France Remains Close Despite Cambodian Independence: Envoy

Jacques Pellet in the French Embassy garden. Picture: Nicolo Tissier

PHNOM PENH -- This year marks the 70th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France. French Ambassador Jacques Pellet speaks to Nicolo Tissier about the state of French-Cambodian relations, how the new year brings new perspectives and upcoming events.      

Seventy years of Cambodia’s independence

The ambassador says there is no official date for the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Cambodia. Sovereignty was transmitted progressively from 1949 to 1953.

“Moreover, the first ambassador didn’t have the official title of ambassador but of superior resident for a few years,” he said.

For this reason, the precise date cannot be celebrated on a specific day, unlike countries such  as Japan, Australia and US. His predecessors never celebrated the establishment of diplomatic relations for the same reason.

Cambodian independence did not signify a rupture with France.  On the contrary, relations grew.

During the period when the Sangkun movement, set up by Prince Sihanouk in 1955, controlled the government, France built Sihanoukville’s seaport and many French professors came to the country.

Excellent French-Cambodian relations

The ambassador said he rejoiced at the excellence of France’s relations with Cambodia and on the friendship of Cambodian people towards French people.

He cited a recent initiative by Cambodian authorities to rebuild the monument to Phnom Penh’s dead that had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

He also invoked the celebration of King Sisowath’s travel to France in 1906, through an exhibition at the Sosoro Museum in Phnom Penh organized by the National Bank of Cambodia.

This reciprocal interest between both countries recently manifested itself during the last visit of Prime Minister Hun Sen to Paris, where he was welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron at the presidential Elysee Palace.

The conversations and dinner lasted much longer than planned. The ambassador said he observed warm understanding between the leaders.

Cambodian presidency of ASEAN

However, no bilateral meetings took place with France or the European Union at the last ASEAN summit organized by Cambodia.

The ambassador said the President of the European Council Charles Michel was present as a guest and that a summit between ASEAN and the EU took place in Brussels on Dec. 14. Prime Minister Hun Sen went there in person after his working visit in France.

Different levels of partnerships exist between ASEAN and other countries.

Conferences during the last summit were with strategic partners and dialogues partners such as the US, Australia and Japan. France is a development partner.

The ambassador says the EU has a role to play because “it’s perceived as an alternative between the US and China,  a choice many ASEAN countries don’t want to make”.

The ambassador also congratulated Cambodia for its presidency of ASEAN, which was considered a success by general opinion. “It gave visibility to the country,” he said.

Pellet is also satisfied by the establishment of annual political consultation between France and Cambodia, to start this year. Surprisingly, this formal discussion didn’t exist before.

“Since my arrival, I thought it was strange despite our mutual history and close relationship.”

This year also marks 70th years of the French Pasteur scientific institute. And in November the fourth international conference about the preservation of the Angkor site will take place in Paris at the UNESCO building.

French contribution to Cambodia’s development

In term of economic affairs, the start of this year will see a mission of French companies visit Phnom Penh on Jan. 24 and 25.

This shows the economical dynamics of France in Cambodia, the ambassador said. Besides major companies like Total and Vinci,  French economic activity in the Kingdom was based on small entrepreneurs.

This network held on despite the economic difficulties during the COVID-19 crisis. “The French community suffered but I found it resilient and our citizens dynamic,” he said.

Pellet said France would continue to contribute to Cambodia’s development. Notably through AFD (French Institute of Development).

The French presence exists also in a strong education network. French schools in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh add to a network of bilingual classes, including the French Technological Institute, the Academic Agency of Francophonie, and various NGOs.

There was “a whole ecosystem linked to Francophonie which continues to develop,” he said.

France continues to supply scholarships to Cambodian students. Around 200 new students go there every year, taking the total of Cambodian students in France to 800.

Related Articles