Last Friday, as Storm Brian dragged its squalls of wind and rain across the city, I met Ireland’s new French Ambassador, Stepháne Crouzat in the snug environs of the Black Gate Centre on St Francis Street. It was an ‘entente tres cordiale’ as Stephane’s soft-spoken, warm, and personable manner is the very embodiment of diplomacy.
A Parisian, with a wife and three children, Mr Crouzat also has close Irish family connections as he tells me at the start of our interview; “My Polish mother had a brother who settled in Dublin in the 1970s. He was a singing teacher at the RIA and my aunt was also a teacher there of flute and recorder. So this posting is a nice homecoming in a way because as a child I would go to Ireland quite regularly to visit my uncle and cousins and I still have cousins in Dublin and Belfast.”
I ask did he grow up with an interest in politics, was that what impelled him toward his present posting? “I wasn’t so much interested in politics as in public service,” he replies. “I am a career diplomat and have worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for virtually all my career, first in the cultural sector and then in European affairs, and also in multi-lateral affairs with the French mission to the UN. I have also been posted in Warsaw and Edinburgh so I know what bad weather can be like!”
Over the course of his career Mr Crouzat has served in postings in Asia, Europe, and America. Were there any specific individuals he would cite as mentors or inspirations I ask; “Early in my career there was one minister who made a big impact on the world stage, Dominique De Villepin, with his famous speech in 2003 right before the Iraq War when he addressed the UN talking about how ‘This old country of France is speaking to the US’. That was quite a significant moment for me because it showed how much a speech can make an impact on people. I remember that very distinctly.
"I would also go back to Gérard Araud [pictured above] who I was my boss when I headed the press section of the French mission to the UN. He was a fantastic and flamboyant figure and is now the French ambassador to the US. He was extremely outspoken yet always fully in control yet there were times when I thought ‘Wow!’ He could say things to the press that other ambassadors wouldn’t dare say; he was quite amazing.”
One issue on which Stepháne has been active over the last few years is climate change, an issue in which France has taken a global leadership role as the US seeks to back-pedal on its commitments.
“I have been very interested in climate change and policy in recent years,” he acknowledges. “My previous posting was Diplomatic Advisor to Minister for the Environment, Ségolène Royal, which meant going all over the world to promote implementation of the Paris Agreement," he said. "We found fantastic momentum and awareness of the issue. All countries in the world bar one –Syria - signed the Paris Agreement.
"President Trump said he would withdraw but he hasn’t actually done it so far and it’s now a rolling ball and no single country, including the United States, can stop that ball from rolling. Despite Trump, in the US civil society, big companies and states and cities are all actively engaging against climate change. I think the American people have already made the switch in their mind and know coal is not there to stay and must be replaced by renewable energy.
"France wants to remain a global leader in that sphere. It is hosting a summit on December 12 to mark the second anniversary the Paris Agreement and it will focus on climate finance, how we can engage public and private money to fight against climate change. That will be a very important part of our summit and we hope Ireland will be part of it.”
While Mr Crouzat is ‘cautiously confident’ on the international response to climate change what are his feelings on the volatility currently afflicting the European political landscape ranging from Brexit to Catalonia and the rise of authoritarianism in Hungary and Turkey?
“We have to think about how to improve the European Union, that is the whole idea of President Macron [pictured above] who made Europe a centrepiece of his electoral campaign and won on that platform,” he asserts. “He is not saying everything is hunky dory in Europe and let it go on the way it is, he is saying he really thinks that every nation can be stronger within Europe but for that we need to overhaul and rethink the way the EU is thinking and working.
"That’s why when he last came to the European Council he had this nice phrase about a Europe that protects and projects itself. It protects terms of defence but also projects itself as confident and forward moving, and an entity that can work together on issues like taxation and regulation. I think there are reasons to be confident; we have a president who wants to change things and we have many other leaders who think now the time is right to do so.”
Mr Crouzat shares his thoughts and hopes on taking up the ambassadorship to Ireland at this time; “I’m here at a very peculiar moment in the relations of both our countries because Brexit impacts on both of us in many ways. Ireland has huge trade with Britain and so does France – we have €50 billion in annual trade with the UK - so it is very important for us, it is a crucial issue. We regret the British choice but we respect it and we have to move forward and find how we can work together to make relations between France and Ireland stronger in this new context of Brexit.
"We have to find new avenues we can explore and one interesting one is the Celtic Inter Connector, an electric cable that will run under the sea from Ireland directly to Brittany, 700 megawatts, a billion euro project, financed - we hope - in part by the EU which will allow both Brittany and Ireland to benefit from this interconnection and hopefully encourage the development of renewable energy which impacts on the climate issues we talked about earlier.
"There is also the idea that Ireland might want, if a hard Brexit materializes, to redirect logistical chains not through Britain to the EU but directly via maritime routes. So we can look at how we can encourage ports and maritime companies to develop that between our two countries. Then of course France has a huge presence in Ireland in terms of our economic presence and vice versa, we have €21 billion in direct foreign investment, that is 13,000 direct jobs created through French companies. So there is a lot of opportunities in Ireland for French companies and vice versa.”
The French Embassy is also invested and interested in companies and projects here in Galway and the west. When I met Stepháne and his party they had just arrived from a visit to Breizon seafood wholesalers in Rossaveal and were enthusing about the lobster lunch they had enjoyed. Other notable French companies here include Valeo and Transitions Optical in Tuam and, looking forward, there are other projects Stepháne sees the embassy being involved with.
“Galway 2020 is something we very much want to tap into and develop links with the organisers to see how French artists can participate," he says. "I have also met with the director of Cúirt International Literature Festival about bringing French writers here. Also, next year Galway is a European Region of Gastronomy and you know how we French are interested in gastronomy!”
It seems Ireland, and Galway has much to look forward to from Stéphane Crouzat’s tenure as ambassador. Vive la France!