Expat Life were honoured to have the opportunity to interview the French Ambassador to Thailand H.E. Mr. Thierry Mathou please find following his thoughts.
Thierry, if I may call you that, may I start with asking how long have you been the Ambassador to Thailand?
It is nearly a year now – time goes so fast. I arrived at the end of November 2020.
May I ask did you arrive to Thailand direct from France, and or where were you posted before?
I was previously DG for Asia and the Pacific at the French Ministry of Foreign affairs in Paris. In this capacity I outlined the blueprint of the French Indo-Pacific strategy which was formally presented in 2018. This strategy aims to maintain an open and inclusive space, free from all forms of coercion and based on the promotion of multilateralism and the respect of international law. I also initiated France’s candidacy to the development partnership with the ASEAN, which is an important component of our Indo-Pacific strategy. I have always been convinced of the importance for France to have a comprehensive and active diplomacy in Asia where I spent most of my career.
I started my career in Washington (1989-1993), before being appointed to Beijing twice (in 1993-1996 and 1999-2004). I held several positions in Paris at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, in particular within the Directorate of European Cooperation (1996-1999) where I was responsible for monitoring trade policy and relations between European Union with Asia and Oceania. I was then appointed Deputy Director of International Economic and Financial Affairs (2004-2006), before returning to Asia, as Consul General in Shanghai (2006-2010), a period during which I organised the French participation to the 2010 World Expo. Then I was appointed Ambassador, first to Myanmar (2011-2015), then to the Philippines (2015-2017), where I was also non-resident Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau (in residence in Manila). In 2017 I took the head of the General Directorate of Asia and Oceania (2017-2020) within the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, before coming to Bangkok.
Alongside my diplomatic career, I am also a scholar of Himalayan Studies associated with the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris. Bhutan is my main academic focus.
That is a pretty impressive background Sir. May I ask which city were you born and brought up in?
I was born in Rodez a small historical city in the South of France located in a rural area about 150km Northeast of Toulouse. Today Rodez is mainly known for its museum dedicated to its most famous citizen, Pierre Soulages, an internationally celebrated contemporary painter, who was born there in 1919. I spent my childhood and my teens in Rodez province known as Aveyron, a region famous for having some of the most beautiful villages in France, but also for the spectacular Millau viaduct – the highest road bridge in the world – and for Roquefort, which the French consider as “the king of cheeses”. Then I moved to Toulouse the centre of the European aerospace industry, with the headquarters of Airbus and the SPOT satellite system, and to Paris where I studied political sciences, international relations and Asian languages.
At which age did you decide you wanted to become a diplomat?
I always knew my career would lead me to Asia. At some point I hesitated between becoming a diplomat and a full time academic. I chose diplomacy because I wanted to serve my country and to have a positive and active contribution to crisis solving. Yet I also became a non-professional academic because I think it is essential to keep an acute cross-cultural understanding and awareness of what is happening beyond borders.
Do you have any other diplomats in your family?
No. Most of my family members including my parents are teachers. My wife had a career as a banker and an international financial consultant before she decided to reorient her career to teaching, then to supporting our three children.
How do you see Thailand today, in ASEAN, and in a wider context?
Thailand must now take up the challenge of ending Covid-19 and its consequences, particularly the socio-economic ones and the grim impact that it has had on the Thai tourism industry. We wish to continue to work closely with Thailand to help revive the economy, tourism, academic and scientific exchanges.
Within ASEAN, to which it has contributed so much, Thailand is a key player. The country is facing the challenge of the situation of the Burmese neighbour.
Thailand is a partner for the promotion of multilateralism and the defence of global issues. Bangkok is an important pole of the United Nations, very active, thanks to the action of ESCAP and all the United Nations agencies which are represented and work very actively in the Thai capital. We identify many issues on which Thailand is an essential partner to lead other countries, such as the climate, the defence of biodiversity, the fight against emerging diseases and the “One Health” approach, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
Thailand will play an important regional role in Asia-Pacific in 2022 as it hosts the APEC summit. This is an event that France, which is present in the Pacific where it has territories, nationals, economic and strategic interests, and responsibilities in terms of global issues, will closely observe. In general, we see Thailand as a key partner, alongside its ASEAN partners, to build the inclusive approach advocated by France with its EU partners in the Indo-Pacific. France is about to sign a comprehensive roadmap with Thailand to upgrade our relation to the level of a strategic partnership.
