INTERVIEW with French Ambassador to Nepal

'Nepal needs real and deep devolution of powers'


We have French ambassador Gilles-Henri Garault as our guest for this week's interview. A few days before Bastille Day, the national day of France which is celebrated on July 14, Puran P Bista and Kamal Raj Sigdel of The Kathmandu Post caught up with him to discuss Nepal-France relations in the changed political context.

Garault, who was special advisor to the French Minister for Foreign Affairs before assuming the current post, is a PhD in history and archaeology. He has served as second counsellor at the French Embassy in Madrid, as counsellor at the cabinet of the speaker of the National Assembly looking after European and international affairs, as deputy director at the Department for Economic and Financial Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, special counsellor of the Minister for Civil Service, State Reforms and Territorial Planning and as head of the cabinet of the State Minister for State Reforms. Garault was also an associate professor at the Institute for Political Studies of Paris.

As a diplomat who has also written several books on economics, international relations and history, Garault says Nepal can attract French investment and joint ventures in different potential areas such as hydropower, agro businesses and even waste management. Excerpts:


Q: How have Nepal-France relations evolved?

Garault: We have very good relations with Nepal. We have had permanent relations with this country since 1949. We had the first diplomatic mission in 1933. In fact, we are the second country after the United Kingdom to set up diplomatic relations with Nepal.

If you ask about the relations from a political point of view, our relations have been of very low intensity during the last 10 years. We didn't have contacts with very high level people here because of the decade-long Maoist insurgency, the massacre and so forth.


Q: In what areas were Nepal-France relations concentrated in the past?

Garault: In the past, that is in the 1960s, we helped the Nepal Army in training. We also provided them with some French helicopters and other vehicles. But after the 2001 royal massacre, nobody understands what is happening; it is like a black hole. So now we are trying to understand; we are trying to improve relations. But if you ask me if we have some very important strategic and geopolitical interest in Nepal, the answer is NO. We don't. We are not Chinese; we are not Indians. We are not British. We have fruitful relations but of low intensity.


Q: Will there be any change in France's approach once the Maoists form the government?

Garault: I think there will be no special approach, no real change towards the new government to be formed or led by the Maoists. Maoism is not a disability, it's a political current which won the last CA elections quite free and fair. France respects the choice of the Nepali people. Now the Maoists have to show their political will and competency to improve the condition of Nepal's people, and to handle the government. But why shouldn't they be able to lead and govern this country? I think the CPN (Maoist) is a very structured party and have competent leaders and cadres. France is quite confident, and we will see the concrete results of the new government.


Q: What is your analysis of Nepal's underdevelopment? What do you think are the key factors affecting the country's development?

Garault: It is a very interesting question, but difficult to answer in brief. Nepal is suffering from certain handicaps, which explain its poor economic performance. I think the most important factor is the poor level of education and training connected with the demographic issue. The manpower is not skilled enough. The literacy rate is still lower than 50 percent. It is a big challenge if you consider the fast growing population. It also explains why it is so difficult to provide jobs to the 300,000 newcomers arriving each year on the labor market. There is also a problem of rural exodus from the countryside to urban areas due to lack of job opportunities, which finaly gathers jobless people in congested areas. This situation led more than one million Nepalis to leave for other countries in search of jobs.

The second prominent factor is the geographical situation of Nepal, a landlocked country enclosed between two growing giants, China and India. The 10 years of civil war had also a great effect, but I think Nepal can easily and successfully face this situation as Cambodia has done in the last few years.

Lastly, Nepal's underdevelopment is also a result of its competitive positioning. Industries are insufficient and not competitive enough. Poor industries are lowering the progress of Nepal in the international stage. Firms suffer from a serious lack of infrastructure and power. On top of that, they depend on imports for nearly all the raw materials and, above all, petrol. That's why you note this increasing trade gap.

Concerning agriculture, this sector still depends on the weather, which is becoming more and more unstable in the context of global warming. The fragility of agriculture goes along with the inefficiency of agricultural methods and infrastructure leading the sector to absorb 80 percent of the workers while producing only 33 percent of the GDP. Land reform organized in partnership with competent organizations and structured around educational programs could be set up. Also, with reinforced structures of maintaining stocks, Nepal could anticipate and handle more efficiently any food crisis.


Q: You have been heading the European Commission in Nepal. How is the EU thinking of carrying out its activities in Nepal in the changing context? What role will it play in Nepal's post-conflict transition?

Garault: I think the changing context of Nepal will not induce the EU to change deeply its strategy in Nepal. Last year, the EU adopted a new country strategy for Nepal for the period 2007-13 with a budget of 120 million euros (US$ 190 million). The priorities are known: education, stability and peace building, trade facilitation and economic capacity building. The action of the EU fits into this framework. Education is certainly the first priority in Nepal. That is why it will account for 60 percent of the allocation. We must improve enrolment, quality and access to education, especially for girls, the poor and minorities.

