FRENCH AMBASSADOR JOËL MEYER

interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

On why Bulgarians are fond on their history, traditions, food and wine

Joël Meyer 3.jpg

The stylish French residence in Central Sofia is indeed a very special place. For about 100 years, in addition to being the home of French ambassadors, it has been the meeting spot of senior dignitaries. One of the most notable events there was the famous breakfast with Bulgarian intellectuals, hosted by then President François Mitterrand, a few months before the collapse of Communism in 1989. One of them, Professor Zhelyu Zhelev, would later go on to become the first democratically elected president of Bulgaria.

The French residence's current occupant is Joël Meyer, a man of many languages and interests, who has worked in Greece, Cyprus and Italy as well as in western Africa, including Mauritania and Mali. Through the years, M. Meyer has maintained a steady interest in Bulgaria and things Bulgarian ever since he was in charge of the region in the French Foreign Ministry at the time Bulgaria was to attain membership of the EU. He is particularly interested in exploring the historical and archaeological heritage of Bulgaria, "the crossroads of civilisations," and it gives him joy to visit the places that retain the splendour of ancient Thrace. 

Did Bulgaria surprise you in any way?

I visited as a tourist in 1991 and then returned on a business trip in 2007. I could clearly see all the differences in-between. Bulgaria's capital has developed beyond recognition and can now be compared to most other European cities. It is a charming city that is in the fast-track lane of development, and so is Plovdiv as well as Burgas and Varna at the Black Sea coast. I do realise that there are great regional inequalities in the hinterland and I can see the decisiveness of the Bulgarian authorities to even them out with the support of the EU.

Ambassador Joël Meyer welcomes France’s Minister of State for Europe Laurence Boone at Sofia Airport

Perhaps in contrast to most other European nations, the Bulgarians are very fond of their history and traditions to an extent that there are TV channels exclusively devoted to folk music! Obviously, their penchant for history in no way diminishes the creativity and resourcefulness of the modern Bulgarian society. I was in Plovdiv recently and I think it is a good example of the characteristic Bulgarian amalgamation of history, especially architecture, with the modern economic, university and cultural vibe.

Is Bulgaria well known in France?

To be frank, I think Bulgaria deserves to be better known. The French know of Bulgaria mainly through the famous people of Bulgarian origin that have lived and worked in France. These include, but are not limited to, the artist, Christo; the philosopher, Tsvetan Todorov; the writer, Julia Kristeva; and of course the singer, Sylvie Vartan. They are a part of the modern French culture. I should add that some modern Bulgarian writers and poets – Georgi Gospodinov, Dimana Trankova, Viktor Paskov and Konstantin Pavlov, to name but a few – increasingly get translated and published in France, thanks almost exclusively to the talented translator Marie Vrinat-Nikolov, who is also a professor of Bulgarian in France. Exchanges in the economy and academia are on the rise, and we have many success stories of French-Bulgarian cooperation. I am happy that many young French men and women choose to come to Bulgaria. I recently hosted a group of about 100 French students who had come to study in Bulgaria on the Erasmus programme.

With wife Zoé Meyer

Bulgaria has numerous advantages to attract more French visitors interested not only in going to the Black Sea beaches, but also in nature, art, history and traditions. One of those we share with the Bulgarians: food and drink. Bulgaria can offer all of those and I am looking forward to seeing the materialisation of a new tourism strategy that the government plans to promulgate. Bulgaria has an excellent project on the drawing board, the creation of an arts centre in Sozopol, that could showcase both its ancient and its contemporary culture. France is ready to support it.

Can you name some of your priorities in Bulgaria?

The role of an ambassador is frequently seen as a promoter of one's government's priorities. This is true only partially. My main mission is to encourage our common interests with Bulgaria and to work towards the attainment of our common goals. At present, following the visit of the French minister for European affairs in June we are in the process of drafting a new strategic partnership treaty to replace the one approved in 2008.

Joël Meyer visits an industrial excellence partnership, the production facility of Latécoère in Plovdiv

First and foremost, top of our common interests is Europe. The French and the Bulgarians share a common vision of the EU. It should display more solidarity between the member states with the EU citizens in mind. It should play a more decisive role in developing the competitiveness of its industry vis-a-vis outside competitors. It should speak more clearly and be more visible on the international scene to be able to address the huge challenges of the day: climate change, our collective security in the face of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, the prospects of accepting new members, the diversification of energy resources and so on. The French and the Bulgarian governments work in cooperation to harmonise their stand and contribute to the EU to emerge as a major power for proposal – and decisionmaking.

