France is one of the oldest diplomatically connected friends of Nepal, with each other’s embassies established in other countries in 1967. Since then, several ambassadors from both sides have contributed to strengthening the relations. Three years ago, François-Xavier Léger succeeded Yves Carmona as the French ambassador to Nepal. During his time, Léger, besides his regular diplomatic dealings, has been very active in many non-political affairs and collaborations, especially with young entrepreneurs of Nepal.
Completing the tenure now, he is now moving on to his next assignment. Before his departure from Nepal, we talked with the French ambassador to talk about his stint, his learnings and his observations of Nepal.
How would you sum up your tenure as the French ambassador to Nepal?
My appointment in Nepal was in 2018. The first half of my tenure kept me busy with organising and attending events as in 2019, Nepal and France were celebrating the 70th anniversary of their bilateral relations. Well, for the second half, given the pandemic, my works were directed towards the Covid-19 response and programmes from the repatriation of EU citizens to facilitating vaccines for Nepalis here.
The three years were full of various experiences. A large part of my role as the French ambassador was also to promote the culture and arts of Nepal that highlighted and promoted contemporary Nepal.
What have been your greatest achievements and learnings? Any regret on what you could not give time to?
It was my first time in Nepal. I found the country to be very different from what the common beliefs were. Nepal has always been perceived as a small, developing country, in between two giant countries, but the country is rich in every aspect; history, culture, arts, etc.
During my stay here, I have learned the people of Nepal are a very complex population to understand. This month, I also visited the Pashupatinath temple on the first Monday of Shrawan and there I got to see how intricate and complex the culture is. To understand Nepal, one needs to take time and make efforts.
And, my greatest learning I would say is my realisation about the importance of families.
People here have so much potential; they are working in multinational companies, expanding their business outside the country, and the young working force is more dynamic with equally active female leaders. Even those working in the informal sectors are working hard and moving forward through the hardships, even post-pandemic. Their resilience is applaudable. So, whatever the perception or stereotype that a foreigner has about Nepal can be challenged once you experience the country.
I would certainly miss the people here the most.
My greatest regret is that I could not travel the country. Due to my obligations as the French ambassador and the pandemic, travelling became impossible for me during this time. However, I do wish to come back to Nepal and visit places like the Upper Mustang, Manang, Dolpo and Terai areas.
But, if I had to leave Nepal amid the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, I would have definitely regretted that I could not make efforts from my side to say a proper goodbye.
Anything you would say to your successor?
I have been amazed by the people I met here. So, my foremost suggestion would be to go out and meet people and interact with them. Take time to understand Nepal better and deeper. Second, I would stress to go out of Kathmandu more, see the real Nepal, its real diversity.
And, I am very positive and hopeful that the Green Embassy project would be carried forward. It is not just a project, but a process. So, if we just dismiss it in a few years, the impact will be negligible, where it needs to be sustainable.
As someone who has been here from the start of the Covid-19 crisis, what have been your observations of Nepal’s crisis response? Do you have any comments?
The Covid-19 is a new crisis. No country in the world had it figured out from the start, regardless of the resources they had. So, everyone was coping with it; it was difficult. The Nepal government made great efforts to bring in international aid and vaccines despite the international competition.
The best part is that many hospitals in Nepal have an oxygen plant inside the hospital premises now; the production capacity and efficiency has increased. There were some disparities when it came to the oxygen plants and their spare parts needed to be changed. But, as a country that suffered in the second wave due to a lack of oxygen supply, I now see the country having the potential to beat the possible third wave now.
France has already extended aid to Nepal for the Covid-19 response. Have they been put to use effectively and properly?
When the French aid arrived in Nepal, being the French ambassador, I had the privilege to go to the storage and receive it. There, what I saw was a tracking system of the medical supplies. With that, one could trace or track where and how the aid was used, where it was distributed. And, it was as good as it could have been. I was convinced that there was transparency and the aid had been distributed to the provincial governments too where it was supposed to be distributed.
Nepal is seeking a huge international investment to boost its economy, but the investment is not coming at the expected level. What possibilities do you see in the future?
There are many investment opportunities in Nepal. It has many aspects to capitalise like its already famous landmarks and cultural diversity. But, Nepal has the potential to not just use them for tourism but also for investment purposes, systematically. Nepal can explore the possibilities of investment with European [Union] countries.
France is already investing here in Nepal. French companies are investing in hydropower projects like Upper Trishuli and helped in the construction of a stadium in Pokhara for the South Asian Games. French companies have collaborated for the operation of Airbus aircraft here, meaning the investment possibilities are already there.
Other possible areas where Nepal can get investment are solar farms, road infrastructure, and public transportations. According to its topography, Nepal can make cable cars and they are better, more sustainable investment opportunities for everyone. I have been a personal advocate for this technology as well.
Other than that Nepal can also find opportunities in the export of coffee, tea, honey, essential oils, etc. If Nepali companies can package them well and assure they are organic and give the certificate of origin, they will attract potential, loyal customers, even from Europe and certainly France.
How can we better bilateral cooperation between the two countries in trade and investment sectors?
Given the pandemic, the amount of bilateral trade decreased by one-third last year, but we have great potential to bounce back and work further on our economic diplomacies as well. For that, many business forums were organised, before and during the pandemic, and it was a success.
Human resources are an asset to Nepal, which is not a well-known fact, so that’s where the country can thrive. It has gone past the insurgency, and political or social conflict, so now, it can offer safety to those who want to invest here. And, rather than going for bigger investments, both Nepali companies and investors can seek possibilities for investment in smaller and middle scale industries. It will be more profitable for Nepal.
For French companies, there are many opportunities, so I encourage them to explore, and with their own market analysis, cater to the unique consumers here.
KP Sharma Oli as the Nepal PM paid a formal visit to France in 2019, but there have not been any high-level visits from France since 1983, is there any reason for this?
Former PM Oli’s visit was during the anniversary of bilateral relations. That same year, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, the secretary-general of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, visited Nepal. So, it is not that France has refrained from it. I would have been more than happy to materialise higher-level French officials’ visits to Nepal, but given the pandemic, we had to reconsider.
Also, we believe Nepal and France are in a cordial, peaceful and benevolent relationship as always where these high-level visits are not required to show that we are not in a conflict. As I said, both countries believe in peace and peaceful, diplomatic conduct. But, surely there will be a higher-level official paying a visit to Nepal soon, and it would be instrumental to highlight the relationship as well.