival. And as we know the economic situation of many people remains difficult, all French Spring Festival events are free and open to all, from June 24 to July 13.

This year’s French Spring Festival includes three highlights: a music festival on June 24 from 6 pm at Sri Lanka Institute Foundation, featuring French and Sri Lankan artists, a photography competition on the theme Celebrate! and a French film festival from July 6 to 9 at the National Film Corporation. But there will also be other events in the network of Alliances françaises in Sri Lanka, in Matara, Kandy, Jaffna, and of course at the Alliance française in Colombo, which has just returned to its renovated historic premises.

Q: The year 2023 is quite significant as it marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Sri Lanka. What special events will be held to mark the occasion in addition to the French Spring Festival?

A: France and Sri Lanka established diplomatic relations just after Independence, in October 1948. We will therefore be celebrating this anniversary throughout 2023, but particularly in October 2023. There will be a cultural program, but it will also be an opportunity to highlight our bilateral relations across the fields: economy, security, education, etc. And I also would like to sign new cooperation agreements between the two countries that will strengthen this partnership in the future.

So we are aiming high for this celebration! But I am optimistic because the celebration comes on top of very dense bilateral exchanges in 2023. The highlight, of course, was the participation of President Wickremesinghe at the Summit for a New Global Financial Pact organised by President Macron in Paris on June 22 and 23. This summit is timely to send out the message that we shouldn’t have to choose between fighting poverty and tackling climate change. The participation of President Wickremesinghe allowed the world leaders to draw on the experience and proposals of Sri Lanka during the Summit.

Q: Could you elaborate on the historic diplomatic ties between the two countries? What are the milestones/ remarkable moments?

A: The relationship between Sri Lanka and France goes back a long way and deserves to be better known - it is a fascinating story. In the days of the Kingdom of Kandy, French officers served the King of Kandy, and the French forged an alliance with the King. I have met with Sri Lankan people who are descendants of these officers. If I have the opportunity, I would like to use my presence here to encourage research into this common history. We could launch a historical and archaeological cooperation that I think would be very interesting.

And of course, over the past 75 years, relations between France and Sri Lanka have been rich. I’m thinking in particular of the visits to France of Presidents Sirimavo and Chandrika Bandaranaike, in 1970 and in the 1990s and 2000s, - I had the honor of meeting President Chandrika Bandaranaike, and she remains an exceptional friend of France. But the substance of the relationship is not just a political one, it is a mutual cultural influence: for example, the famous filmmaker Dr. Lester James Peries and his wife Dr. Sumitra Peries have played an exceptional role in bridging the gap between French and Sri Lankan cultures. I hope we can pay tribute to them on the occasion of this 75th anniversary.

Q: The government of France has always been extending immense support and assistance to Sri Lanka in numerous ways during difficult times. Donating stocks of medicine to Sri Lanka during the pandemic period is one such example. Could you brief us on the on-going projects, aid programs, economic or knowledge exchange programs, etc between the two countries?

A: Working closely with the Sri Lankan authorities, we are taking action in three areas. Firstly, we wanted to continue and complete the most advanced cooperation projects, despite the economic crisis. Over the past few months, we have contributed 15 million euros to make sure these projects can be completed in good conditions. Secondly, we have set up emergency aid for populations suffering from the economic crisis. During the Covid-19 crisis, we donated vaccines, and in 2023 we are financing meals for schoolchildren, in partnership with the WFP and UNICEF. We are also providing funding to support economic recovery, particularly in rural areas: for example, we are providing support for the dairy sector, and we are also backing the development of a protected geographical indication for Ceylon Tea, which will enable the product to be better promoted for export.

Q: The Covid-19 pandemic pushed the entire globe into a severe financial crisis just 2 years back and many countries have not fully recovered from the economic nightmare yet. France, though experienced a strong economic recovery from the pandemic, was again hit by ‘an energy shock driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.’ Could you elaborate on how France is building resilience despite twin financial crises?

A: You are right to recall these two successive crises and the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on energy and agricultural commodity prices. That’s why this aggression doesn’t just concern Europeans: it has a negative impact on economic growth in the entire world.

The relationship between Sri Lanka and France goes back a long way and Guillaume De  L’Isle’s map of Ceylon (Carte De L’Isle De Ceylan, 1700) says it all

In response to Covid-19, France has put in place domestic policies to support the hardest-hit sectors and to stimulate the economy. The priorities are ecological transition and competitiveness. 100 Bn EUR has been devoted to this recovery, enabling the country to recover and exceed 2019 GDP by 2022. We have returned to growth, and the public deficit, which had risen in 2020, has been reduced since 2021. France is now in a favourable position, and the government is committed to continuing its work on the ecological transition, which requires long-term action.

Q: As per reports, France and Switzerland have already outlined pathways to net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. What is the French strategy to achieve carbon neutrality? Any lessons/advice for Sri Lanka?

A: For France, achieving carbon neutrality means dividing our greenhouse gas emissions by 6 by 2050, compared with 1990 levels. It’s a considerable effort, but one that is essential if we are to ensure a healthy future for generations to come. France has put in place an interagency strategy to achieve this result: we need to act not only on transport, but also on agriculture, buildings, and industry. It’s an effort that involves improving the energy performance of our processes.

Sri Lanka also has an energy transition strategy that is very mature and benefits from a key natural asset in the form of its hydroelectric production capacity. The challenge, in the current situation, is to mobilise the funding for climate change, and this is one of the issues that will be discussed at the Paris Summit for the new global financing pact. We need a worldwide funding breakthrough.

Q: As the top diplomat representing one of the key powerful nations in Europe, do you have any message for Sri Lankans in general, especially in terms of work and study opportunities in France in particular?)

A: I took up my post 8 months ago as French Ambassador to Sri Lanka, so I feel I still have a lot to learn, but I would already like to express my heartfelt thanks to the Sri Lankans for their hospitality and generous welcome. As a diplomat, I meet Sri Lankans from all walks of life, and they are all very open to engage and generous with the foreigner that I am. I have not yet visited many places in Sri Lanka , but Iam so excited to continue to visit and learn more about Sri Lanka.

Young people who are interested in France often come to see me. I encourage the best students to come and study in France: French universities are on par with the best in the world, and the cost of education is much more affordable in France. And, for those who don’t speak French, many programs offer courses in English. To be successful, however, you need to be well prepared, and speaking at least a bit of French is certainly an asset – our 4 Alliances françaises in Sri Lanka are a great place to learn the language. If you are interested, please visit the Campus France website or come and see us at one of the student fairs we regularly attend.

Q: Hope you are an avid fan of French literature? Do You have any favourite novels?

A: This is actually a question that is close to my heart because before moving into the Diplomatic service, I served as a teacher of French language and literature for eight years. So I have so many books at home - in France.

This is something I still love very much. The French writers I am quite fond of are Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, a 19th Century French writer. They are very dear to my heart and I am still reading French books.

I know there are some literary festivals in Sri Lanka such as the Galle Literary Festival. But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was not held. I heard that they are planning to organise the Galle Literary Festival this year and I would like to see whether I could invite a French writer to visit Sri Lanka, thus promoting cultural interaction. This happened some years back too and I like to do it again. This would allow Sri Lankans to get closer to French writers and explore French Literature.