French Ambassador Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes on ancient art, latterday nationalism and why history must not be used to justify current policies
A fan of the arts, Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes accomplished in a few months what various Communist and non-Communist functionaries, dating all the way back to Lyudmila Zhivkova in the late 1970s, had hoped for: bring a Bulgarian exhibition to the Louvre in Paris. Using his par excellence skills and contacts, M. de Cabanes was instrumental in putting together a large display of Thracian art at the Richelieu wing, through at the end of July 2015. Sitting in his comfortable embassy, a Sofia landmark on Oborishte Street, we could be talking for hours about painting, sculpture and music. But, instead, I choose to ask a few direct questions about the state Bulgaria finds itself in at the moment. What do Bulgarians lack?
Confidence. Bulgarians have no confidence in their politicians. Furthermore, they have no confidence that their children could have a future in Bulgaria.
Is it not pretty obvious why many Bulgarians have lost faith in their country?
Yes. But if too many Bulgarian chose to go, Bulgaria would cease to exist. If all young Bulgarians went away because they do not think they have a future in this country, only the sort of people Bulgarians protested against in 2013 will remain, and they will be the only ones in power.
Does the Bulgarian state do anything to bring back some confidence in citizens and dissuade them from emigrating?
I think yes, but this kind of policy, convincing large masses of people that they do have a future here, is difficult and slow. People have waited long enough, for 26 years since the collapse of Communism.
Is the new statue of Tsar Samuil contributing?
That there is debate about this statue is positive. I think what President Plevneliev said is sensible: Why not have a statue of a great Bulgarian king in a city that still has monuments to aggressors? Whether you like the statue or not is a matter of personal taste.
Could a statue like that be erected in modern-day Paris?
We no longer do that because we did it 150 years ago.
Can history be used to justify present-day policies?
History is something you should know. History is a fact. You should neither be proud of, nor be held responsible for what happened many years ago. It is just a fact that people should know. We can't change it. I cannot be proud of or sorry for the history of France because as a person I have nothing to do with the French Revolution. But this is the history of my country: I’m kind of an heir of this history.
Do you not think that modern Bulgarians tend to spend too much time in their history?
History must never be used in any kind of political debate. If anyone does it means that they are trying to make their standpoints more valid on the basis of events that happened many years ago. This is very wrong and very dangerous. History cannot be used to prove that Crimea is Russian or Macedonia Bulgarian. It is important to know history and equally important never to use it in a political debate.
Still, does this happen in Bulgaria?
Not only in Bulgaria, but all over the world.
Do you have people in France who think France should have territorial claims on Belgium?
There might be a few people like that, yes.
But they are not in parliament.
No, they are not in parliament.
As a diplomat, do you talk with all the political parties represented in the Bulgarian parliament?
Not with Ataka, not with the Patriotic Front, – which means not with the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, nor the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria.
Because I think that some of their positions are incompatible with a number of general European principles.
After a year and a half in Bulgaria, what is your evaluation of the quality of democracy in Bulgaria?
I think that the Bulgarians are a democratic nation. Perhaps it stems from history because in Bulgaria people never had the kind of feudalism that we had in France for centuries. The Bulgarians are generally peaceful, which is very important for democracy. Bulgarians favour equality, which is also important for the quality of democracy. I think that a quarter of a century after the downfall of Communism, Bulgarians value freedom.
In principle, I am an optimist. I note the many positive changes that have come to Bulgaria during the past 26 years. Based on that, I hope that more positive changes are about to happen, although there are still big problems.