My second priority is along the same lines of cooperation, but focuses on achieving progress in the economy. There are already remarkable French-Bulgarian successes. I was recently in Plovdiv to visit Latécoère Аeronautics, the airplane building company. Did you know that some basic parts for the Airbus aircraft were being manufactured by that company in Bulgaria? What we have at stake is high tech, very precisely crafted equipment. There are many good examples, and of course there is a lot of space for growth, especially in power engineering and the new technologies.

I would also like to encourage mobility for students, educators, scientists and artists. In a constantly changing world it is important to share and compare ideas, approaches and perceptions, and make shared proposals. The Sofia-based Institut Français is a privileged location to facilitate such exchanges. May I add scientific exchanges, because I know the Bulgarian authorities are very keen on that. With EU support we will encourage network cooperation between French and Bulgarian scientists. We already have some wonderful projects going, including boosted efficiency of solar power engineering and the use of nanofibres in medicine.

We are involved in archaeology and we support cooperation in ancient history research along the Black Sea coast.

One of the prized possessions of the French Residence in Sofia is the Bulgarian carpet hand-woven in Asenovgrad and fitted on the stairs in situ

Last but not least, we have a common ambition that reflects not just our cultural proximity but also our wish to be open to the world. I am talking about linguistic multiplicity and the development of Francophonie. This year Bulgaria marks the 30th anniversary of its accession to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. It is not because French is spoken in France, but because French is being used by 350 million people worldwide. This is an incredible environment for cultural and economic exchanges.

Can you name a few things in Sofia and beyond that you particularly like?

My wife and I are in love with Sofia, a city of "human" proportions. Every neighbourhood in town has its own character and its own story to tell. I like the small restaurants along Oborishte Street. I like to walk through the markets near the Central Halls. My favourite museums are the Museum of Archaeology with its fantastic collection of Thracian gold, and the National Art Gallery where works by Bulgarian artists who have lived in France are often on display – most recently, the oeuvre of Georges Papazoff. I have a particular sentiment for three streets. One is Pirotska with its small shops and boutiques. The other is Le Gay, also with many shops. It is named after one of my predecessors, the French consul Léandre François René le Gay, who was declared an honorary citizen of Sofia in 1877, during the Liberation War. He joined forces with his Italian counterpart, Vittorio Positano, to ensure Sofia was not torched by the Ottomans. Then I must mention Paris Street – not because its name can entice a Parisian like myself, but because there is a little souvenir shop on it, where you can find everything, and because it leads up the Opera House, another magical place. Then, to remain on musical lines, my favourite concert venue is the Bulgaria Hall of the Sofia Philharmonic. I am a great admirer of Maestro Nayden Todorov who feels equally at ease with both the classics and modern music. One of the latest concerts I went to featured French cellist Gautier Capuçon, who played works by modern composer Danny Elfman. A miracle.

How can you not admire the Vitosha?! Is it not a blessing to be able to climb up to 2,000 metres above sea level just half an hour from your home?

Frankly, there is one place I really love to retreat to. It is the small Kremikovtsi monastery, just at the foot of the Balkans mountain range. It is an ultimately quiet place, and its old church has some remarkably fresh medieval murals.

If you have visiting friends from France, what would you recommend them to do?

I would be sincere with them. I will tell them to get Hidden Treasures of Bulgaria Vols. 1, 2 and 3. These books are a lot more than just guidebooks. They are a poetic invitation to travel.

I would tell them to go to Perperikon and Tatul in the Rhodope: captivating locations whose vistas and landscapes make it easier for us to understand why they were venerated by the ancients. I visited in wintertime. Believe me, under snow they are even more impressive. Nearer to Sofia I like the industrial heritage of Pernik. Everyone should visit the 1930s head office of the former mining company. And, if you visit in January, the Surva mummers festival will be a must.

The Rozhen monastery in the southwest is another of my favourites. If you are in the area, make the obligatory stop in Melnik, where you can sample the local food and excellent wine. You can buy a few bottles at makeshifts stands by the road!

And what will you advise them to be careful about?

The traffic, no doubt. Road accidents are a tragedy. Some citizens and associations of road accident victims have recently trumpeted up their demands and I am glad the authorities have taken some new measures. Like in France, there is an ongoing campaign to change the mentality of some drivers.

Marquez les esprits. Choisissez la France

Make it Iconic. Choose France is a new communications campaign initiated by France to boost its image and international standing. Its main purpose is to let international investors and fresh talent in all spheres of life, including Bulgarians, that France is an open and welcoming country. It offers an environment that will be beneficial for their business or personal projects. For more information on why France is one of the most attractive countries in the world, please visit www.choosefrance.fr

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