Ahead of Bastille Day celebrations, Vincent Guérend says France is changing and relations with Ireland have never been stronger

It is 234 years since an angry and hungry populace stormed the Bastille in Paris, the hated symbol of royal authority, thus beginning the French Revolution.

Usually countries have a national day that marks a show of defiance against a foreign usurper, not the home-grown authorities, but the French have always done things differently.

“French people are keen to take to the streets and to protest which is something in the French genes,” says the country’s ambassador to Ireland, Vincent Guérend, in advance of this year’s Bastille Day marking the events of July 14th, 1789.

Not for the first time – nor the last – France is having a debate about whether or not the mission statement of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, applies to all the country’s citizens.

The recent riots, which occurred after the shooting dead of a 17-year-old named Nahel M in Nanterre by police, has shocked even inveterate France watchers. Earlier this year there were riots over changes to France’s pension law. It can feel to outsiders that France seems to be a country in perpetual foment, but the millions of Irish people that visit France, who have holiday homes there, family ties and a deep love for the country, know it as a place that defies characterisation.

“These events were very distressing and shocking. The shooting of this young man was condemned and justice will be delivered. Also equally the completely disproportionate use of violence by mostly young people; I’m not putting it on the same level, but it was shocking too,” he said.

Thousands of Irish sports fans will be travelling to the Rugby World Cup in France in September and to the Olympic Games in Paris next summer. Mr Guérend was keen to reassure people who wish to travel.

“My message is that the government takes this very seriously. At the same time, it is completely safe to travel to France. It [the riots] had flared up and it has now receded. The French police are doing their job properly according to the highest standards in terms of ethics and rule of law,” he said.

Mr Guérend said the reasons for the recent riots are complex and that all French citizens are endowed with equal rights and equal responsibilities. France is changing, he said. It is becoming a more multicultural society, not just in the sporting arena – the 1998 and 2018 World Cup winning team being cases in point – but in politics, media, cinema and music. “The French face is much more diverse than it used to be 10 or 20 years ago,” he said.

At the same time, unemployment is low and the government and municipal authorities, which have a lot of power in the country, have invested billions in public infrastructure and education.

On the walls of his office in the French embassy overlooking Merrion Square are symbols of the link between Ireland and France, a copy of Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French being one of them. What if General Jean Humbert and his French army who landed in Killala in August 1798 had succeeded in defeating the British is one of the great what-ifs of Irish history.

The French embassy is marking the 225th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion with events in Ballina and Castlebar in Co Mayo.

Most importantly, it is staging conferences in November in both Ireland and France about the shared republican values of the two countries at venues and times to be decided.

There is a “big debate” about republican values in France, Mr Guérend said. “How do our institutions reflect or could reflect better the aspiration of our citizens? We want to have something solid in academic terms, but also politically relevant, and now mirroring current debates – how Ireland and France can learn from each other to have institutions that are fit for purpose.”

It’s a debate that he anticipates will be of more than academic interest and he hopes that it will include high-profile politicians from France and Ireland.

The historic links between the two countries extend far beyond 1798. There will be a twinning ceremony on Saturday in the towns of Portarlington, Co Laois, and Redessan, in the south of France, to celebrate Portarlington’s Huguenot heritage. At one stage in the late 17th century there were more Huguenots (French protestants) fleeing persecution than Irish in the town. On August 31st a historic ceremony will take place at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

For the first time, the Légion Irlandaise of Napoleon’s Grande Armée and also its precursor, the Brigade Irlandaise of earlier French armies, will be honoured. On the 31st August in 1803, Napoleon created his Irish Legion which he later decorated with the coveted golden eagle for valour. The ceremony, conducted by the French military, will culminate in a flaring of the eternal flame under the Arc de Triomphe.

Relations between France and Ireland have never been stronger, he said. Diplomats often say such things, but he may have a point. Since Brexit, the number of continental ferry crossings has increased fourfold. About 500 trucks a day that used to take the landbridge through Britain to the continent are now being rerouted through French ports.

The Celtic Interconnector between France and Ireland, which is due to open in 2026, is the biggest infrastructure project between the two nations with a cost of €1.6 billion. It will connect the electricity grids of the two countries allowing the export of renewable electricity from Ireland to France.

The French embassy is promoting the theme of sustainability this year and highlighting the investments made by French companies in Irish renewables. EDF Renewables is to develop two offshore floating wind energy farms in Irish waters. Four days ago, Neoen, a Paris-listed renewable energy company, has said it hopes to develop green energy projects in Ireland worth €1 billion.

Don’t take his word, he concluded, that relations between Ireland and France are as good as they are. “As both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste has said, relations have never been so strong, and this is since Brexit and on many accounts,” he said.

Share this page Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Linkedin