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H.E. Pierre Cochard, French Ambassador to Serbia

Fraternity Through Sport

As part of the Olympic tradition, France, as the host country of this year’s Summer Games, presented a resolution on the observation of the Olympic truce to the UN General Assembly. And it was largely adopted, with the noticeable abstentions of Russia and Syria. It is in this spirit that President Macron called for an Olympic truce on all theatres of war and stated his willingness to take “diplomatic initiatives” in favour of peace during the Games ~ Pierre Cochard

Despite disagreement on some issues, such as Kosovo’s request to join the Council of Europe or support for the Resolution on genocide in Srebrenica, France and Serbia remain close, while France also wants to deepen economic ties with Serbia, says Ambassador Cochard. Speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, he confirms that discussions of new forms of cooperation could resume in Belgrade during the next visit of the French president, which is planned.

Your Excellency, under what slogan and with what message will France celebrate its National Day this year?

— Fostering fraternity through sport will definitely be this year’s message for our national day. France will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris and at various venues across the country and beyond: Marseille, Bordeaux, Tahiti… I am convinced that these Games will provide an occasion for people all around the world to experience French hospitality and witness our knowhow in organising such events. We are very much looking forward to the Olympic Games and our annual celebration will be organised in the spirit of the respect, friendship and excellence that were promoted by Pierre de Coubertin. Most Serbian participants in the Olympics will already be in France by then, but we will hopefully greet many of them, with their medals, on their way back!

The following months will be marked under the sign of excellence in sports, but not only that, as the December 2024 reopening of Notre Dame will demonstrate what we can achieve when we work together and with the support of so many individuals and countries around the world. When it comes to respect and friendship, France does everything that’s possible to promote these principles – by promoting multilateralism and cooperation – both at an international and national level. In Serbia, friendship and respect are at the core of our bilateral relations.

On the eve of this year’s holiday, both in France and across Europe, President Emmanuel Macron’s announcements that France might send its military instructors to support the Ukrainian army are being closely followed. What is the sentiment among the French people regarding this initiative?

— The French people are very conscious of what is at stake in Ukraine. This war has an existential character for all of us. The war of aggression that Russia wages against a sovereign country, constantly denying its very existence, the existence of the Ukrainian nation and the free will of the Ukrainian people, is jeopardising the stability of the European continent as a whole. The French position has always been very clear: we are not at war with Russia, but we will do all we can to support Ukraine’s resistance and to help the Ukrainian people protect their freedom and sovereignty. France has done everything possible to engage in dialogue with Russia. Vladimir Putin rejected this and decided to lead his country into a disastrous war.

When it comes to military instructors, many fake news stories have been circulated. The possibility of training in Ukraine has been discussed with our partners since the Ukraine Support Conference that was held in Paris on 26th February, and taking into account the official request submitted to the EU by the Ukrainian authorities. No decision has so far been taken. Our aim has always been the same: to give Ukraine and the Ukrainian people the means to defend themselves against brutal and illegal aggression.

Paris is preparing to once again host the Olympic Games. Can the Olympics, like in ancient times, serve not only as a venue for sporting competition, but also as a platform for peace talks to bring an end to conflicts in Ukraine or Gaza?

— We have the ambition to offer a moment of hope to people suffering from conflicts, and especially the ones you mention, through the Olympic and Paralympic Games. France is doing everything it can to promote peace. As part of the Olympic tradition, France – as host country of the Games – presented to the UN General Assembly a resolution on the observation of the Olympic truce. And it was largely adopted, with the noticeable abstentions of Russia and Syria. It is in this spirit that President Macron called for an Olympic truce in all theatres of war and stated his willingness to take “diplomatic initiatives” in favour of peace during the Games.

Artificial intelligence, environmental and energetic transition – are essential for the development of Serbia and its alignment with the European Union

I hope that world leaders will seize this opportunity to move forward collectively on such a crucial issue. But the responsibility to silence the guns belongs first and foremost to the aggressors that are acting in violation of international law and the UN Charter.

During the most recent meeting between the presidents of Serbia and France, it was announced that a contract for the purchase of French “Rafale” fighter jets is expected to be signed soon, with the French President personally attending the event. Has this event already been planned?

