“A country that has a difficult language and produces great wines cannot be a bad country!” That is how the Ambassador of the Republic of France to Hungary, Roland Galharague draws a parallel between Hungary and France. In an interview with Diplomacy & Trade, he also talks about his ambassadorial duties, his dialogue with Hungarians and the French community, the enhancement of economic ties and cultural relations as well as the ‘secret weapon’ of the Embassy.
“We are both members of the European Union and within the EU, bilateral relations are a completely different ballgame. When I arrived, negotiations on the next EU budget had just started and it was certainly part of my job then,” Ambassador Galharague tells Diplomacy & Trade. “I’ve been trying to meet as many members of the Hungarian government and the various authorities as possible, as well as mayors, members of parliament and more generally, I’m also trying to meet with as many Hungarians from as many walks of life as possible in the different sectors of the economy, culture, education, etc. As an ambassador, my job description is to meet a cross-section of Hungarian society,” he adds.
The other, equally important component is the French community here that number 3,000-5,000. “When I arrived, it was an electoral year in France and the Embassy organized the elections. This community is a mix of expatriates who spend only a few years in Hungary and of those who are here for a longer term for a variety of reasons. There were waves of emigration from Hungary to France at different stages of history and some of these people – or their descendants – have moved back to Hungary, and have dual citizenship. They are absolutely crucial in our relationship, providing people-to-people contacts, which are just as important as the official government-to-government ties. This is something that I actually did not expect to find to this degree. You go to very small towns in Hungary and find people there who – for one reason or another – have developed a sort of relationship with or liking for French culture. That is also the case in cities like Pécs or Szeged where the university has quite a good cooperation with French universities, plus, there are French businesses in these cities,” the Ambassador points out. There are almost twenty high schools with French-Hungarian bilingual sections and “I’m completely amazed by the level at which these kids speak French. This all provides a sort of fabric that really constitutes the basis of relationships between the two peoples,” he adds.
The Embassy has cooperated in publishing a bilingual booklet of over 180 pages about the French presence in Hungary. The Ambassador is of the view that this publication is essentially intended to be of assistance to potential investors in Hungary. “I believe it is helpful both for companies and the Hungarian authorities in the sense that it gives you a cross-reference of the French companies present here, what they do, where they are located. So, if you’re looking for business opportunities, you can immediately identify your potential partners. It is a significant partnership in the sense that French companies have invested about EUR 10 billion in this country.”
Currently, French companies in Hungary number over 350. They are basically in all sectors but primarily in the different fields of industry. “It is a very diverse picture. Some companies – despite the crisis that affected all countries – are doing quite well here. Others have faced difficulty, some of them have gone already, but it really depends of the sector and the individual circumstances,” the Ambassador says. As for the most important French investors in Hungary, “we have the big international groups, like in the energy sector and in the automotive industry where French suppliers (of tires, navigation aids and electronics) are active but perhaps not so well-known. Then, you have the upper-tier of the SMEs, like a company manufacturing silver utensils here, or the one producing canned vegetables and exporting it all over Europe. So, it is really a mix of SMEs, sometimes very small ones like restaurants and sometimes big international corporations,” he adds.
“What I hear from French companies is that they would like to have a more predictable, more transparent business environment generally. The lack of these simply makes it difficult to draw up a business plan – for instance, if the tax regime changes too often,” he points out, seeing this uncertainty as one of the reasons for the level of foreign direct investments not increasing in Hungary.
In the preface of the booklet about French presence in Hungary, Roland Galharague says that economic diplomacy is of primary importance in his work as Ambassador here. He explains that “we’ve identified a number of sectors where we think there is potential for increasing the intensity of bilateral economic relations. For instance, the pharmaceutical industry has a very big and long-time tradition in Hungary. There are French companies active in this field in Hungary, so the health sector is certainly one where we think there could be improvements achieved. The other field is connected to the agro-business. I’m absolutely convinced that this is not a zero-sum game. We live in a world that is so interconnected that you have to think in terms of that one nation’s gain is also being the other nation’s gain. I think this is especially true now in this situation when we still have an economic slowdown in Europe.”
He believes the European economy will be able to recover when a growth strategy is successfully implemented. “This is what we are trying to do now. You have to continue with budgetary consolidation but you cannot limit yourself to that. You have to implement reforms that will also lead to further growth. You have to improve the competitiveness of your business. We are doing this nationally in France but are also trying to do it at the European level,” he explains.
Ambassador Galharague is glad to talk about the diversity of French-Hungarian cultural relations. “One of the liveliest venues for the arts in Budapest is the ‘Trafó’, directed by a French-Hungarian artist, József Nagy, currently director of the theater of Orleans in France. Currently, the big show in the Pompidou Center in Paris is that of a Hungarian painter, Simon Hantai, who is a renowned artist in France. There have actually been a number of such personalities: Hungarian artists who went to France and then often came back to Hungary like János Bér or Endre Rozsda who has an exhibition here next year. There is a lot to talk about in this respect be it painting, photography or music. As an example, the conductor of the MÁV Symphony Orchestra, Péter Csaba, also works in Lyon, France. The Palace of Arts in Budapest regularly features French artists. The French Institute in Budapest is doing a lot to nurture cultural relations but things also happen independently of us, which is very good. And it works the other way, too. Hungarian culture is very much known and appreciated in France.”
The Ambassador has recently presented Hungarian film director Béla Tarr with a special French award. “He is immensely popular in France. I watched some of his movies and it is really what I call cinema! This French order is the acknowledgement of his valuable contribution to this art. We would like to see the great Hungarian cinema traditions continue and we wish to cooperate in this field with the Hungarian authorities. This very much represents the system we have in France, which is geared towards the continued existence of cultural diversity,” he stresses.
Hungarians and their wines
Ambassador Galharague has been in Hungary since the spring of last year, having served French diplomacy previously in London, Pretoria and Washington, D.C. He says he loves Budapest which he considers a wonderful city. “If you want to feel secure, you just look around you and it’s a great panorama,” the Ambassador said.
“It is key that when you want to try and understand the Hungarians, it is worth the effort to understand their language. It is not easy but the way people think is the way their language is structured. It helps you to understand the sort of intellectual mechanisms and also helps to perhaps understand what the newspaper headlines are about. It is a beautiful language but follows a completely different logic from other languages. That is what I believe Hungarians and French have in common: they are very proud of their languages and their languages are a bit difficult. A country that has a difficult language and produces great wines cannot be a bad country! There are wines here that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Foreigners tend to associate Hungarian wines with Tokaj but the picture is much richer than that. The dry furmint, for instance, is a jewel of wines – and the kadarka, again unique to Hungary.”
People often say that the French Embassy in Budapest is special in that it has ‘two ambassadors’ – Monsieur Galharague and the Embassy chef Hervé Aubry, ‘an ambassador of gastronomy’ with two decades of international experience whom Ambassador Galharague calls his ‘secret weapon’ – or simply a ‘good chap’ and a great chef!