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Jean-Baptiste Cuzin, Director of the Institut Français in Serbia

The Value of Partnership

“I took the decision to come to Serbia four years ago with my family because I wanted to be, somehow, useful for establishing partnerships and projects, and to be embedded in trends for the changes that are at the core of Serbian society.”

CorD Magazine has welcomed Jean-Baptiste Cuzin, head of cooperation at the French Embassy in Serbia and director of the Institut français in Serbia, several times, and each time those meetings have resulted in very open discussions of the efforts of the team that he leads to present French culture as fully as possible in our country, and to complement our culture scene.

Mr Cuzin will soon leave to take on a new professional mission, so this represents our farewell interview. However, regardless of this apt occasion, it is impossible not to note that during the last four years, i.e. during the time that Mr Cuzin has been among the residents of our country, the programmes and projects of the French Institute have been a very visible part of our everyday lives.

This year marks three major French-Serbian anniversaries: 230 years since the storming of the Bastille, 180 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Serbia, and 10 years since the founding of the French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce. However, this year is also marked by the official visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Serbia. To what extent does cultural cooperation between our two countries contribute to these events?

– Cultural cooperation between France in Serbia has always been a key leverage to strengthen human links between France and Serbia. Students, researchers, artists, authors etc. have always been at the forefront of personal encounters with the partner country, and this has been taken into account by both of our governments for more than a century. Serbian students welcomed in France during World War I to pursue their studies in South-Eastern France or in Corsica, thanks to the strategic partnership established between our countries, where – somehow – the ones who paved the way for establishing cooperation programmes between the two countries.

Culture (in a broader sense) will obviously be one of the strings on which President Macron’s visit to Serbia will be based

Today, culture, education, creativity and knowledge are still the best ways to establish new links between young people and all stakeholders who are willing to bridge the gap between our societies, who are committed to the same global issues (digital transition, climate change, the need for more equality within society, the fight against gender inequality and all forms of discriminations). And sharing the same aspiration for the French language, which is an open door to another perception of contemporary issues, remains a key link between the very active and committed minority of French speakers in Serbia and the global Francophone community.

Thus, culture (in a broader sense) will obviously be one of the strings on which President Macron’s visit to Serbia will be based.

Belgrade and Serbia have taken up four years of your life. What is your strongest impression of this period? Do you feel like this environment impacted on you in some way?

– Since I arriving in Belgrade for the first time, in 1997, with a group of students from several European countries who were willing to meet with Serbian students committed to the comprehensive recognition of Serbia in the European cultural space, Belgrade has always been on my mind.

I took the decision to come to Serbia four years ago with my family, because I wanted to be, somehow, useful for establishing partnerships and projects, and to be embedded in trends for the changes that are at the core of Serbian society.

In between, I’ve been nurtured by the unique narrative of our joint story, as well as the unique human capital of Serbia, in all parts of the country (I realise that my job took me to more than 30 cities in Serbia).

These four years will also have been a unique experience for my French/Romanian family. When we will leave, my youngest son will have spent more than 80 per cent of his life in Serbia, and I realise that it will make a difference to him, speaking Serbian, when he is in France!

Your work’s results are dependent not only on your commitment, knowhow and skills, but also on the environment in which you work. Have Belgrade and Serbia been good partners and associates for you?

– I’ve had the chance to work, together with the impressive team of the Institut français in Belgrade, Niš and Novi Sad, and the small team of high level experts working with me on cooperation issues (public administration reform, European integration, support to local governments), with a phenomenal range of partners, all over the country. From the very institutional ones to tiny NGOs, I’ve had the chance to work, directly or indirectly, with partners who perfectly understand the added value of partnerships.

It was less than two years ago that you and Serbian Education Minister Milan Šarčević signed the Agreement on Cooperation in the field of the French language and bilingual teaching in Serbia. What are the results of that agreement to date?

– This agreement between the MPNTR and the French Embassy and Institut français was a milestone in switching to shared steering of the network of bilingual classes in Serbia (seven in high schools and one at the Ribnikar Primary School in Belgrade) and pushing together for more legitimacy for the French language in school education (all the more since Serbia became an associate member of the Francophony organisation in 2018). This partnership with the Ministry of Education is strategic and enables us to work hand in hand with directors of schools and teachers (whose commitment towards kids and teenagers is unique).

The culture of remembrance and transmission is also needed to build up the society in which our kids are growing up

The programmes implemented by the French Institute to commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War I had a significant impact on our cultural scene. Why is the culture of remembrance important today?

– We at the Institut français were fully part of the huge programme implemented last year by the French Embassy, under the slogan “yesterday/today/tomorrow”. That’s because the culture of remembrance and transmission is also needed to build up the society in which our kids are growing up. This is proven by the very impressive reception of the exhibition “Our {shared} History/our Memories” which we produced and allowed to tour 15 cities, thanks to our local partners.

The Belgrade Festival of European Literature has been organised in partnership with the French Institute. This serves to prove that your institute has not limited its mission in Serbia to only expanding the culture of France, but also that of Europe as a whole. Is culture one of the few topics that connects all people?

– Obviously! Everything we do is in line with the assertion that culture is based on the uniqueness of the creative process and belongs to a collective construction of the identity of each citizen, of each country. At the same time, we are living in the same European cultural space in which dialogue and exchange contribute to a shared sense of belonging to a certain idea of Europe, based on diversity.

The drive to cultivate the Serbian language as one of the basic elements of the nation’s identity has been current in Serbia for years. How can a country preserve its language in the face of globalisation?

– Mastering your language opens you up to your community, but also provides true access to citizenship. This is why France is so committed to fighting, at the national level, against the risk of acculturation and non-adaptation of the language to contemporary issues (beyond preservation, in a more conservative way, of a collective identity).