— President Macron intends to visit Serbia very soon, as he values our close relations with Serbia. His first visit, in 2019, was an important milestone in the renewal of our longstanding friendship that led to the signing of an inter-governmental agreement in 2020, covering important projects like the Belgrade metro. Since that time, our two countries have had numerous high-level contacts. As you stated, President Vučić was in Paris last April, while President Macron has reiterated his willingness to come to Serbia and discuss ways to reinforce our bilateral relations in many fields, in view of our future increased cooperation as fellow EU member states. And, indeed, this includes the reinforcement of our already strong and solid cooperation in the defence sector, in order to be able to protect our common defence and security interests.

It emerged at the same meeting that interest exists in strengthening economic cooperation through the involvement of French companies in the fields of energy, environmental protection and artificial intelligence in Serbia. Can we expect something concrete soon?

— Indeed, France is striving to deepen its economic ties with Serbia. The sectors you mentioned – artificial intelligence, environmental and energetic transition – are essential for the development of Serbia and its alignment with the European Union. French companies are increasingly present in Serbia. Trade between our two countries has tripled since 2010! The recent visit of a delegation of French firms was a concrete indicator of the deepening of our economic relations. The delegation met with President Vučić and several ministers. This visit led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Serbian government, Vinci and Suez concerning the Veliko Selo water treatment plant, the first such facility in Belgrade. An agreement regarding the financing of a Smart Grid project has also been signed.

To what extent have bilateral relations between France and Serbia been impacted by your country’s co-sponsorship of the Resolution on Srebrenica, which was proposed to the UN General Assembly by Germany and has been perceived in Serbia as an act against the country and a destabilising factor for the region?

— Our bilateral relations, as well as the relationship between our two presidents, are based on trust and sincerity. We may disagree on some issues, but we have no hidden agenda. Our only agenda is to remain faithful to our longstanding friendship and to help Serbia become a full member of the EU as soon as possible.

The resolution establishes an International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of what happened in Srebrenica in July 1995, the massacre of 8,000 adults and children, which was unequivocally qualified as genocide by the International Court of Justice. We believe there is a collective duty of memory, a “devoir de mémoire”, as we say in French, when it comes to such terrible events and France did its part concerning the tragic events of our own past. That’s why France supported the adoption of this resolution. It is not a negation of the other crimes that were committed during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. And the text does not contain any idea of collective responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide.

Whatever judgement we may have on the impact of this resolution, what really matters now is to work together to prevent the hatred, glorification of war criminals and ethnonationalism that are, unfortunately, still present around us. That’s the only way to help peace prevail in the region.

France initially supported Kosovo’s Council of Europe membership application, but then withdrew its support. How firm is Paris’s stance that there can be no progress for Kosovo until the Community of Serb Municipalities has been established?

— Our position is not only firm, but also very clear and has been stated many times. We support Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe as a way to protect the rights of citizens and minorities in this country, but this membership requires that Pristina take concrete steps to set up the long-overdue Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.

The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is essential for the stability of the region, and both parties must respect their commitments. There is no alternative to normalisation and France, together with its partners, will continue to insist on the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, as a priority and necessary step on this road.

How would you evaluate this June’s local elections in Serbia?

— If I am to quote the preliminary conclusions of the ODIHR, they were well-run and freedom of expression and assembly were respected. But the ODIHR mission also raises some concerns that are more or less identical as those raised in the report of the ODIHR regarding the 17th December elections. These shortcomings need to be addressed and the ODIHR has formulated recommendations that are very relevant.

We welcome the commitment made by Serbian authorities to implement them all, through an inclusive and transparent dialogue. I hope that this dialogue will lead to tangible progress in the coming months. This would bring the country closer to European standards, and improve Serbian citizens’ trust in their institutions and democratic processes.

Could the results of the elections for European institutions influence the EU’s course when it comes to events in the region and EU enlargement?

— We will have to wait and see for the new EU institutions to be formed in the coming months, but I believe that the major political equilibriums will remain the same.

Since the Zagreb and Thessaloniki summits of 2000 and 2003, the European Union and its member states have consistently reaffirmed their commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The European Council called for the accelerating of their accession process in December 2023. Enlargement is, and will remain, the key to our common security and prosperity despite the multiple threats we are facing. Ever more Europeans are aware of that, and I am confident that our priority will remain the same and I hope that Serbia will decisively take this opportunity: as its place is in Europe and nowhere else.

PARIS 2024

We will hopefully greet many Serbian participants with their medals, on their way back!

ENLARGEMENT

Enlargement is, and will remain, the key to our common security and prosperity despite the multiple threats we face

VISIT

President Macron intends to visit Serbia very soon, as he values our close relations with Serbia