Call to reach out on Bastille Day
France’s ambassador, Aurélien Lechevallier, acknowledges that South Africa faces a tough situation in the coming weeks as we head towards the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, so he and his team have come up with a very different way to mark the important event.
Given the current circumstances, instead of throwing a party, the embassy is hosting an online event at 5pm tomorrow, which includes speeches, a discussion on the impact of the pandemic on the arts sector and a musical performance, all to be broadcast live on social media and on French music-TV station, Trace (DStv channel 325) to engage with French people and friends of France far beyond the city.
The second aspect of the programme, Lechevallier said, was to reach out and raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and support the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in the week of Mandela Day, which has also been impacted by coronavius and local lockdown.
To do this, he is asking individuals and French companies that usually support the Bastille Day celebrations to make donations in support of the Children’s Fund, and help deliver personal protective equipment for the children at the hospital, their families and health staff.
Both aspects show solidarity for the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the strong South African-French friendship, he said.
The new way of marking this important annual celebration on the French calendar is just one of the adaptations a seasoned diplomat like Lechevallier has had to make this year.
It is in the DNA of a diplomat to be in the field, he said, being in touch with people, having face-to-face meetings, visiting NGOs, projects and companies. But all this changed irrevocably in March when first France and then South Africa went into a strict lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The attention of the EU ambassadors turned immediately to tourists and business people who were stranded in South Africa when the borders closed. Working closely with one another, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) and Air France/KLM, they arranged a number of repatriation flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town.
At the same time they have stayed in close touch with the French community, numbering around 10000 people, living and working all around the country.
It’s important to know that France has been very committed to participating in the fight against Covid-19, working primarily through the UN agencies and the big international organisations, Lechevallier said.
While this kind of support is not always visible to the person in the street - as something like providing PPE is - every contribution was important, he said.
Support has focused on additional investment in the Global Fund Covid-19 response and, since the beginning of the pandemic France has channelled more than R40million in support for South Africa, he said.
At the same time, responding to a request from Unisa vice chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya, the embassy donated money for laptops for students in need, as well as providing R1m with EU partners in support of four NGOs working locally with vulnerable communities, two in the Western Cape and two in Gauteng.
Turning to other global issues, the ambassador said that the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in the US, and the re-examination of the legacy of colonialism, including the debate around statues, have echoed through Europe.
For France in particular, because of its own colonial past and its ties with Africa - in particular the Algerian war - it was important.
Outside of the ambassador's comments, the remains of 24 Algerian resistance fighters, which had been in a Paris museum, were repatriated to Algiers and were laid to rest yesterday as part of the commemoration of the 58th anniversary of the north African country’s independence from France.
Lechevallier said there was a difficult debate going on in France because the idea of a republic - with the motto “liberty, equality, fraternity” - and the reality were different, especially for the young, as it was clear that opportunities were not equal.
In a cabinet reshuffle last Monday, President Emmanuel Macron put the focus on tackling the economic and social impact of Covid-19 including dealing with racism and gender based violence (GBV).
This includes installing Cape Verde-born businesswoman Elisabeth Moreno as a new Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities. She was, until recently, based in Joburg as managing director of Hewlett-Packard Africa.
GBV and women empowerment were a key priority of Macron's term in office. This month marked the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, but the summit planned in Paris was suspended because of Covid-19. A steering committee which includes UN Women’s executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and South Africa as a member country, is now working to prepare the event in France next year.