Pierre-Alain Coffinier is the French Consul General in Edinburgh & Glasgow
What is your academic background?
After the baccalauréat, I was admitted to Prépa HEC, then to ESSEC (French Grande École) from which I graduated 3 years later. I then had two series of work experiences; the first one in the banking industry, then in the cultural cooperation service at the French Embassy in Spain. But I found out that private business was not what I wanted to do, so I decided to take on further studies in Political Science and Arabic. After that, I entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a specialist of the Middle East and North Africa.
You learnt Arabic and your children are in the Scottish system; according to you what is the added value of a Franco-British/cross-cultural education?
First of all, I am very happy that my children are in the Scottish educational system. They became bilingual and this will definitely help them throughout their lives, not only because English is a global language but also a language that is absolutely necessary in many fields, especially in computer science. Being brought up in two different languages will also inevitably help them to pick up other languages; once you know two, the third comes very easily and so on.
How did you see Scotland before living there?
Actually, before living in Edinburgh, I knew Scotland had an interesting First Minister, Alex Salmond… In February 2010, I was in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Paris organising his visit. Unfortunately, I didn’t take part in the meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. About Scotland, I knew that it was an interesting part of the United Kingdom but I didn’t know much more I have to admit.
What is your experience of Scotland now as you have been living here for almost three years?
Scotland strikes me as being quite a well governed part of the UK with which France has a very good working relations. Moreover, I remain and am even more an “anglophile”, that is someone who really enjoys living in the UK and as such, I admire British institutions and how they work: Westminster for example.. British democracy is very lively as well as having a very distinctive legal system compared to the French one. The environment in the United Kingdom seems very favourable to business and this is something that can be seen every day in Scotland. Besides, Scotland having two different governments, one for reserved matters and the other for devolved matters, I am called to interactwith both. It seems to me that the Scottish government is doing well.
You said that British democracy was very lively, as opposed to France?
Not at all! It is actually a different model. Theirs is very historic and old. You have institutions that have existed for centuries whereas ours date back just over two centuries as everything was established after the French Revolution. Here it is even older than that. Indeed, Westminster is an old place with different ways of dealing with things and I must say that when I watch the First Minister’s questions it is a kind of drama (laugh). It is just the way they do it, very outspoken what with the applause and the shouting, and the “Yeas”/”Nays”
The French are more courteous whereas in the UK you do feel more tension.
Some consider Scotland as a country on its own, others as a part of Britain. Which point of view do you agree with?
Well, let’s just state what Scotland is today! Scotland is an important part of the United Kingdom. Whatever the Scottish voters might decide, it is up to them. We will obviously adjust to what they choose.
Do you think that if Scotland is to be independent, the Franco-British relation will evolve or will it remain the same?
Well let’s stick to what we have now. We have a very very strong relation with the UK. It has been a strategic ally for over a century now, fighting alongside us throughout the 20th century in many wars, notably during World War 1, World War 2 and the Cold War. It is an ongoing relation that we have had with our British friends in Libya, Mali and Afghanistan.
Not to mention that Britain is also a major business partner in Europe and international organisations as we’ve seen with the G8. Along with the UK, we are two major players in international relations whilst fighting for peace around the world. Therefore, I have absolutely no doubt the UK will remain a major partner whichever way Scotland votes.
You have worked in the Middle East. Do you think that French and British policies toward this area of the world are that different?
No, not at all. We are very similar indeed. We are in the same group regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, Syria or even the Israel-Palestine conflict; we have the same position. We are exactly on the same wavelength.
Middle Eastern countries are thought to be very different from France whereas Britain and France are sometimes said to be similar. Do you think it is more interesting to serve in a neighbouring country or in a country where diplomatic relations with France are still fragile?
I think it’s very interesting to work in an EU partner country. The density of relation is much bigger. The core of our relationship ranges from the economy to immigration as France is the main port of entry to the United Kingdom. Also, defence, as together, we account for over 50% of all security and defence spending within the EU.
In global affairs, this diversity is extremely interesting, as we get to work on multiple subjects in different fields.
Regarding the Middle East, France and the UK work hand in hand with the Arab people in favour of transition toward more democratic regimes and try to help them, particularly through the EU. The unity of countries is at stake and that is why we make the most of what we can do to make the transitions successful.
Given the circumstances, it would certainly be fascinating to be in the Middle East these days, where transitions take place, although I must say the forthcoming referendum is a historical one.
Franco-British Portrait Gallery
© Sophie Zhu
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