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"The Mediterranean is a small region on the world map where the heaviest challenges are piled up"

Exclusive interview with Ambassador Bernard Valéro


First class Minister Plenipotentiary, Bernard Valéro (66) is retiring after a rich career as spokesman for the Quai d'Orsay, consul, ambassador and director general of Avitem (Agency for Sustainable Mediterranean Cities and Territories) in Marseille for his last post. The diplomat comments, unvarnished and exclusively at econostrum.info, the highlights of his professional life confronted with all the ups and downs of the Mediterranean region in positions of responsibility.



Bernard Valéro has engaged Avitem on a dozen European projects and cooperation missions throughout the Mediterranean (photo: F. Dubessy).
Bernard Valéro has engaged Avitem on a dozen European projects and cooperation missions throughout the Mediterranean (photo: F. Dubessy).
econostrum.info: Nine years after its foundation, what is your assessment of the activities of the Agency for Sustainable Mediterranean Cities and Territories, of which you were the Director General since October 2015?

Bernard Valéro:
The first case I had to deal with, very quickly after I took up my position, was that of the Villa Méditerranée in Marseille when its management had just been entrusted to Avitem by its owner, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. This situation had indeed quickly taken the form of an industrial accident for the Avitem. It had neither the weight, the size nor the vocation to play the role of surrogate mother for such a public facility. One year of efforts to disarm the two structures, an exemplary collective and responsible work carried out in perfect harmony with the Region and its President Renaud Muselier.
In this affair, the Avitem lost some feathers and the next phase was devoted to the "remontada" of this public agency, once again centered on its profession and its missions. Here too the work was collective and intelligent between all the public partners of the GIP Avitem, with the constant and determined support of its president Agnès Rampal.
I devoted the third stage of my mandate to the development of the Agency. Today, it is involved in about ten European projects, it carries out its cooperation missions in the four corners of the Mediterranean and works with a large number of partners. I have the weakness to think that they have now fully appreciated its legitimacy, its experience, its know-how and its capacity for innovation.

At the same time, we have taken in-depth action to strengthen the governance of Avitem, which the City of Marseille has just joined, while other local authorities are preparing to do so in the near future. In addition, on January 28, 2021, a ministerial decree was published extending the Avitem GIP for the next ten years. This is a strong signal of confidence, recognition and commitment for the future.
I leave my position with confidence, because Avitem has two precious and irreplaceable assets: the efficiency and the very high professionalism of its agents on the one hand, and the remarkable sense of collective play of all the "shareholders" of this public structure on the other. Today, the company is ready to embark on a new stage.

"When France speaks, the world listens"

Let's come back to the Villa Méditerranée which the Avitem had inherited the management despite itself. Did you feel that its transformation into a museum was a failure for Marseille's Mediterranean vocation?

B.V.: It's a curious fate for this public facility in many ways out of the ordinary. I remember that a foggy and confused spirit had gone so far as to suggest, in a manner as absurd as it was baroque, the transformation of the Villa Méditerranée into a casino!
The choice, made by the Region and its President, is a good decision. Let us remember how narrow the crest line was between the considerable budgetary scope of this facility, its uncertain destination and its architectural and logistical constraints. The result, the replica of the Cosquer cave, will allow the Phoenician city to enrich and diversify its cultural and tourist offer on the J4. It will revive an economic model that holds the road, and will give everyone material for knowledge and reflection on our origins, on the life of those who preceded us on this territory thousands of years ago. They too, in their time, had already confronted global warming, which constitutes, once again today, the main threat to the future of the Mediterranean. You will have understood that I approve of the decisions taken by the President of the Region in the interest of public funds, in the service of the attractiveness of Marseille and for the benefit of a future that does not lead to the wall.


You were Quai d'Orsay spokespersons under four ministers at pivotal times in French diplomacy. What do you remember from those years?
 
