Ethiopia and France over the span of 125 years have had deep bonds catalyzed by kindness and mutual respect. These special ties have led to an array of successes in Ethiopia.
As this relation continues to grow from strength to strength, Capital’s Metasebia Teshome reached out to the French Ambassador, Remi Maréchaux for in depth insights on the current corporation between the two countries. Excerpts;
Capital: Ethiopia and France this year marked 125 years of cooperation. How would you describe the current bilateral relations between the two countries?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: Ethiopia and France have a long standing relationship from the onset of their relations. To date this relationship has been flourishing and is catalyzed by a relation of kindness and mutual respect.
Our efforts are to be a reliable and relevant partner of Ethiopia. We have continued to do so even in dire times. We have continued our development projects and other relations in various fields as well as in rendering our support to the political solution of the crisis.
Capital: There are quite a number of French Companies in Ethiopia. To this regard, what’s your view of the French investments in Ethiopia? Are there new investment prospects, or new investors who have come to Ethiopia? How are you working to promote Ethiopia to French investors?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: French companies in Ethiopia are not enough but still they are a lot, and there is a regular flux of investment. The latest influx of investment was actually just two months ago. The French company Cerba HealthCare bought the network of labs from ICL. So that’s an acquisition which will be followed by an investment.
We also have investment projects in other fields and although they have faced delays due to the context of the crisis, the interest and intent to invest is very much alive as a number of French companies are sending in their delegates to seek opportunities in the country.
With regards to attracting investment to Ethiopia, most of the investors are aware of the great potential the country presents. Of particular challenge was the conflict issues but now that the peace agreements is underway, I am confident that more French companies will come.
The crisis delayed the investments for companies for two reasons. The first one is due to the foreign currency crisis. Of course it’s obvious that companies only invest if they know that the profit that they expect to make can be repatriated to their head-quarters and if that is not the case, it won’t be as lucrative to come and invest.
Secondly, all the attention was on the humanitarian component of the crisis. So it was not the right moment for a company to come and say, i wish to go to Ethiopia to make profits. That was a bit difficult in terms of image and reputation. Now, we think that the consolidation of this peace agreement will allow the return of French investors because there are many opportunities.
Capital: Do you think the profit repatriation issue will be solved?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: Yes, we have good reasons to keep hope that the issue will be solved. The peaceful solution to the conflict will create an environment for a new IMF agreement, which plays a key component. And as you know, the IMF agreement will not only allow for the debt rescheduling but also provide a framework to mobilize additional funding from foreign partners, be it the multilateral or bilateral partners. And in our discussion with the Ethiopian authorities and the IMF, it is clear that one of the goals of the next program could likely be to resume the plan to bring convertibility for the Ethiopian birr. This major achievement in the reform area could solve the repatriation issue, along with many other issues that current or potential investors to Ethiopia rank as their top concern.
Capital: As it is now well known, the government is working on the partial privatization of Ethio telecom. The French telecom company Orange Telecom was here some years back; does the telecommunications firm have interest in acquiring stake at Ethio telecom?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: I’m not the spokesperson of Orange but I know they have an interest. Orange used to be a state owned company and was later privatized. So, I would say they have some similarities on that front in terms of management culture. They have previous links with ethio telecom and the horn of Africa and are very much present in the continent.
As part of their strategy, in some regions in Africa they have been involved in the privatization process in countries such as Mauritius and Senegal.
Capital: The military cooperation agreement between France and Ethiopia was suspended after the conflict broke out in the northern part of the country. So is this now back on the table?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: The agreement was not suspended, the cooperation was. So the agreement is still there. We decided to suspend it in July 2021, after the beginning of the conflict. At the time we had constant discussion with the Ethiopian authorities and they know exactly which conditions are to be met in order to allow us to restart the cooperation. Now with the peace agreement, most of these conditions are met, in terms of ceasefire, political dialogue, and humanitarian access. Of course, the question of accountability to the victims of the war is an issue that needs to be addressed
It is my hope that all the conditions will be met sooner rather than later, for us to pick up where we left off. I wish to underline that it has always been for us a suspension and not an interruption that’s why the people in charge of implementing this cooperation are still at the Embassy. And if the conditions are met tomorrow, we will restart the next day.
Capital: France was helping Ethiopia to build its Navy base. What’s the current status on this?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: This was also suspended. The only component that was not suspended is the civilian aspect of the agreement which is the cooperation with the Federal Police and the training in investigative techniques, and all which is not directly linked to the conflict. The Navy project is of course the flagship project. And we had started to train the first Ethiopian crew of the first Ethiopian navy ship, so this can be resumed, once the conditions are met.
