The Ambassador of France to Uganda, Sophie Makame speaks to The Independent’s Ronald Musoke about the relevancy today of the 227th anniversary of Bastille Day – the day when, on July 14, 1789, an angry mob marched onto the Bastille prison and triggered the French Revolution.
Why is the storming of Bastille Prison so long ago still relevant to the French people today?
For France, it is a founding event in the building of an open democratic society. It is the time when all the ideas were brought forward following a century of enlightenment. It is the border in our national history which distinguishes the ancient rule and modernity. Before then, you had some privileges because you had royal or aristocratic blood or you had to have enough wealth to buy a title. The revolution marked the end of these privileges. Why is the day still relevant? There is history but there is also personal sentiment and respect. Most importantly there is universalism which is one of the core values of the revolution. The revolution led to a global awareness about citizens’ rights paving the way for the declaration on universal human rights. So the day remains relevant to France because it was one key founding step in its national history.
How do the people celebrate it today?
Traditionally, there is a military parade on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in the morning where the president of the French Republic accompanied by the military governor of Paris inspects the military guard of honour mounted on the avenue and returns by car to the Place de la Concorde (where Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were executed during the revolution) to watch an elaborate military parade. This year’s celebration will be flavoured by one key battle (Battle of the Somme) considering that we are marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War this year. The President then hosts his guests to a reception at the Elysée Palace. For the ordinary people, besides watching the military parade both live and on television, many of them will gather for dancing and concerts in the evening because it is a joyful day. In Uganda, I will host a reception at the Ambassador’s residence where all the French residents and those visiting the country are invited in principle.
Why is this year’s Bastille Day being celebrated under the theme: “France: Land of Tradition, Land of Innovation?”
Every year, Bastille Day is celebrated around themes. This year, the synthesis is that these two ideas can go hand in hand without necessarily undermining the other— one idea is not promoted to the detriment of the other. For instance, if you say France is the land of tradition, then that might mean that we have not taken the train of modernity and if you say, France is the land of innovation, then you might ask about where we have come from. But these two ideas are parts of the same national fabric and we want to illustrate through the diversity of our policies, programmes and actions in Uganda how we keep these two alive.
Away from the Bastille Day celebrations, how would you describe the current relations between France and Uganda?
“Blossoming” is one word which comes to my mind. For instance, as far as security is concerned, we have entered a period of our history where we are challenged and targeted and so we think that we have to address this global challenge together, especially with Africa. Another aspect of our blossoming cooperation was shown in June this year when the First Commander of the French forces stationed in Djibouti and I alongside a group of mountain instructors and President Museveni visited the Rwenzori Mountains to develop a new initiative. We have responded to the interest expressed by Uganda to train its forces in warfare in the mountains because we have very specific experience in warfare operations in the mountainous environment. The objective is to create an Alpine Brigade and the Mountain Welfare training centre. Uganda has also reached a key level in its economic development and France wishes to accompany it and is already providing the means to sustain this political aspiration in order to create the conditions for more prosperity and better livelihood. What is also interesting is that at the heart of the political vision in Uganda is that it cannot succeed without the development of the regional environment. This is something France also believes in because as you know France is a founding member of the EU. The relations between the two countries are blossoming as evidenced by the French Development Agency’s willingness to accompany Uganda’s path to economic prosperity. AFD has really grown in Uganda’s key sectors (infrastructure development, energy generation, water, biodiversity and environmental conservation). It might interest you to know that since 1998, AFD has mobilized €450 million in development projects in Uganda and more than €240 million has come in the last three years. This is one expression of this support.
French companies have made bold moves into the country in recent years. What are some of the driving factors for investments in Uganda?
The appreciation of Uganda’s economic growth alongside the political will and the ability of Ugandans to enhance it have been very important. We know that Uganda is a blessed country with a variety of natural resources. The potential is there and the vision is also there. This is not only within the country but also the entire region. This is very encouraging for foreign companies, especially French ones. Uganda being at the heart of the Great Lakes region can be considered as landlocked but this can also be looked at in a different way. When you are at the heart of the region, you can transform yourself as a hub in terms of trade; exchange of goods and services and expertise and this is an asset for Uganda and for a French company operating in DR Congo, Burundi, South Sudan or Ethiopia, it creates more opportunities to further develop.
What specific challenges do French companies face in Uganda?
Besides the administrative challenges which are quite universal, the issue of recruitment of skilled Ugandan workers is a challenge. In Uganda, you have an unquestioned level of educational excellence even though you may want to see it developed further. But where the efforts need to be put is in the development of technical or vocational training because this is precisely where the companies considering the development of their activities will need to recruit. Of course it is important for a country like Uganda with a growing young population to create the right conditions for employment. This is where a conversation needs to take place between the educational institutions, the private sector and the government. This is something that we are already engaging in. We have already incorporated this element in our thinking in regards to French teaching. We are trying to identify the disciplines at Ugandan universities in accordance with the needs identified by some French companies in the country. Besides the 30 scholarships offered to Ugandans every year, we are supporting French teaching at three universities of Makerere, MUBS and Kyambogo. We have decided to prioritise French teaching as a professional language to give young Ugandans an added advantage to build their careers.
In the recent past, France and Uganda have partnered in the area of peace and security in the Great Lakes, one of the most volatile regions on the continent. What does your current cooperation in this area entail?
This is a key question because counter-terrorism requires actions and cooperation and we have closely engaged on this. The sense that Uganda has a responsibility for its citizens but also has the capability to protect others living around the region is something good. Uganda’s involvement in Somalia within the African Union mission to create peace and stability but also diminish the potential of exporting terror worldwide is worth supporting. We support this in two ways. From an operational point of view, since 2006, France together with other partners has been engaged in a programme of cooperation where we provide training to the Ugandan battalions to be deployed in Somalia. But there has also been financial support through the EU. In that sense, Uganda has become a very key partner of the French forces stationed in Djibouti. But besides the boots on the ground, we have also supported Uganda’s role of mediation in the Burundi crisis. We have done this bilaterally but also through the UN framework of the Security Council in New York. In June, France chaired the Council where we mobilised the international community to support the East African Community efforts which is trying to encourage the resolution of the crisis which is not only devastating for Burundi but also has consequences—human, economic and security—for the Great Lakes region.