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France's man in Cambodia

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Jean-Francois Desmazieres on why Khmer kids learn French and the importance of preserving the Kingdom's architecture.

Photo by:

Heng Chivoan

Jean-François Desmazieres, ambassador of France, in his office at the Embassy last week.

Do you feel there is still interest in learning the French language in Cambodia?

There is still a lot of interest in learning the French language ... especially among Cambodian youth. At the French Cultural Centre we have roughly 6,000 students a year and 95 percent of them are young people. The question is: Why are they learning French? I think it is connected to the bilingual classes we organise in 18 schools in coordination with the Ministry of Education and it is also connected to the French curriculums in various royal universities including a French diploma offered by Lyon University in law and management.

These people are learning French as a second, third or fourth language together with English or Chinese. Another population is interested by French language - the people who have relatives in France - because France has one of the largest Cambodian diasporas: Roughly 150,000-200,000 people in France have family connections to Cambodia.

Does France encourage the development of Cambodian cinema?

The French Cultural Centre has helped in the creation of the Bophana Centre of Rithy Panh.

The Agence Française de Developpement (AFD) has given a grant of US$2 million to support the development of Cambodian cinema. The French Cultural Centre has promoted actors or helped in creating a vision for a movie, but here we are speaking of production and this is done through the Bophana Centre. So the grant is dedicated to the creation of a small Cambodian cinematographic industry with help from building capacity to providing equipment. The idea is to be able to promote Cambodia as a location for shooting foreign movies, so it is important to have good technicians. The best is always to welcome foreign teams.

Does it sadden you to see the legacy of the French colonial period eroded by new developments?

I am very much attached to the preservation of the architectural heritage and of course the French part of this heritage, but it is important to say that the "beautiful Phnom Penh" was not the colonial Phnom Penh, it was the Phnom Penh of the 60s, the Phnom Penh of the King Father.

The great city planner of Phnom Penh was Vann Molyvann, and aslo you have a lot of very important architects in the 1950s and 1960s.

Of course, everybody knows, on the other hand, that a city that counts now maybe two million inhabitants is no more a city of 200,000 people, so it is absolutely normal that this city must grow and that the infrastructure of the city will have to provide the new utilities a population requires.  

Personally, I am impressed by the openness demonstrated by the [Khmer rouge] court.

But it is possible to preserve an architectural legacy. The experience that we have in France is that to protect a building you have to give back its utility. The building has to recover its utility, so for instance speaking of the Central Market - the New Market, the real name is the New Market - it's an absolutely unique building of the 70s. We are providing through AFD a grant of $4.2 million in order to help the building to keep its function. And you have to mix the two. If you want to protect the building, it has to be useful, that is the reality. So it is very possible to protect, I can cite some beautiful renovation - the Chinese House is lovely and the Post Office place, the Bophana Centre - this is a very specific, I would say, optimistic architecture of the 1960s. So we can do it, we have some good examples and it is not desperate at all.

How do you feel about progress at the Khmer Rouge tribunal?

I think that the first trial is going to start in March, and there is very encouraging progress in the work of the court. Right now, we have the pretrial conference for the Duch case, but we always knew that the road was bumpy and it was not an easy task - to conciliate common law and civil law, to gather international judges, have foreign judges working with national judges, to have people with a long experience of international courts and people without this kind of experience and all of this, of course, in three languages - so it is not easy, and we know it is still the beginning, but it is progressing so we are encouraged.

Are you informed of what is happening regarding alleged corruption at the court?

As a stakeholder of the court, we are closely monitoring the activities along with our partners and especially the various UN bodies which are in charge of the management of the court. We are particularly committed to seeing this court in a position both to gather international support and to deliver impartial justice. We are waiting for that but mainly the people of Cambodia are waiting for that and they deserve it, so we are following closely.

Do you think there is sufficient transparency at the court?

In the civil law system, investigation is secret. That is the system so you have to be aware of this specific organisation of the court. Personally, I am impressed by the openness demonstrated by the court. What is important is that the audiences are public, of course, and really attended by a large public. But both the communication of the court and the outreach efforts of this process are very important. It is once again a very difficult process and every outreach effort must be supported. It is also important speaking of transparency to focus on the civil parties. In the civil law, the civil parties are party to the process and it is another element of transparency, they can be a part - they are not passive - and that is why we have dedicated some funds in order to help the civil parties and to help them receive the assistance of lawyers.

What role does the French embassy play in terms of strengthening the judiciary in Cambodia?

The work that we are doing is in the legal and judicial reform process, we have a project of cooperation with the Ministry of Justice in this field. We have helped with the redaction and passing of the penal code and now the penal prodecure code ... so that is part of the French contribution to the legal reform process. Our other contribution is supporting the training organisations, the universities.

How many French companies are operating in the Kingdom and in what fields primarily?

It is difficult to give figures because the official figures are mainly registering the direct exchange between France and Cambodia, but many French companies are based in Singapore or Ho Chi Minh City, so in terms of figures its not so big here, but we are certainly the first European company active in Cambodia. We have roughly 50 subsidiaries of big French companies and I would say 100 or so French companies owned by French individuals in this country. The subsidiaries of the big French companies are primarily in tourism, in the airport industry, public lighting systems, sewage, oil and gas distribution, and exploration. We also have some new ventures in agriculture - in rice and rubber - which are being developed right now. French investment in Cambodia is over a very large spectrum which is developing steadily even if it is not always easy to say he is French, he is French working in Cambodia with Asiatic partners, but the world is like that now, you know.

Interview by Cat Barton 

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