Capital: France has also played an essential role in the restoration of Lalibela. What is the current status of the project?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: This is a very important project to which we have dedicated 12 million Euros. Our cooperation continued even at the time of the occupation of Lalibela.
In terms of progress, for the first two years we have conducted scientific studies to assess and identify the best solutions for the preservation of the churches, which are suffering due to time, weather, rain or sun, and other factors. We have already concluded this phase and a proposal both to the Ethiopian authorities and to UNESCO have been made.
Lalibela is a world heritage site recognized by UNESCO. So all the work we can conduct specifically for the preservation of the churches needs to be validated by UNESCO; that’s why we are conducting additional studies that UNESCO requested. Our target is for July 2023 to present these additional studies and get the final green light from UNESCO. But in the meantime on the ground we have a team conducting the emergency restoration work. We are also promoting Lalibela as a destination.
We also have produced together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Heritage Authority and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) a unique exhibition on Lalibela currently on display at Entoto which was opened less than two months ago and 35,000 visitors have visited it. It’s a unique 3D experience reconstructing the churches in virtual reality.
Now in the in the current phase, we are not only conducting the additional studies that UNESCO required but we are also conducting capacity building with the Ethiopian heritage authority.
Capital: You are also helping the government on the renovation of the national palace, on what stage is that too?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: This is another project which is also related to cultural heritage. So the national palace is a bit bigger in terms of budget, costing, 21 million Euros. The works of the central building have started in July 2022. And that’s a major phase because we are talking about the rehabilitation of civil works of 14,000 square meters which is huge. There’s a second phase to start which is the building of additional facilities such as, the ticketing building, the services for the security building, as well as the services for visitors. This phase should be concluded by the end of 2023. And finally the palace will be open to the public by the end of 2023 or early 2024.
In addition to this, we are also conducting I would say capacity building. We mobilized on our side the expertise drawn from the Versailles Palace to which we train experts for the restoration of many artifacts that were inside the palace which depict the deep history of the country.
Capital: The horn of Africa is in dire need of relief assistance or some food assistance. What is France doing to alleviate this?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: There are two aspects. The first one is the emergency relief, because of the drought and because of the war. In 2022 we have increased our humanitarian assistance by ten folds from the previous year. We went from 2 million to 22 million out of which 15 million are intended to alleviate food insecurity.
But we wish to contribute beyond this by supporting a sustainable solution because we all know that what is happening is not a succession of droughts, it is just a consequence of the climate change. The economy of the region has been affected especially in Somali Region of Ethiopia, parts of Oromia and Afar. To adjust to this new reality we have initiated a project for sustainable water management.
Capital: How has the Ukraine and Russia war affected France in its support to Africa?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: The committed funds of France to Africa have not decreased after the Ukraine and Russia war begun.
All the funds related to development assistance are untouched. Everything that was committed, are going to be implemented. There is no impact on the development assistance. The only impact that we see now is in what we call the European peace facility that is partially dedicated for cooperation with the African Union in support of peace operation. It’s true that out of a total amount of 7.7B only 3.1B have already been committed to Ukraine. So this might have ultimately an impact on the capacity to support the activities of the African Union.
But in terms of development assistance, the crisis in Ukraine has no impact. It’s maybe almost the opposite, just to give you an example together with Germany, we are co-funding the transport of wheat, coming to Somalia and Ethiopia. We are paying 28 million Euros for the transportation and delivery of 50,000 tons of grain that were given by the Ukraine government.
Capital: Agence Française de Développement (AFD) has a lot of projects in Ethiopia. One of them is the Rapid Transit Bus project. This project is currently suspended. What are the reasons for this?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: Regarding the BRT project, it was delayed for technical reasons. The Company that was awarded the contract just withdrew from Ethiopia but even before the war there was a problem of cost inflation. And in addition to that the impact of the war in Ukraine. Of course, the increase of the cost of the raw material to be imported, and the increasing inflation in Ethiopia hampered this project.
The project that was designed three years ago is now much more expensive. So the BRT project is still on track, delayed, but on track. To this end, we have been working with the Ministry of Finance and the Addis Ababa city administration to redesign the project. We are keeping the dedicated envelope of 85 million euro dedicated to this project. We still maintain our target to implement and finish the project by 2025, in order to provide transportation for 400,000 residents of Addis Ababa.
Capital: What was France’s role in the peace agreement in the northern part?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: As you know we were not represented in Pretoria, so we had no direct role in the negotiation even if we’ve been in touch with the mediator of the panel and with the African Union. Now, what we consider to be our role in the future is to make this agreement a success.