Do you see similarities between your country and Thailand and if so what are they?
The size of our homelands and the size of the French and Thai population is roughly the same. Our common history goes back a long way: Thailand is the Asian country with which France has the oldest diplomatic relations. Our two nations have a lot in common: interest in gastronomy, and more generally the art of living. But both France and Thailand are far more than world acclaimed touristic destinations. They are also countries where technology and innovation development are important.
The role and presence of the sea is also essential for both our countries. The importance of maritime issues in the Indian and Pacific Oceans: Thailand, through its central geography in South-east Asia, is open to these two horizons; France is for its part, present in these two oceans, through its overseas territories (Réunion in the Indian Ocean; New Caledonia, and French Polynesia in particular, in the Pacific. A total of 2 million French people live in the Indo-Pacific region). It is not very well known, but 60% of the Exclusive Economic Zone of France is located in this zone (France has the second largest EEZ in the world). France, which adopted an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, supplemented at European level by that adopted this autumn by the EU, is a natural partner for Thailand, because the interests and challenges of our two countries are closely convergent;
The upcoming calendar will be an opportunity to strengthen the similarities between our two countries, which will be invested in 2022, with coordination responsibilities: Thailand with the chairmanship of APEC; France with the Presidency of the European Union.
Do you have children, if so at what age and where do they go to school, university or are they already working?
I have one daughter (29) and two boys (26 and 23). My daughter Alexandra graduated from the Institute of Political Science in Paris and Fudan University in Shanghai. After starting her career in Shanghai and Hong Kong, she is now working as a development manager in a global software company in Paris. Being perfectly fluent in Chinese she will probably return to Asia for her career. My eldest son François graduated from the French Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and from Cambridge University. He is an historian who got the academic rank of “agrégé” a French University title who entitles him to be appointment to the highest teaching posts. For the time being he is completing a PhD in History. He plans to be a university teacher and a researcher. Charles, my youngest son is an airspace engineer who graduated from ISAE-SUPAERO Aerospace Engineering Institute in Toulouse and from Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. He just started a PhD in Information and Communication Science and Technology (ICST) with ONERA the French Defence, Aeronautics and Space Research Agency. He is planning to join the European Space Agency (ESA).
How do you look upon your work here? Is there anything like an average day?
The best moments of my career have been those I could spend in the field outside my office, meeting people and implementing projects in a concrete way. This is something that I have done a lot during my previous posts and I hope to do it often in Thailand. Visiting local projects both in Bangkok and going out in to the provinces to reach out to “real” people is what I enjoy the most.
Have you set some goals you really would like to fulfil before you leave Thailand?
The priorities of my activity come straight from my experience. As I said, I have an Asian prism and I am convinced we have to do more with Thailand in the context of our Indo-Pacific Strategy both at the bilateral and multilateral levels. Just as a reminder, this strategy is based on four main pillars: enhancing France’s involvement in the settlement of regional crises; strengthening our partnerships with the major regional players with whom we share the same values and interests; increasing our engagement with regional organisations, particularly the ASEAN, most likely to play a central role in the architecture of a multipolar Asia and the emergence of an inclusive Indo-Pacific space, which must exclude no-one and in which no country should impose its hegemony; and firmly committing to the promotion of global public projects, such as the climate, the environment and biodiversity, health, education, digital technology and quality infrastructure, whilst supporting greater involvement in the region of the European Union as a player in sustainable development and stability, particularly under the framework of its Connecting Europe and Asia strategy. I chose to come to Thailand to implement this strategy, because I am convinced that Thailand is a priority for us in South Asia. This is the reason why we are now working to upgrade the level of our relation to the level of a strategic partnership.
