Rémi Maréchaux, The French Ambassador to Ethiopia, Reflects on transformative tenure amid Ethiopia’s conflicts and collaborative projects

In this exclusive interview with Capital’s Groum Abate, Rémi Maréchaux, the French Ambassador to Ethiopia, digs into the intricacies and challenges of his tenure amidst the backdrop of ongoing regional conflicts. With a dual role as a permanent representative to the AU, Ambassador Maréchaux shares his experiences and insights over the past four years, a period marked by significant strife and transformation within Ethiopia. From detailing the progress of various French-led projects to discussing the broader implications of Ethiopia’s geopolitical maneuvers, Ambassador Maréchaux provides a comprehensive overview of the diplomatic landscape and the enduring partnership between France and Ethiopia. Join us as we explore the substantial impact of these developments on bilateral relations, regional stability, and the future aspirations of both nations. Excerpts;

Capital: Is this your last term here in Ethiopia? How were the past four years?

Rémi Maréchaux: I have a double portfolio because I am also a permanent representative to the AU. On the bilateral side, as you know, the past three years have been very unusual due to the conflict, first in the northern part of Ethiopia and now in Amhara and parts of Oromia. This has made the work a bit more difficult than elsewhere and has had an impact on some of the projects we have. But it has been very interesting. I volunteered because I always wanted to come and be posted in Ethiopia because of the uniqueness not only of the country, but also of the bilateral relationship. Ethiopia is our oldest partner on the African continent. When you specialize in African relations, as I have for the past 32 years, being posted in Addis is like going to Mecca for a Muslim.

Capital: How does the conflict in Amhara affect your projects in Lalibela?

Rémi Maréchaux: In Lalibela, we have two different projects. The first one, which is about to be completed, was the emergency work done on the churches. We can continue this project without the presence of any French expert because we now have a team of Ethiopians being trained, including stone carvers and other specialties. They have completed the emergency and safety repairs, such as building new bridges and footbridges for visitors. What we are continuing now is to change the lighting inside the churches and we have completed the new floor of the church, and now we are working on the preservation and digitalization of manuscripts.

The other part, which is related to the shelters and the requests from not only the Ethiopian government but also the church and the local community, is to replace the existing shelters. However, as you know, the site is a UNESCO site, so no work can be conducted there without the explicit approval of UNESCO. We still have three technical studies to complete, in collaboration with the Ethiopian Heritage Authority, in order to move to the next phase. This will involve removing the current shelters and replacing them with something more aesthetic and lighter, which will then allow us to start the heavy restoration of the churches, not just the emergency repairs.

Capital: With this conflict ongoing, are you still committed?

Rémi Maréchaux: We’re still committed. We’re still working with the local team that has been trained. And for the rest, we’re working with the Ethiopian Heritage Authority to complete the three technical studies to be presented to UNESCO, so that UNESCO gives the authorization to remove and replace the shelters. So at one point, as some of the studies imply, bringing to the site some heavy equipment, the security situation might delay.

Capital: Coming to the Jubilee Palace, what’s the status?

Rémi Maréchaux: Yes, so there are two aspects. The first one is the civil work. That’s first the restoration of the old building, but also the building of the new reception hall for the visitors. These two components of civil work are completed at 95%. And that’s why it was possible to use the museum for the gala dinner of the last AU summit. But the building is not yet a museum. So for the building to become a museum, there is still the soft component to be conducted about museography, about the recruitment and the training of the team, about the restoration plan for the furniture and all the artifacts.

This takes more time and that’s not civil work. Now, in addition to this, the government requested us end of last year to also take care of the creation of a museum of imperial collection, and that will be in the basement. And for this, a new grant agreement was signed last month, after the request of the Ethiopian government. So there’ll be two aspects, first turning the Jubilee Palace into a museum, and we do it with the best expertise we have because we mobilize our own museum, starting with the Versailles Palace Museum, whose experts came on a regular basis, and then the extension regarding the basement. So this goes as well as possible, like any project in Ethiopia.

Capital: Coming to another project also, what’s the status of the Rapid Transit Bus project?

Rémi Maréchaux: The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project had to be redesigned, and now we found an agreement with the Addis Ababa city administration, endorsed by the Ministry of Finance. So basically, our funding is 85 million in soft loan and 2 million in grant. We’ll take care of the construction of a new dedicated corridor for buses of a  a bit more than 15 km starting from Piassa. Then we’ll construct 20 stations plus a bus depot with a maintenance facility and a centralized system to control the transit. The civil work should start in September this year.

Capital: Will it be a dedicated line for buses? So, are the buses electric or of any other kind?

Rémi Maréchaux: The tender is still to be launched. It should be electric, just in terms of mitigating climate change. So, it also makes sense to improve air quality in Addis. This will be the second phase. The first phase that we’re going to directly fund is the construction of the dedicated corridor, the station, the bus depot, the capacity for maintenance, and the oversight capacity.

Capital: So, the 15 kilometer is the first phase?

No, that’s the first phase because it is the first BRT line to be built in Addis. We know that some other partners, such as Korea, are also working on another BRT line, so there will be several lines. But we are taking care of the first one.