B.V.: Probably the most stressful period of my career: the Arab springs, the war in Libya, the dramatic spiral of the Syrian conflict, the monstrous earthquake in Haiti, the succession of disasters in Fukushima, international terrorism... International relations gave the impression of an interminable succession of crises. But behind all this, profound movements were at work and it was important to keep on the radar screen the deepening of European construction, the rise in power of China, the shift of American strategic priorities towards the Pacific zone, the path taken by Iran towards nuclear power, the outbreak of Shia-Sunnite tensions within the Muslim world, etc....
Between the short and long periods of diplomacy, the Quai d'Orsay spokesman knows no respite. All the more so as the development of digital communication and social networks has made the lightning speed of information soar. To this combination of the temporalities of action and public expression was constantly added the weight of the responsibility to speak on behalf of France. This is not anecdotal! In any case, if there is one thing I have retained, it is that although France is a middle power in today's world, it is striking to see how much our country's voice is expected and heard throughout the world. Our compatriots may not always realize it, but it's true: when France speaks, the world listens.
 

"The European commitment to its southern neighborhood is not a choice, but an imperative necessity

Bernard Valéro urges "not to drive while constantly looking in the rear-view mirror of our Mediterranean history" (photo: F.Dubessy)
Bernard Valéro urges "not to drive while constantly looking in the rear-view mirror of our Mediterranean history" (photo: F.Dubessy)
After having successively held the positions of Consul General in Barcelona and then Ambassador in Skopje and Brussels, you ended your career in Marseille. Your Mediterranean fiber is no longer to be demonstrated, but do you still believe in Euro-Mediterranean politics?
 
B.V.:
We don't have a plan B, so I'm gladly forced to believe in it. The Mediterranean is a small region on the map of the world where the most serious challenges are piled up: environmental, climatic, migratory, security, political, social, economic, etc... The European commitment to its southern neighborhood is therefore not a choice, but an imperative necessity. France is working on this with all its partners. Whether politically on the hotbeds of tension and crisis, there is no shortage of such issues in the Mediterranean, on the commitment of solidarity as is the case in Lebanon, on the opening of major strategic projects for green, blue, social and solidarity economies. These are the main lines of strength of Euro-Mediterranean cooperation today. On a personal note, and because I am convinced of its validity and relevance, I would add the need to set up an ambitious and coherent program for a Mediterranean Erasmus in order to prepare and accompany the new generations that will make up the Mediterranean of tomorrow.

What are the obstacles to this rapprochement between the three shores and how can they be tackled, or even circumvented?

B.V.: There are many obstacles and we know them well. To overcome them, let's try first of all not to drive while constantly looking in the rear-view mirror of our Mediterranean history, because in many cases it will be an accident waiting to happen. Secondly, let us no longer be content with the intergovernmental dimension of cooperation in the Mediterranean alone. It must become increasingly innovative, inclusive and collective. If States could solve all the problems, it would be known.
So let's dare to bring other actors such as civil societies and local authorities on board and work together.

Finally, I think it's high time we became aware of the environmental and climate catastrophe that awaits us if we don't quickly change software to move from project to action. The response requires us to act quickly and on a massive scale, to mobilize all levels of public policy, from the smallest village to the State, and to encourage the collective commitment of all those capable of contributing a part of the solution.
The Mare Nostrum has never been confronted with challenges as serious as those that threaten it today. To meet them, the Mediterranean people will not be able to delegate their responsibility to anyone, because it is their destiny that is at stake. It is therefore up to them to take it into their own hands.

 

"The role of civil societies in Mediterranean cooperation recognized and solicited"

Which body is best placed to revive the spirit of the Barcelona Process? Has the Union for the Mediterranean, the European Union, played its role in this regard?

B.V.: I was part of the official French delegation to Barcelona in November 1995 for the launching of the Euro-Mediterranean process. It was a great moment of hope and enthusiasm. The creation of the UfM, at France's initiative, then gave a new breath of life. Since then, the UfM has done many things, taken many initiatives and launched many projects. Its current Secretary General, Egyptian Ambassador Nasser Kamel, like his predecessor, Ambassador Fathallah Sijilmassi, is remarkably active and committed.

But we are talking about a framework and structure for cooperation at the intergovernmental level. This is obviously indispensable, but today it is not enough, we must go further, with other actors from the horizons of civil society, citizens, and territories, who carry within them tremendous capacities for energy and who are only asking to give a collective meaning to their actions. France is mobilized to get the lines moving, and I am delighted to see it.
 
