Ambassador of France to Ireland Vincent Guérend: ‘France: Ireland’s closest EU neighbour’

Ahead of the 225th anniversary of a company of French soldiers landing in County Mayo in support of the 1798 rebellion – colloquially chronicled as the ‘Year of the French’ – the Ambassador of France to Ireland, Vincent Guérend, invites Ciarán Galway to discuss how bilateral relations between the two nations, already bolstered by ancient friendship, have deepened.

Overlooking Dublin’s Merrion Square Park, the walls of Guérend’s office in the Embassy of France in Ireland are choicely bedecked. A portrait of the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron – flanked by the tricolore and the Flag of Europe – stares directly across the room at a large map of Ireland, while in the corner hangs a print of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Perched above the hearth is a large Gallic rooster which, in this case, is a version co-opted as the logo of La French Tech. On the marble mantle below sits a little collection of memorabilia which offers some insight into the interests of the room’s inhabitant.

A copy of Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French, The Chieftains’ Year of the French LP (which accompanied the 1982 RTÉ series of the same title) replete with the image of Général Jean Joseph Amable Humbert in full dress uniform, a Gilbert rugby ball in IRFU livery, and an iconic picture of Charles de Gaulle on his visit to Ireland in 1969 during which the recently resigned French president toasted: “Je bois à l’Irlande; à l’Irlande toute entire.”

Sporting a subtle shamrock tie, Guérend is, by all estimations, an Hibernophile. Having been appointed as Ambassador of France to Ireland in September 2020 his diplomatic mission was shackled by the pandemic. Since the subsidence of the Covid crisis, he has wasted no time in exploring his adopted home.

The wall-mounted map of Ireland proves to be useful prop as he narrates his travels across the island. As it turns out, he has spent much time in the west and south-east, venturing to the midlands, as well as the North (though in a private capacity). He recalls also his first trip to Ireland in summer 1985 when, in an effort to improve his English, he stayed with the O’Reillys of Stradone, County Cavan.

Irish posting

As a French diplomat for over 25 years, much of Guérend’s focus has been on European affairs, Asia, and sometimes a blend of the two. Outlining that his current posting to Ireland is “very different” from his previous roles, including most recently as Head of Delegation, Ambassador of the EU to Indonesia and to Brunei Darussalam, he also expresses his “honour and privilege” of the appointment.

“It [the posting] is competitive and very much sought after. Firstly, because the relationship is extremely strong and deeply anchored in history – you can feel here every day that this is a friendship that runs very deep – and secondly, because of our common membership of the EU, this relationship has gained a new momentum and a new depth,” the Ambassador explains.

Upon having been appointed to Ireland, Guérend made a statement on the proximity between the two nations by opting to travel by rail and sail from Paris via Cherbourg rather than fly into Dublin. “It was a beautiful way to arrive,” he says, adding: “I wanted to symbolically illustrate that we are close by and that we can sail from one shore to the next as neighbours.”

Bilateral relations

Speaking in Paris in late 2022, then-Taoiseach and now Tánaiste Micheál Martin TD asserted: “The ties between Ireland and France are going from strength to strength… they have never been stronger.”

The sentiment is echoed by the Ambassador. “The friendship between France and Ireland is extremely solid and extremely warm. There is only one theme on which we really compete and that is rugby. In rugby, we are certainly at the same level,” he comments.

Discussing Brexit as a watershed for the EU, Guérend suggests that the experience has served to consolidate Franco-Irish relations. “We try to encapsulate this into one sentence when we say that France is Ireland’s closest EU neighbour. Beyond the catchphrase, which resonates well, we want to work even more closely together.

“The friendship between France and Ireland is extremely solid and extremely warm. There is only one theme on which we really compete and that is rugby.”
Ambassador of France to Ireland, Vincent Guérend

“One good illustration of this is that there has been a very sharp and rapid increase in the direct maritime links between France and Ireland since 1 January 2021. Within a few weeks, the number of direct sailings increased from 12 a week to close to 45 a week. Initially, it was only for trucks and freight, but now there is also demand for passengers and tourists.

“It is nice to see that these new links between France and Ireland, which are a direct consequence of Brexit, have also fuelled new ways for people to meet and discover each other’s country. That is one very strong and simple illustration of our increased connectivity between France and Ireland.”