There are two aspects to this. The first one is to support the implementation of the agreement. So that’s why we are working on the rehabilitation of infrastructures affected by the war. Together with our EU colleagues, we have been in Dessie for the first delivery of equipment to rehabilitate the hospital looted during the conflict, which is a 5 million euro project.
We are also working with the Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP) in order to assist EEP by procuring the equipment requested to restore the electrical services in the northern part of the country. We also had a mission last week in Alamata to see the substation. We are about to procure new equipment such as Transformers and everything that will allow EEP to move from an emergency repair to sustainable repair.
We are also about to implement a project dedicated to food security for the three regions affected by the war, which will allow the resumption of services of agriculture support for the farmers, including the production of seeds which is directly linked with the implementation of the agreement.
We are also ready to provide our assistance if requested by the African Union for the monitoring and verification mechanism. We are also ready to provide if needed satellite imaging to monitor the ceasefire that’s the first component.
The second aspect is to really consolidate the peace agreement. It is important that all Ethiopians feel the dividends of peace. This work is more related with the IMF where we sit at the board, for the rescheduling of the Ethiopian public debt. We proposed two years ago inside the G20 this common framework mechanism and that’s a very important move because for the first time all creditors are sitting together. And the best example is that France is co-chairing the creditors committee together with the Chinese Exim Bank. So that’s very important and it’s a very positive move. We are working on this and we stand ready to start the negotiation but concrete rescheduling is needed.
Capital: When is it expected?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: There are things that we control and things we do not control. For this particular service, the IMF needs to receive a green light or the approval of the board for the resumption of their work and then negotiation with the Ethiopian governments.
Capital: Are you assessing the implementation of the peace deal agreement and do you have any comment on the same?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: We are not aware of any serious incidents. We have seen the increase of humanitarian access and humanitarian delivery, which is important. We stand ready to support any initiative that will be taken regarding transitional justice, which is a very important component. If we are approached and requested to provide assistance for the monitoring mechanism, we will do so.
Capital: In your opinion, what do you think the future will hold for Ethiopia and the region?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: The future of Ethiopia is of course bright. I’ve been here more than two years. I arrived before the beginning of the war. And For the first time since the beginning of the conflict, i am quite optimistic because I see a genuine commitment on both sides. Since the beginning of the war we’ve been saying to all our interlocutors that this conflict couldn’t have a military solution. And now we’re very pleased to see that the leaders of both sides were wise and courageous enough to take the risk to go for a political solution.
Once again, I am convinced that they did so because they were themselves convinced there are no alternatives. So that’s the best possible starting point. And now it’s important to keep the momentum and that the agreement continues to be implemented.
Capital: What is France’s stance in regards to Eritrea soldiers in Ethiopia?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: Based on the agreement it is explicit, that Non-ENDF forces have to withdraw from Tigray. We have indications like you do, because that was explicit in the joint report that was conducted and released by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which stated that Eritrean soldiers had committed war crimes. It indicates that their presence might be a great aggravating factor. The two parties explicitly agreed that they should leave Ethiopia, and it is for the Ethiopian government to discuss with Eritrea and organize this departure.
Capital: War crimes have been committed during the conflict. How can they come to an agreement to talk to prosecutors?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: First of all, regarding war crimes and crimes against humanity, we are not the one saying that they were committed. This is the conclusion of the joint report I mentioned, which the Ethiopian government officially endorsed. So there’s no debate about the existence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Now what is very important is that the Pretoria agreement includes specific reference to accountability and talks about transitional justice as a way to address these crimes. So some of them is for the Ethiopian government together with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and together with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to discuss about the clear definition of this transitional justice.
These details will have to be agreed by the parties, but they have already agreed on the principle. And now I think most of the crimes which are not war crimes could be addressed by this mechanism. And the other one will have to be addressed by the classical justice system.
Capital: Who do you think will win the 2022 World Cup?
AMB Remi Maréchaux: I’m very cautious to predict a winner because I remember in 2002 I was a press officer in our embassy in Washington DC. We were the holding champions at the time and as a press officer, I had organized a public viewing for all the games till the finals and we did not get past the first round.
We have a nice team capable of going all the way. The world cup is really competitive and full of surprises as we have seen with the Saudis beating Argentina and Morocco beating Belgium.
What I would also like to underline is that we have 37 French nationals playing for other countries in the world cup. For example we have 10 citizens playing for Tunisia and 9 for Senegal. These players were born and trained in France, and then decided to play for the country of their parents. It’s great to see them prosper in their representations.
I wish our national team, “Les Bleus” all the best in their title defense.