Capital: Going to the Paris Olympics, how do you see the Paris Olympics promoting French culture in Ethiopia or Africa?

Rémi Maréchaux: It’s an opportunity for both us and Ethiopia or any other participating country. We’re talking about a very large event with more than 15,000 athletes competing in 32 different competitions, plus 22 for the Paralympics. We have delegations from more than 200 organizations, including the Ethiopian delegation. So, it’s an opportunity for us to present and make our capital city known. As you might have learned, not all the competitions will take place in dedicated sports facilities.

We’ll have competitions under the Eiffel Tower, in many public places in Paris, including museums and famous heritage areas. So, for us, it’s a good opportunity to showcase our capital city and demonstrate how we organize the event by limiting carbon emissions. The site will be accessible by public transport, and none of the sites will be more than 30 minutes away from the athletes’ village.

There’s also a way to integrate all the environmental protection needs into such a large event. For Ethiopia, it’s a good opportunity to bring attention to the country through the performance of the athletes. We’ve been working together with the National Olympic Committee, which has great ambition to gather Ethiopians from the diaspora living in Europe and North America on the occasion of the Olympics in Paris. They also plan to organize cultural events to showcase Ethiopia. We’ve been supporting them, and we’ll be available to facilitate the travel of not only athletes but also authorities and the team.

Capital: France has a strong naval presence around the world. You signed an agreement with the Ethiopian government on military cooperation. Recently, Ethiopia signed an agreement with Somaliland based on its naval forces. So, what’s your opinion? Are you involved in this? Are you helping the Ethiopian government?

Rémi Maréchaux: We’re helping the Ethiopian government in the sense that  we are implementing the plan that was agreed upon together. As I speak, we have a navy officer seconded to the navy headquarters to provide expertise regarding the organization, human resources management, and everything needed to organize a navy. At the same time, we continue to provide Ethiopian sailors with training by taking them on board a French navy ship. As I speak, there is an Ethiopian sailor in the Atlantic Ocean, and we regularly had some in the Indian Ocean. So our goal is to help and train the first crew of the first ship.

Capital: What about the naval base in Somaliland?

Rémi Maréchaux: We have not been part of any discussion on this. So it is for the Ethiopian government to finalize with its neighbor the best possible location.

Capital: So you don’t have anything?

Rémi Maréchaux: No, because we have not been part of any negotiation regarding the navy base. The reason why we agreed to work with the Ethiopian government to rebuild the Navy is to increase security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Especially these days with the return of piracy and attacks from the Yemeni shore, there is a need to improve security in the region. Our first reaction, which was that having a friendly Navy at sea is  an asset, hasn’t changed.

Capital: You suspended military cooperation. What is the current status? Is it reinstated?

Rémi Maréchaux: No, not fully. It was clear that one of the conditions would be the implementation of accountability and transitional justice mechanisms. As for the Navy, it is easy to demonstrate that they were not involved in the past conflict. Therefore, this is a separate case. For the rest, we will have to wait for the implementation of the transitional justice mechanism to have the full resumption of all activities and projects, potentially improved and upgraded.

Capital: How do you see the implementation of the Pretoria Agreement regarding the current situation?

Rémi Maréchaux: I was recently in Tigray, which was my third visit after the signing of the Pretoria Agreement. And every time I go there, I see an improvement in the daily lives of Ethiopians and the civilian population. Economic activities have resumed. The first time I came, there were very long queues in front of the bank due to a shortage of cash.

We now see a gradual return to normality. Many farmers were waiting for the rain to resume their activities. There is a resumption of activity and a great sense of relief among the population but there are also great expectations, especially regarding the situation of internally displaced people who are waiting for a durable solution and still face a very dire situation.

After the signing of the Pretoria Agreement, we decided to do everything possible to improve the living conditions of the war-affected populations in three regions: Amhara, Afar, and Tigray. That’s why we are focusing on the rehabilitation of regional hospitals in Dessie, Ab Ala, and Adwa. At the same time, we have implemented a food security project in these regions. Last year, I went to Debre Tabor and Wukro to distribute improved seeds to the farmers so that they can resume their normal activities and reduce their reliance on food assistance.

This project is still ongoing. In the second phase, we are distributing poultry and cattle to war-affected farmers to improve their food security. We are also implementing a project to rehabilitate the electrical network by repairing the transmission line and the Alamata substation, bringing in new transformers and equipment. It is crucial for the population to see the benefits of peace in their daily lives.

Capital: In Amhara and Oromia, there are ongoing conflicts that prevent safe travel. What is your opinion on this, and what are you doing to bring peace?

Rémi Maréchaux: As a foreign partner, Ethiopia is not our country. Therefore, we can only support local initiatives. It is not up to us to decide the best way to achieve peace. We are not Ethiopian, as I mentioned before. We acknowledge the government’s repeated messages about its readiness to engage in a political dialogue. We believe that a political dialogue is the best possible solution, as this conflict cannot be resolved through military means alone. If we are asked to assist in any way, we are available to do so. However, as of now, the Ethiopian government has taken many initiatives, and it is not our place to interfere with their decisions. These security issues have affected some French companies, such as the malt company Soufflet. Soufflet is located in Bole Lemmi Industrial Park, and while they are not directly affected, their sourcing of barley from Debre Birhan might be impacted.

