As COVID-19 continues to threaten the lives of the people around the world with more than 12 million infected and more than half a million deaths around the globe, France, which is one of the major donor countries to Cambodia, is also hit by the unprecedented coronavirus spread. The Ambassador of France to Cambodia Eva Nguyen Binh spoke to Khmer Times about the two countries’ current relationship, France’s support for the Kingdom’s fight against COVID-19, the impact of French businesses in the Kingdom, its tourists stranded in Cambodia and how France will celebrate its National Day tomorrow.
KT: Have relations between France and Cambodia been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ambassador Eva: The current sanitary crisis has not affected the relations between France and Cambodia and on the contrary has shown very visibly the density of cooperation between our two countries, especially in the area of health. For example, I recently went to the Khmer-Soviet hospital in order to thank the director of this hospital and all his team in the treatment of coronavirus cases and in particular French cases, who after treatment and healing were able to return to France. I was able to once again appreciate the close ties between our two countries: a good number of doctors at the hospital studied medicine in France as part of our bilateral cooperation and speak perfect French! And despite this crisis, we are still continuing to strengthen our cooperation. For example, 21 students have just been selected for the 2020-2021 academic year as part of the French Government Scholarship campaign for Cambodian students going to study in France, for a master’s or doctoral degree. 33 students will also have their scholarship renewed for an additional year.
KT: Can you talk about France’s support to Cambodia to fight the coronavirus?
Ambassador Eva: France has a long-standing and dense cooperation in Cambodia in the public health sector. In fact, French aid for health cooperation in Cambodia is estimated at more than 85 million euros (about $96 million) in just over 15 years. In Asia, the French Development Agency accompanies the responses of the States to the health crisis and its economic and social consequences, through regional projects in the health sector, credit lines intended to support SMEs penalised by the paralysis of the economy or budgetary loans to support public policies to combat the epidemic. Let me give you a concrete example: in the context of the “COVID-19 – Health in common” initiative, implemented by the French Development Agency, a two million euros project to support several front-line laboratories in the fight against the epidemic in Southeast Asia as part of the ECOMORE II project (ECOnomic Development, ECOsystem MOdifications, & Emerging Infectious Diseases Risk Evaluation) has been appraised. In Cambodia, the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia, designated a COVID-19 reference laboratory for Southeast Asia by the World Health Organization (WHO), will benefit from this financial support up to 500,000 euros (about $564,749). Moreover, support for three research projects has recently been granted by France for a cumulative total of 400,000 euros (about $451,799) to deal with COVID-19 in Cambodia. These projects are joint ventures between French institutions, such as CIRAD and Cambodian ones, such as the University of Health Sciences, the National Animal Health and Production Research Institute or the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia.
The European Union is also supporting Cambodia in the coronavirus crisis: it is mobilising 443 million euros (about $500 million) in grants and loans (both reallocation of existing projects and new financings) to support Cambodia in the fight against the global pandemic of COVID-19 and to mitigate its socio-economic impacts. France naturally contributes to the forefront of this effort.
KT: Are French businesses in Cambodia also affected by the coronavirus? How do you help them?
Ambassador Eva: Like the entire Cambodian economy, French people are also affected by this unprecedented health crisis with serious socio-economic consequences. Some businesses have closed and people have lost their jobs. The French government has developed support for French people in need through subsidies but indeed, the crisis is very severe. I have a special thought for the people living in Siem Reap, a city strongly affected by the drastic drop in tourism. I have already visited the province of Siem Reap several times to support them.
KT: Are there many French citizens who still remain in Cambodia and who want to get home?
Ambassador Eva: We were able to repatriate about 1,000 French people, mostly tourists, who were stranded here and saw commercial flights cancelled one after another. In response to this unprecedented health crisis, the embassy was quick to react by organising the first repatriation flight. The President of the Republic spoke on March 16 about this unprecedented crisis. The next day, we began to identify people wishing to return to France. On March 26, only ten days later, a first special flight departed with 416 people on board. We then negotiated for a hundred seats on a Qatar Airways flight and then organised a second repatriation flight with more than 400 passengers on April 4. We know that the situation remains difficult for some French residents who also want to return to France: at the moment, there are few options and they are expensive but it is possible do go back to France through commercial flights. We hope that more commercial flights will open soon. We follow this (development) very carefully and we update our website very regularly to provide the best information to those who wish to return.
KT: In conclusion, July 14 is the French National Day. Will you organise big events in Cambodia as previous years?
Ambassador Eva: Due to the pandemic, we won’t organise any big event at the French Embassy because we will follow the recommendations of the Cambodian authorities to limit gatherings to a maximum of 50 people. However, the French Embassy and the French Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia are supporting French restaurants and their local partners in Cambodia. To celebrate Bastille Day (July 14), we have launched, with the chamber, an operation called “La Fête dans l’assiette” (“Pick your plate”), identifying and highlighting French restaurants which are organising different events or special menus for this occasion. Don’t hesitate to join them (or any restaurants you like! Many are organising special events) from July 13 (today) to help the restaurants, their Cambodian partners and employees and enhance local products! Information on this event is available on our Facebook page and website.
To all, I take this opportunity to wish everyone an excellent health and courage to face this new situation. I wish all the French and friends of France an excellent Bastille Day!