Pretoria - If you’re the French ambassador to South Africa and time comes to say “au revoir”, what could be more appropriate than doing so as you mark your country’s National Day?
France’s ambassador to South Africa, Christophe Farnaud, leaves after celebrating Bastille Day with fellow diplomats and friends of France at his official residence in Pretoria next Friday. Then it’s on to a flight to Paris to spend the weekend with family and Bastille Day on July 14 before he begins a new chapter of his career in a leadership position in the directorate for North Africa and Middle East affairs in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He arrived in South Africa in January 2017 as the successor to Elisabeth Barbier, having previously served in a number of positions.
While he is sad to be saying goodbye, especially before the usual term is up, he has received great pleasure from the posting, and takes with him a love and appreciation for South Africa and its people.
One of his first priorities, aside from getting to know the officials and business people he was to work with, was to meet stalwarts of the fight against apartheid.
He recalls Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others, telling him: “Ambassador, you have arrived at a key moment; these years (in SA) are as important as the 1990s”.
Farnaud was to see then president Jacob Zuma step down, to be replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa and notes that, for a diplomat, “it is important to be in a country during a turning point”.
This year he observed the general elections, attended Ramaphosa’s inauguration at Loftus and the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Parliament last month. “Twenty five years after Nelson Mandela (was inaugurated as president), it is important to see if the country with all its potential will follow the vision of Mandela,” he said.
South Africa has huge potential and a special role to play in the 21st century. For France, it is a strategic partner, and to that end has many bilateral agreements signed in the 1990s which acknowledge the importance of these relations.
“Politically, we share a commitment to multilateralism, to promoting tolerance and human rights, but South Africa is also France’s main trading partner in the region.
Both countries belong to the G-20, and the latest summit in Japan offered the opportunity for Ramaphosa to engage with Macron, who has also invited Ramaphosa to attend the G7 Summit he hosts in Biarritz, France, in August.
Economically, South Africa is the first trading partner for France on the sub-continent, with close to 400 French companies invested here, not just those doing trade. Among the big projects during Farnaud’s time has been the Alstom- Gibela plant in Ekurhuleni, where 600 new modern commuter trains are being built for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, and the launch of the (ZACube-2) nanosatellite launched as a result of French-South African scientific co-operation.
“Representing France at this time, with such deep relations between the countries, and at a key moment for South Africa, had been very special and a privilege,” he said.
On the occasion of the Bastille Day celebration and Farnaud’s farewell event, he will bestow for one last time, the French Ministry of Culture’s award, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The recipient is renown Ndebele artist Dr Esther Mahlangu.
France is known for its appreciation of culture and the ambassador has played a part in extending the embassy’s programme of recognition in this regard.
He said the longer he had been in the country, the more he came to appreciate its rich and diverse cultural offering - including its music and art - and he had been delighted to honour numerous people during his time for their singular contributions.
He hosted many events at the official residence, including an alternative art event, during which he took down some of the paintings (including some by French artist Henri Matisse) which grace the historic home, and invited in street artists to showcase their works.
Another pleasure has been the Goût de France events, an annual international celebration of French gastronomy in March, and to share with guests French wines and cheeses. Farnaud has been based in Pretoria, a city he said he had enjoyed for its good weather, pleasant surrounds and dynamic diplomatic community, and has travelled extensively.
He bought a motorbike and went incognito (as much as a tall, distinguished diplomat can) the length of the country, enjoying its beauty and engaging as much as possible with its people.
When his family came on holiday from France, they explored the diversity the country has to offer, including trips to the Kruger National Park, and everywhere he noted they found excellent hospitality and service.
He may be leaving but will continue to follow developments in South Africa, and hopes to return to travel more and see friends made during his stay.