Greece and France: Getting closer

?You have to work on your infrastructure if you wish to attract interest and generate new ideas,? according to Olivier Descotes, the new director of the French Institute in Greece, who at a recent press conference expressed his desire to strengthen Franco-Greek ties through the organization?s renewed activities.

A man of many talents, Descotes is fluent in Russian and has served as an opera critic. Kathimerini caught up with him following the unveiling of the institute?s new program.

Do you believe that the French Institute could contribute to Greece?s efforts to overcome the crisis?

We need to realize that the current crisis is serious, comparable to the one caused by the war. It would be an exaggeration for anyone to claim today that through the institute, France can help Greece get over the crisis. We wish to be part of the dialogue. This is why we organize discussions, be it at the institute or at other venues as well as around Greece, while we also aim to develop a similar dialogue with universities and think tanks.

What kind of outlet do you think that culture can provide?

I think that sacrificing culture, when you consider all the benefits it provides, is a strategic mistake. In the last five years, since 2007, the budget allocated to culture in France has risen by 20 percent. I know that despite the crisis there are several works-in-progress currently in Greece, mainly stemming from private sector initiatives, such as the new opera house in Faliro.

The institute?s new program aims to become something more than a series of events. What is different about the program this year?

Our program is based on cultural events, such as dance, theater and music, but also includes activities regarding our mentalities and cultural standards in general. We are particularly interested in working together on the public administration level. A major reform is currently being promoted in Greece, in collaboration with the European Union Task Force, an initiative destined to help the country with all the different reforms. We would like to be part of this by offering our own experts, specialists in fiscal issues and ministerial-level reforms, working in view of the state regaining citizens? trust. This kind of operation also aims to optimize the country?s management of the funding it receives.

How do you plan to reinforce the teaching of the French language?

Teaching French lies at the heart of our mission. Greek interest in the French language and culture remains high. About 8,000 pupils attend private schools which offer intensive French courses, such as the Lycee Franco-Hellenique Eugene Delacroix in Athens, while the majority of parents choose French as the second language for children at elementary schools. In Attica, for instance, this percentage has reached 73 percent. Overall, the number of pupils taking French has gone up by 10.5 percent: from 50.5 percent in 2010 we have now reached 52.5 percent in 2012.

What is your reaction toward the increasing trend of Greeks, and not just students, leaving the country and going abroad?

We have observed a significant rise in applications, mainly by students undergraduates, postgraduates and graduates who wish to work in France. Last year about 3,000 students visited the Campus France office to inquire about studying in France. Many Greek scientists are already working in France, where, similarly to Germany, there are shortages in certain scientific sectors, such as medicine.

How important is the initiative of collaboration between francophone countries (Francophonie) as well as Greece?s participation in this movement?

Participating in La Francophonie is a political act which entails the acceptance of a whole set of emblematic values, a number of which were born in France, such as human rights and the importance of civic society, for instance.

I believe Greece sees itself in these values and that is why the country chose to become a member of the Francophonie movement. At the institute we have introduced a series of further education programs, such as ?French in Europe,? aimed at Greek civil servants, which is financed by the International Organization of La Francophonie.

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