Thailand is historically France’s oldest partner in Asia. In 2016, the two countries celebrated the 160th anniversary of their relations (the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Siam and France was signed on 15 August 1856). And in 2019, we celebrated the 333rd anniversary of the first embassy of the Kingdom of Siam to France, led by Kosa Pan in 1686. The Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha even visited France twice in June 2018. The cooperation between our two countries is good. But it is not enough. We have to do more, in all sectors: economy, defence and security, education, science and technology, and of course in ‘people to people’ exchanges with a priority on the youth. We are now working on a common road map which will allow us to upgrade our relationship to a strategic partnership. It will be signed soon at the ministerial level.
In that context we have four main priorities:
Jointly promote peace and security, notably by contributing to the development of a stable, multipolar and regional balance in the Indo-Pacific. This relates to our political, defence, security and military cooperation, which definitely need to be enhanced.
Support economic, energy and technological transitions with a special focus on encouraging bilateral dialogue in the public and private sector and on developing economic cooperation in innovative fields.
Develop ‘people to people’ exchanges in the fields of education, science, research and innovation, health, language, arts and culture, and of course tourism.
Foster cooperation on global issues
The youth of today is a priority of our initiatives.
Have you managed to travel in Thailand yet?
Not as much as I would have liked because of my busy schedule and Covid-19 constraints. I arrived in Thailand on 30 November 2020 and spent the usual two weeks in ASQ. Then we had the second and then the third wave of Covid. Despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic I used windows of opportunity to go to Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, and Phuket were I visited French communities. I also travelled to Sukhothai, Sri Sachanalai, Kampheang Phet, Ayutthaya, and Chanthaburi and visited a couple of islands in Phang Nga Bay. I will soon go to Pattaya and Koh Samui to visit the French communities there.
When you have a day off, what do you prefer to do? A hobbies or pastimes?
As already mentioned, besides my diplomatic career I am an academic who specialised in Himalayan studies. So most of my spare time (mainly at night!) is dedicating to writing books and articles, mainly on Bhutan. I am also an avid reader. I rarely have a day off. But when it is the case I spend to visit different areas of Bangkok and its neighbourhoods.
How many of your countryfolk are living in Thailand? When and why did Thailand become a desirable destination for your people?
The French community in Thailand stands around 35,000 residents, 13,000 are registered at the embassy. This is the second largest French community in Asia, after China. They are mostly male and over forty years old. This community is plural and is spread over the whole of the territory. French citizens live mainly in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya but there are also a few in the most remote areas. In big cities they are mainly expats working in big companies and in Chiang Mai, the Esan provinces and islands retired people live. I met the leaders of the French associations in Thailand almost as soon as I arrived in Thailand. The French have long been integrated in Thailand where many of them have built a new life by marrying a wife or a husband and having binational children who are a bridge between our two countries. These French people are contributing to the country’s prosperity. Our companies are creating tens of thousands of job opportunities for Thai nationals and this is not only the case of big companies. Let’s take an example. Imagine a young French baker or specialist bread maker, he has some money and decides to open a pastry and bread shop in Thailand. He’s successful, making good money and employing four or five Thai people. Like him and his small company, there are countless French business owners who have invested in Thailand and started small businesses here, managed to create wealth in the kingdom and participate in the economic prosperity. But nobody knows they exist because they are not in the statistics. Trust me, they are a lot of them, and they are essential for the Thai economy and also for the place of France in Thailand, as they too, bring a little bit of “French spirit” to the country.
After the first backpackers in the 80s, organised travel groups and French mass tourism developed in the early 90s with the appearance of direct flights from Paris to Bangkok and then Paris to Phuket when Thai Airways acquired Airbus planes. At the same period, large French companies sent many of their deserving employees to Thailand on incentive travels to reward them for their performance during the year. The French followed the first backpackers who discovered Chiang Mai, which remained a major destination for the French along with the beach destinations. Over the years Thailand has attracted French tourists because it combines many assets that distinguish it from its neighbours by bringing together historical sites, islands, gastronomy, natural sites, a welcoming population and exceptional animals. From tourists, some have become residents, married Thai women and given birth to Franco-Thai children. Thailand therefore enjoys a good image in France and the multiplication of Thai restaurants in France in recent years is undoubtedly proof that French people returning from holidays in Thailand have fond memories of it.