Joint plan of action

At policy-making level, during the visit of President Macron to Ireland in August 2021, the Ireland-France Joint Plan of Action 2021-2025 was signed by then-Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney TD and France’s then-Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Committing to “further strengthening and deepening bilateral relations, especially as France is now Ireland’s closest EU neighbour”, the action plan outlines six priority projects to be implemented by 2025:

1. supporting sustainability;

2. increasing trade connectivity;

3. fostering the digital economy;

4. strengthening education and research links;

5. promoting the French language;

6. fostering cultural cooperation;

7. strengthening our people-to-people links; and

8. strengthening policy dialogue and cooperation.

“It is really a joint roadmap between France and Ireland. We are now focusing our actions on those guidelines,” the Ambassador explains.


From a trade perspective, the reality matches the rhetoric. In June 2023, the CSO indicated that the value of goods and services imported and exported between Ireland and France totalled €30 billion in 2022. Likewise, its French counterpart, Douane Française, recorded €16 billion in commerce goods alone in 2022.

“To give you some perspective, €16 billion is equivalent to the trade between France and Japan or France and Brazil,” the Ambassador details. Providing one example which explains this level of trade, he emphasises the role of the pharmaceutical industry.

“Intra-business trade, typically pharmaceuticals or input from pharmaceuticals, represents 40 per cent of our trade. Take, for example, two big French pharmaceutical companies – Sanofi and Servier. Sanofi has a large plant close to Waterford with almost 1,000 staff and turnover of €7 billion. Equally, Servier, which is perhaps less know, has its second largest plant worldwide close to Arklow, County Wicklow. The plant has 550 staff, and they import all kind of chemical products for their production and export ready to use pharmaceuticals. This fuels, a lot, the trade between France and Ireland,” he summarises.


Simultaneously, two ongoing major Franco-Irish infrastructure projects are, the Ambassador suggests, emblematic of the deepening relationship.

In particular, the Celtic Interconnector – a 575km subsea link to facilitate electricity interconnection between France and Ireland – mirrors ambitions for enhanced cooperation. Led by EirGrid and Réseau de Transport d’Electricité, the project is due for completion in 2026.

“It is a major energy capital project and something which will be mutually beneficial. Whenever Ireland’s renewable energy capacity will not suffice, France will be happy to provide backup with its nice clean nuclear energy. Whenever Ireland will have surpluses in due time with offshore wind, we will be glad to get it offloaded into the French or European grid,” Guérend explains.

At the same time, in December 2021, Alstom, the French multinational rolling stock manufacturer, won a major 10-year contract to deliver the new DART+ system with 750 electric and battery-electric rail cars. “With the big expansion of the Irish rail network announced [in July 2023], I think there is plenty of work for all rail manufacturers or operating companies. That is very positive,” he adds.

Ancient friendship

Of course, the existing rapport between France and Ireland is built upon ancient affinity. Deftly précising the “many waves of exchange” between France and Ireland, including the Celts, the Hiberno-Scottish missions, the Normans, and the Huguenots, the Ambassador is well versed in Franco-Irish history.

“Not to forget that the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment,” he says, “which brought some ideas here to Ireland. I think it is no secret to say that the United Irishmen, led by [Theobald] Wolfe Tone, were very much inspired both by the US independence struggle and the French Revolution. After he spent some time in the United States, Wolfe Tone, as you know, spent a few years in France and convinced the French Government to send a flotilla.

“First, the Bantry Bay disaster in September 1796, but then in August 1798, when Général Humbert landed at Killala, and there was the so-called Races of Castlebar, and the short-lived Republic of Connacht with [President] John Moore. That was something that was more significant from an Irish perspective than a French perspective, but nevertheless, a strong defining moment. As your constitution [Proclamation of the Irish Republic] says, ‘our [Ireland’s] gallant allies in Europe’ – France was certainly one of these gallant allies.”

Year of the French

Having made a conscious decision to thoroughly commemorate the Year of the French, the French Embassy has participated in several events throughout 2023 including: the Ambassador’s visit to Ballina, County Mayo in February to launch the Mise en lumière digital arts installation; the transformation of the Residence of France into ‘Humbert’s pub’ on the eve of the Six Nations match between France and Ireland; the planting of 225 trees of liberty to mark the journey of Général Humbert to Ireland, as well as the planting of an Irish oak tree in the gardens of the Residence of France; a visit to Enniscorthy, County Wexford, to participate in local commemorations; and collaboration with the In Humbert’s Footsteps festival in Ballina, County Mayo to mark the 200th anniversary of Humbert’s death and the 225th anniversary of his landing at Killala.

“Ultimately, we want to revive the memory of these events. For example, An Post offered to have a postmark which says: ‘1798: Year of the French’. This runs for two weeks in July and two weeks in August 2023.