The current conflict in Amhara is very different from the conflict in the north. It is not a conventional war. Therefore, most of the time, French companies have access to their sites. Boortmalt, for example, continues to operate and purchase barley. The same goes for BGI, which has a brewery in Kombolcha. They are able to continue their trucking operations.

The problem in Amhara is not the inability to travel from one city to another, but rather the uncertainty. One day you can travel, and the situation may change the next day. However, this situation is different from the conventional war that occurred in the north.

Capital: EU companies informally told the EU Chamber of Commerce that corruption is making them suffer. They can’t work with this kind of corruption in rural areas. So what’s your say?

Rémi Maréchaux: The French companies did not come to me to complain about corruption, but you can ask the EU chamber of Commerce about it.

No, the question of security is a real issue. And outside of Amhara, there was this flagship French project regarding the development of geothermal electricity, the Tulu Moye site, next to Itaya. And the site had to be evacuated because it had been attacked on several occasions. So there is a direct impact and the activity had to stop because of the lack of security on this site. But then, as of today, in Amhara, some of the French companies have been racketed or they suffered from, I would say, more insecurity than corruption because once again they didn’t come to me to report any case, otherwise I would have approached the authority.

Capital: Some years back French companies came in a large number but now they don’t even think about it. So how can you change that?

Rémi Maréchaux: There are two things. I mean, the first one is the security situation because insecurity is not conducive to investment. The second aspect, which is not purely affecting the French company, but every foreign company, is the problem of access to Forex. Because you know a company investing does it to be able later to make some profit and then send money back home. And this is not the case now.

Ffor this, we’re working very closely with the Ethiopian authority to support the signing of an agreement with the IMF. So we do our share, meaning that France is the co-chair of the Creditors Committee. So the Creditors Committee, in the framework of the IMF agreement, will have to reschedule the public debt of Ethiopia, which we’re ready to do. We have already supported the moratorium on the debt, and this moratorium was extended last April, April the 3rd, with a new deadline of June for the Ethiopian government to finalize the agreement with the IMF.

Now, we’ve already said to the Ethiopian authority that we would support this agreement with the IMF and support the implementation of the homegrown economic reform agenda. We have already done so in the first phase working with the creation of public-private partnership units. We have also assisted the Ministry of Finance in creating a dedicated authority to oversee the activity of state-owned companies. That’s PEHAA (Public Enterprises Holding and Administration Agency). We are also ready to work on the banking system reform. We had a large envelope of grants to fund technical assistance in the previous phase and we intend to continue to assist the Ethiopian government in succeeding in the implementation of this homegrown reform agenda.

Capital: What are the requirements for the IMF to do this work?

Rémi Maréchaux: An IMF agreement is usually signed to support a reform agenda. There is no IMF agreement without a reform agenda. So the government has been working on the finalization of the homegrown economic reform 2.0, and for the implementation of which it will need assistance that we are ready to provide.

Capital: Do you have any new cooperation agreements with Ethiopia in any sectors?

Rémi Maréchaux: There are new ones on a regular basis. There are some big ones, some small ones. Just to give you an example, we are discussing with some universities to build some university partnerships. The one that could be finalized soon is with the Aviation Academy. With some engineer school in France dedicated to aeronautics, the idea would be to build a joint curriculum and even a joint degree.. We have also started a negotiation to renew the agreement that created the lycée Gebre Mariam in order to allow it to host the best Ethiopian students from public school, so to have a scholarship to complete and to do the four years of high school for free at the lycée. That’s a way to use the lycée as a promotional tool for the best Ethiopian students, even if they are not from a French-speaking family or have no connection with France.

Capital: These days, many places including Arat Kilo and Piassa, are being demolished. Will that affect your projects in helping cultural events? How do you see that?

Rémi Maréchaux: Not directly. I mean, because you mentioned, it’s true that in Ethiopia, more than elsewhere, the cultural component of bilateral cooperation is important. Outside of the projects I already mentioned (the Lalibela and the National Palace), we also have a project with the National Museum. You might have seen the ground floor which hosts the archaeological collection. That is a result of cooperation between this embassy and the Ethiopian Heritage Authority. We now intend to upgrade and refurbish the basement which hosts the paleontology collection. We also have plans to expand the project that we’ve been conducting in Lalibela to other places, other churches outside of Lalibela, outside of the Amhara region, and to do this in other regions with historical heritage, but also to expand to the Muslim cultural heritage.

 Apart from that, the Ethio-French Alliance has many projects specifically in supporting the creative industry, which has great potential in Ethiopia, especially potential to create many jobs. Now, for the rest, we are always available to work with the Ethiopian authorities to preserve their historical heritage. But we have no specific project in Addis. We might have some in the future. We wish to have some.

The post Rémi Maréchaux, The French Ambassador to Ethiopia, Reflects on transformative tenure amid Ethiopia’s conflicts and collaborative projects appeared first on Capital Newspaper.

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