4 - 10 April 2001

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The French connection

As French Ambassador to Malta, Didier Destremau has gained a reputation for speaking his mind. Here, he tells MIRIAM DUNN how he believes the role of the diplomat has changed in today's world and about the need to improve relations between Malta and France

You have now been in Malta for two-and-a-half years. What are your impressions of the island and how does it compare to your other postings?

Each country has its own individuality, as one would expect and I think it is important that when one visits a country, one accepts and adjusts to its culture.
This has always been my philosophy – to take the good and bad that exists somewhere.
Coming directly from Mozambique to Malta, one of the first things I noticed here was the fascinating influence of Western influence on the Mediterranean way of life.
The standard of education and culture is very high, yet simultaneously, one encounters the laid back lifestyle.
This hit me just the other day when I was driving back to my Zebbug residence and got stuck in some traffic because some people decided to park their cars temporarily in a way that blocked the roads.
Of course, sometimes these things are annoying, but that is part of living in a foreign country. It is all about comparing and contrasting, and finding a balance.

You say it is the combination of Western influence on a Mediterranean culture that helps give Malta its identity. Isn't there a risk this identity could be under threat if Malta joins the European Union?

This is a fear I have heard expressed many times since I came to Malta, and my answer is always the same.
The EU has been alive now for the best part of 50 years. With this in mind, can anyone honestly say that countries like England or France have lost their identity or individuality?
Have any countries become clones of each other. Has Luxembourg become like Portugal or Greece? No.
So, I ask people, on what are you basing your fears?
My own opinion, which I have also shared with people during these discussions, is that countries run a greater risk of losing their identity by opening their doors too widely to globalisation, than from EU membership.
It is this development that has led to more chains and fast food franchises sprouting up everywhere.
I think it's also important to remember that Malta has a great incentive to retain its identity, since it relies on promoting itself as a tourist resort. Visitors come here to enjoy Malta for what it is, so the Maltese have an added reason for wanting to preserve their country's uniqueness.

Recently, yet another Maltese-registered ship sank in French waters. Are you concerned about this latest accident, bearing in mind it is the latest in a succession involving Maltese-registered tankers?

It is true that yet another accident involving a ship with a Maltese flag does not help the image of the Malta Maritime Authority, but from what I have gathered, there is no comparison between this incident and the ‘Erika' disaster.
Initial reports indicate that when the ‘Balu' sank, it didn't break in two, unlike what happened with the ‘Erika' and also the ‘Kristal', and the weather was also very bad.
Having said that, it is most unfortunate for the MMA that once again, it has an accident on its hands.
And it is likely that during the Prime Minister of Malta's visit to Paris, which is currently underway, the ‘Erika' case will be raised.
This being the case, I believe the most important step for the MMA is to show itself completely willing to make any necessary changes to the ships under its flag, even, if necessary, de-registering any that are unsatisfactory ships.
As everybody knows, I was not shy to make my feelings known about the ‘Erika' incident and since the disaster, the international authorities involved have moved towards making some changes to the regulations.

You admit to speaking your mind on certain matters. Do you think this can be equated with the role of a diplomat?

I should stress that when I was speaking on the ‘Erika' incident, my point of view and my comments were fully endorsed by Paris.
But I am fully prepared to admit that I have no problem speaking my mind, and experience has shown that although I sometimes clash with people, later on, they usually come round and understand my attitude or point of view.
As to whether this is the way for a diplomat to behave, I think it is important to bear in mind that the role of a diplomat has changed from what it used to be.
As the world changes and moves faster, so we have also moved away from the times of niceties and drinking tea.
Nowadays, diplomats are more pragmatic, efficient and business minded.
Just like everyone else, different qualities are required from us and, along with that, a different approach.

What progress has been made in fostering trade relations between Malta and France?

I admit the efforts we have been making in this regard have taken time.
To speak metaphorically, over the past two years, we have been sowing seeds. But now, we are on the verge of reaping our harvest.
We have established many business contacts between France and Malta and I am hopeful that during the Prime Minister's visit, some productive networking and setting up of trade relations will take place.
We definitely need to improve relations between the French and the Maltese; it disappoints me that the two countries are not that close, especially since I see great potential.
On the plus side, during my trips to the University of Malta, I have been pleased to note that a considerable number of Maltese students are studying French, saying that they regard it as a useful language to learn. This bodes well for the future, since it will be good to have more French-speaking Maltese people available for both trade and cultural opportunities, especially since they can help inform the French about Malta and its possibilities.
Ignorance is fear. If the French are better informed about Malta and vice versa, opportunities will open up, whether they are business ventures or twinning of cities and colleges.
We have to diminish the reluctance by increasing the knowledge.

And what do you miss about France?

Not that much really, since I am used to living abroad.
I miss my grandchildren and I also miss Camembert cheese.
But I eat as much as I can when I'm home for three weeks, to make up for the rest of the year!

Photo by Paul Blandford

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
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