Concerning the EU's role in the post-conflict transition of Nepal, we have already incorporated all the issues of the post-conflict environment. The EU monitoring mission for the election to the CA, consisting of more than 100 people, was a significant sign of our support for stability and peace building in Nepal. The EU will continue to support the current peace process, political dialogue, social challenges and drastic changes in the political situation. Nepal is undergoing deep political and constitutional changes. The country has conducted the elections successfully, and a new republic has been proclaimed. The peace agreement is on the right track, and the EU will remain the first partner of Nepal. We are confident in the future of this country.   

But the EU's main priority in Nepal is reducing poverty (Nepal is still the poorest country in Asia) by promoting sustainable development and economic growth.


Q: Some political parties, for instance the Maoists, are speaking of the French model of federal government. What would that mean in Nepal's context? Would it be a suitable model for us too?

Garault: We heard, indeed, about this interest in the French constitutional model and our political system. And we are happy to know that. But let me give some more details about the French model. It is anything except a federal government. France has been a centralized state for almost 1,500 years. During the last 25 years, we have made several important constitutional changes in order to promote local powers. Now the three levels of local government – municipalities, districts and regions – have been entrusted with important responsibilities like local development, social policy, transport and infrastructure.

But we are still far from a federal model. There is no real autonomy. Our model is, therefore, different from the full-fledged federal systems found in Germany, India and the United States. Constitutional changes were made for the devolution of power. We have a strong central government with a mixed system: presidential, with a president directly elected by the people and assuming real powers; parliamentary, with a national assembly elected by the people, and a prime minister accountable to parliament but, at the same time, politically responsible to the president. This system is quite unique and has promoted, during the last 50 years, political stability and efficiency of the executive.

I don't now if this model is suitable for Nepal. But I am sure that Nepal needs, above all, real and deep devolution of powers, giving more efficiency to the local authorities. The debate on autonomy is just a political and ideological issue. After 250 years of strong centralization, this country needs a strong, efficient and permanent presence of the administration and the state at the local level. France will continue to stand with Nepal in unity and solidarity. They are the main guarantees of progress for Nepal and are very important values.


Q: Why is France directing most of its support to Francophone countries instead of underdeveloped countries like Nepal which were not former French colonies? 

Garault: We assumed this choice. As you know, France is one of the top donors in the world, giving out around 9 billion euros (US$ 14 billion) representing 0.45 percent of our GDP in aid. Bilateral aid accounts for 70 percent of our Pubic Aid to Development, and 30 percent goes through European and multilateral channels. Concerning bilateral aid, France has made the choice to concentrate financial assistance to a limited number of countries. The SPZ (Special Priority Zone) includes 55 Least Developed Countries, 43 of which are African. France allocates 70 percent of its bilateral aid to Africa and an additional 12 percent to the Middle East. Only four Asian countries, all former French territories, belong to the SPZ.

Asia gets only 8 percent of French bilateral aid given to Developing Countries. We are thinking enlarging the concentration of our bilateral aid. We don't believe in the efficiency of scattering aid that leads to sprinkling of resources. That is why in 2007 the EU adopted a code of conduct in order to target certain countries and to share the efforts. France is, therefore, targeting more countries in Africa than elsewhere.

However, France is one of the big donors in Nepal. In terms of the EU countries, France is the second biggest benefactor after Germany. Out of every million euros spent by the EU in Nepal, 200,000 euros are given by France.


Q: What could be the areas of interest for prospective French investors in Nepal?

Garault: We are arranging a business trip for French companies next October. It was postponed due to the unfavorable political situation in Nepal. We have planned to hold it at the end of July. This could hopefully be a fruitful trip to draw the interest of French investors to Nepal.

We think there are some possibilities for investment in hydropower. This is our first priority in Nepal. We could make a huge investment in Nepal the way we did in Laos and some other countries. In Laos, we have constructed a 1500 MW hydel project, twice as big as the Seti project. We made turbine engines for the Three Gorges dam in China. We have the world's largest electric companies. So it is relatively huge. For instance, France generates 25 percent of Europe's entire electricity supply. We are also thinking of investing in the Himalaya with local partners and buyers.

We are also interested in aeronautics. We sent three small aircraft to Buddha Air. We may have an interest in waste management in Kathmandu.


Q: If the government shows an interest in waste management, will French companies come over here?

Garault: We have the best companies in waste management. Some of them are doing waste management in Shanghai and other big Chinese cities. So for us, waste management in Kathmandu is nothing. But the main problem for us is who is going to be our partner? Kathmandu Metropolitan City [KMC] doesn't even exist.


Q: Have you had any discussions about this?

Garault: I don't have any information about that. We are preparing a report on garbage management in Kathmandu. We will send that to French companies who are involved in waste management. Maybe one of them will be interested.

But we have a lot of problems here. We have problems of garbage storage and we have a lot of strikes. So we have to change the system completely. Waste management in Kathmandu has been a complete failure. Some tourists I have met say, "Oh my God, how is it possible?"

We are also interested in agro business because we have the most modern agro-based companies, particularly in terms of modernized markets, storage, commercialization and the like.

If you talk of export, Nepal's competitive position is not good. Its exports have been limited to pashmina and handicraft. Nepal must find new products. Items like coffee, tea, medicinal herbs, herbs for perfumes and the like could be the new products to export from Nepal.

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