Let me also remind you that before Covid we had about 800,000 French tourists visit Thailand every year. They are eager to come back when the conditions are met. It will take time and it will be progressive, but they will contribute to Thailand’s recovery, assuming that the tourism industry continues to be essential to this country.
Does your country and Thailand have an exchange program for students?
Of course. There are several intellectual and cultural exchanges programmes between Thailand and France. More than 600 hundred Thai students go to France to study every year and approximately 110 French students come to Thailand every year. (And they always have a hard time to go back to France afterwards, if I may say, because they like it so much here). You could consider that 600 is not many, but we select the best! France values and welcomes these incredible brilliant Thai students. As a result we offer many scholarship programmes for masters and doctoral students to come study in France. We also have a programme named “young researchers” which brings innovative and promising young Thai researchers to France, where they can train and continue their research in the most advanced French laboratories. We also have students in the social science field, as France developed several specific scholarships, in cooperation with the Thai government, to help train Thai magistrates. In the last few years, that amounts to hundreds of students studying and living in France. That is the priority of our cooperation in terms of budget, as it represents 65% of our exchange budget.
But what is important is that this is not random. We always try to establish sustainable research partnerships. To work with a long term vision, primarily through bilateral Franco-Thai co-financing of the projects. If both parties are financing, then everybody wants it to succeed, and gain something from it. Our numerous common research programmes are in the fields in which both our countries are interested (chemistry, biology, health, agronomy, health, engineering sciences, etc.). That is why also, France has decided to establish in Thailand most of its main French research organisations (CIRAD, IRD, IRASEC, etc.). Some of these research institutes are even settled within the amazing campuses of your universities in Thailand. Their regional networks are working hard to promote the excellence of French research in Thailand, in areas that are paramount for Thailand: air pollution, plastic pollution, climate change and, the last one is very important as we have seen in the Covid-19 crisis, the nexus “biodiversity, human health and climate change.” Also, of course, the Embassy is trying to strengthen the attractiveness of the French language in Thailand. For now, almost 600,000 Thai people are speaking French in the Kingdom, and more the 30,000 young Thai kids are studying our language at the secondary or university level. But we want more. That is why we are emphasising three priorities: support for the education system, renewal of the pool of learners and the development of French education. Our teams are helping the network of Thai teachers of French language, by engaging with them in a permanent linguistic training for Thai teachers. They are doing an incredible job in advocating Thai students to learn French and showing them, the benefits of it in their future. Like going to study in France for instance! We are even exploring right now the possibilities of creating a French school in Chiang Mai, in conjunction with the Alliance Française, the French cultural institute.
Any fun moment from Thailand that you’d like to tell us about?
Not really a fun moment but an anecdote that will tell you something about the way France is involved in the everyday life of the Thai people in a most unexpected way. A couple of months ago I visit an experimental farm created near Khon Kaen by HM.Clause a worldwide French company specialising in the selection, production, and sales of vegetable seeds, part of the Groupe Limagrain, #1 worldwide in vegetable seeds. The ambition of this company is to contribute sustainably to the development of farmer’s activities by improving disease resistance, yield, ease of harvest, shelf life. They also work to maintain local biodiversity, by selecting seeds adapted to the local growing constraints. In doing so they are committed in Thailand to provide local farming communities the best vegetables seeds that will increase their income and improve the living of their community. As an example, they developed a new hot pepper variety, dedicated to the Thai market, the “Super Thunder” which is so popular that about 30% of the chillies grown in this country now come from their seeds, French seeds ! Gastronomy is an essential component of French and Thai culture. While hot pepper is important in Thai cuisine, it is not really the case in France except in some Southern provinces. Yet it is funny to realise that it is now one of our contribution to Thai gastronomy! I recently mentioned this to HRH Princess Sirindhorn who told me that she was curious to visit this farm which is also a cooperative and a research centre.
Do you regularly meet up with your community?
Of course, I regularly meet up with the French community during each of my trips in the country. As already mentioned I have already met with the French community in several provinces since my arrival in November 2020. The Covid situation has made those meetings a challenge to organise, but I am deeply attached to them, and I will, now that the country seems to be reopening, try to go out and meet my fellow countrymen and women wherever they are settled in the country. Understand the way they live and the problems they face is of vital importance for me.