Didn't the Two Shores Summit organized in Marseilles in June 2019 show the limits of relying solely on civil society?

The Summit of the Two Shores was a major innovation. For the first time, and again at France's initiative, I would like to emphasize that the role of civil society in Mediterranean cooperation was posed, recognized and solicited.
There is nothing more comfortable for a country not to move or not to take the initiative. It is generally the assurance of not being criticized, of not taking a blow. That's not what France is all about. France has never chosen to be timid or lukewarm. The President of the Republic was right to take this initiative. Of course, not everything has been perfect, but civil society has responded to the call. They were there. They have shown their ability to do, and above all they have demonstrated that everywhere in the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean people are ready to commit themselves together. This is the great lesson that I have learned from this milestone reached in Marseilles.

Of course, we will have to draw all the lessons from it, see what worked and what did not work and, above all, replicate this initiative in order to sustain this dynamic, perhaps by broadening it, devoting more resources to it, no doubt, and, certainly, by assigning it a high level of collective ambition.

"Marseilles needed an Airbus to project itself and radiate in the Mediterranean, it almost ended in hang gliding"

What is perhaps Marseille's position in this Euro-Mediterranean debate when the city has gradually stripped itself of most of its structures with a Mediterranean vocation?

B.V.: Marseille is a Mediterranean capital. It is rich in its history, its geography, the ecosystem of its actors committed to cooperation in the Mediterranean, and its many university, scientific, industrial, economic and cultural centres of excellence. Marseilles has everything it takes to play in the court of the great Mediterranean metropolises and to hold its place among Alexandria, Tangier, Istanbul, Barcelona and Genoa.
As you rightly point out, there has been a slackening in recent years. Marseille needed an Airbus to project itself and radiate in the Mediterranean, and it almost ended up in hang gliding. Things are changing and that's a good thing. The important thing from now on will be everyone's ability to work together around a strong, shared ambition. Marseilles is indeed destined to play the role of a melting pot for France's Mediterranean policy. We were just talking about the Summit of the Two Shores, I would also like to highlight this great Mediterranean rendezvous, "Mediterranean of the Future", a brilliant and timely initiative successfully launched by Renaud Muselier, President of the Southern Region. Let us therefore make sure that we combine initiatives, marry energies, and federate resources, then Marseille will return to its destiny.
 
A more personal question to end this interview: What are the new retiree's plans?

B.V.: I come from a military family, so the word retirement is not too much part of the family vocabulary!
My first project will be to make, as soon as possible, the way to Santiago de Compostela, the time to put things and ideas back in order. Beyond that, there is a word in the Arabic language that I like: el kantara. I'd love to help build some of them....but I'll let you look it up in the dictionary first!
 

A very Mediterranean career
After studying at the Lyautey high school in Casablanca, Bernard Valéro graduated from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris in 1975 and joined the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His first position was in the Directorate of Economic and Financial Affairs (1977-1978) before serving in the French army (1978-1979). On his return, he successively held the posts of Third Secretary at the French Embassy in Dublin, Second Secretary in Havana and then joined the Information and Press Department (1985-1987). In 1988, for two years, he served as Deputy Consul in Quebec City before returning to Paris in the Economic and Financial Affairs Department. From 1992 to 1995, he served as First Secretary at the Embassy in Madrid and from 1995 to 1998 he was Counsellor in Washington. From 1998 to 2003, Bernard Valéro was in Paris successively Director of Press and Deputy Director, Deputy Spokesperson for Communication and Information before moving to Barcelona as Consul General (2003-2006). He was then Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in Skopje (2006-2009), then Director of Communications and Spokesperson for the Quai d'Orsay (2009-2012) and finally Ambassador of France to the Kingdom of Belgium (2012-2015). Bernard Valéro ends his career in Marseille (October 2015 - end of February 2021) as Director General of the Agency for Sustainable Mediterranean Cities and Territories (Avitem).



 


Interview by Frédéric Dubessy


Thursday, March 4th 2021



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