Islamabad – France is committed to strengthening bilateral relations with Pakistan by supporting business linkages, higher education opportunities and hydropower projects in the country, according to Phillipe Thiebaud, the Ambassador of France to Pakistan.
Speaking to The Express Tribune in an exclusive interview, Thiebaud outlined the important areas of Pak-French cooperation and highlighted avenues of future collaboration.
The French Ambassador, who took up his assignment in Pakistan in December 2011, said the French Embassy is trying to enhance interaction between Pakistani and French business communities.
“We are planning to organise in May, quite likely, a visit of a large Pakistani business delegation to France to meet the French business council people,” Thiebaud said.
The visit is expected less than six months after the European Union (EU) awarded Pakistan its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Plus status, which allows Pakistani products a duty-free access to the European market.
Thiebaud said the European Parliament awarded Pakistan the status because it was “convinced” this will help to “stabilize the democratic process in the country” after a historic democratic transition of civilian governments in Pakistan in May 2013.
According to different official and private estimates, the mechanism can help generate exports between USD 700 million and USD 1.5 billion.
It might also prove to be a positive framework that brings certainty and stability in business relationships between Pakistani exporters and European companies, the Ambassador said.
“The GSP Plus status will really help business community on both sides, in Pakistan and in the European countries, to establish a long-term and stable relationship,” he said.
Thiebaud said GSP Plus is “not a miracle solution” for Pakistan, given the infrastructural and technological bottlenecks in Pakistan’s industrial processes. However, he said it was a “significant access” that is likely to help the “dynamic business community in Pakistan further develop their activities.”
“Obviously governments can be helpful with the framework but it is business-to-business (relationships that matter equally),” Thiebaud said. “It is very important on both sides for business communities to have direct interactions, direct exchange of views, to prepare the ground for more investments and more exports from Pakistan.”
The tentatively planned visit of the Pakistani business people to France is one such attempt to boost direct business linkages and improve bilateral trade, which is already flourishing.
The bilateral trade volume between the two countries is around USD1.3-1.4 billion per year, with Pakistan having an average trade surplus of around USD150 million, the Ambassador said.
Around 80 per cent of Pakistani exports to France consist of textiles, garments and leather goods, according to the Ambassador.
“These exports have increased over the past years, by 12 per cent in one year, 20 per cent the other year,” Thiebaud said. “We are quite convinced the GSP plus status will reinforce this positive trend of development.”
In the energy sector, France is supporting hydropower projects for electricity generation since hydropower is consistent with the French emphasis on green and sustainable development.
“We are now supporting, developing or financing several (hydropower) projects in areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where we are working with the Pakistani government,” Thiebaud said. “We are also interested in developing cooperation in green technologies and renewable energy.”
Higher education remains a priority for France, the Ambassador said.
“We have put a lot of emphasis over the past years in cooperation between universities, research centres and also in developing education cooperation at the level of higher education,” Thiebaud said.
France has a programme with the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for sending Pakistani students to the European countries for master’s and PhD programmes.
Another programme, running for the second year now in collaboration with HEC, gives needs-based scholarships each year to as many as 200 Pakistani students from less developed areas of the country to study at some of the best Pakistani universities, the Ambassador said.
“We also emphasize gender balance,” he said. “Not exactly half but at least 40 per cent of the students benefitting from these scholarships are women.”
French researchers are also collaborating with Pakistani institutions on academic and scientific projects. A series of seminars and workshops in Islamabad and Karachi during the first week of February saw French academics delivering talks on their work in Pakistan in fields of archaeology, paleontology and social sciences.
The French envoy said France and other European countries share the Pakistani government’s objectives of getting rid of terrorism and bringing peace and stability in Pakistan and the region.
“Now it is up to the Pakistani government to make some choices as to its tactics to get these objectives,” he said. “We do not have to interfere with the ways and means the government decides to implement to achieve the objectives.”