“We do this together with the Irish Government. Likewise, the Irish Embassy in Paris has various events ongoing, including in La Rochelle where we will reenact the departure of the flotilla which carried Général Humbert.”

Republican ideal

Rounding off the programme of commemorative events will be a conference organised by the Embassy itself. Focusing “on the notion of the republic”, it is set to take place in Dublin in early November 2023, and will attract several high-level French and Irish representatives.

Explaining the rationale, Guérend notes: “The republican ideal – this aspiration to freedom, equality, and fraternity, and something which is a fair and just society – is very strong in Ireland and equally very strong in France. It is something we want to reflect upon in November 2023. It will be both for academic and political speakers and we want to reflect both on what happened then – in 1798 – but more importantly, how have our institutions evolved since and how much are they still fit for purpose or do they need to evolve further to match the aspirations of our citizens.

“The republican ideal… is very strong in Ireland and equally very strong in France.”

“Maybe in Ireland, but certainly in France, there are still a lot of questions about our institutions. Are they still fit for purpose given the new context? People may say the institutions should better reflect the climate challenge, or better reflect the climate transition as a political goal, while others would say they should be more inclusive towards minorities. There are all sorts of questions around the French institutions these days, which are quite interesting. The answers are not always easy, but I think it is worth reflecting on worth reflecting together about this.

“In Ireland you may have different discussions about the institutions, not to mention whatever may happen or not happen if there is a border poll, but also about how good or not institutions are reflecting society today.”

Irish unity

Asked about the extent to which France is monitoring the prospect of Irish unity, the Ambassador can provide only a limited response, indicating that France “would respect any outcome”, and acknowledging: “We will certainly follow this with great interest, but, ultimately, it is a decision only for the Irish people.”

When asked to draw comparisons between the active role played by the European community in German reunification and the potential role of the EU in the event of Irish reunification, he insists: “There may be similarities but there are also big differences with German reunification because, as you remember, the German reunification was also very much linked to the overall collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Bloc. The comparison has strong limitations. Very strong.

“At the same time, there is a protocol, annexed now to the EU Treaty, saying that the day that there would be Irish unity, if so decided by the Irish people, Northern Ireland would join the EU. That is something that mirrors very well what was foreseen for the German case. In a way, that is the only comparison I can make.”


Returning to the ongoing debate in France around republican values, the Ambassador discusses the fallout from the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in June 2023 and the major violence which was witnessed across metropolitan France in response.

“It is fair to say that it took everyone by surprise, including the social workers and community workers,” Guérend reflects, adding: “Nobody expected this to be so strong and violent. People expected anger to be expressed and an expression of strong discontent but not of this size.

“The initial reaction of the French Government and the French president now, has been to say we must invest even more heavily in social care and education for those specific communities which are or feel marginalised and where there is very obviously a need for stronger social help.”


Meanwhile, in the wider geopolitical context, the Ambassador unpacks the French perspective on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He begins by insisting that “all war crimes and all people who have indulged in acts of war crime should be prosecuted in due time”, followed by reference to the speech that Macron delivered at the GLOBSEC conference in Slovakia in May 2023.

“Firstly, the president said that France clearly supports Ukraine’s accession to the EU; something that was maybe not the French view until recently. Secondly, he said that the EU or NATO should provide security guarantees to Ukraine, meaning that we do not believe that as long as Ukraine is at war with Russia, it is reasonable to offer immediate NATO accession. This would oblige NATO to be a belligerent, which we do not want it to be because this would have very far-reaching consequences. This is not an option now, but what is certainly something to be envisaged is to provide security guarantees to Ukraine.”

While acknowledging that France and Ireland, as EU member states, “share the same view that this war is illegal, unprovoked, and not justifiable by any account”, and articulating respect for Irish military neutrality, Guérend believes that “the global and continental security environment has changed enormously and has deteriorated enormously”.

“Each and every member state must draw lessons from this, both in terms of increased investment in defence and reflection on the country’s position when it comes to a security threat. That is, I understand, what the Irish Government is doing by increasing investment in defence following the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces in 2022, and by the launch of the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy. It is something which is needed in the current context,” he asserts.


Discussing his ambitions for the remainder of his posting, the Ambassador is reticent. “It is too early to say,” he comments, concluding: “I have been here for three years and expect to stay for some time. Again, as we have discussed, a lot has been done bilaterally over the last two or three years thanks to the very strong commitment of our leaders in the EU, both the Irish Government and the French Government – there is a very strong impetus and appetite to do more bilaterally and now, based on [the Joint Plan of Action], we will try to deliver on this ambition, but the ambition is high and the delivery is good. I am enthusiastic and very motivated.”


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