Interview accordée par l’Ambassadeur à Issue, juin 2013 [tr]
Interview accordée en turc par l’Ambassadeur de France, Son Excellence Monsieur Laurent Bili, à la revue Issue.
Propos recueillis par M. Ferhat YÜKSEL
Photographies : Ömer BEDEL
“We Are Deeply Impressed by the Colors of Ankara”
France’s Ambassador to Turkey Laurent Bili and his elegant wife Sabine Bili, who feel so close to Anatolian people that they have given their children Turkish names, hosted Issue at their residence. Ambassador Bili gave us a fascinating interview on his professional and personal life, and expressed his family’s happiness in the capital, adding : “We are deeply impressed by the colors of Ankara.”
Bili served as first secretary in Ankara between 1995 and 1998 and returned to the city in 2011 as Ambassador after a gap of 13 years. We had a conversation with Ambassador Bili, who speaks remarkable Turkish, on issues ranging from Turkish-French relations to his days in Turkey, his family life, and his tight bonds with Anatolian people.
You were appointed to Turkey at a time when relations between Turkey and France were going through a rough period. How did you feel then ?
Actually when I arrived in Turkey relations were not that bad. A few months after my appointment things got worse. Turkey and France have a history that is long, positive and constructive. I always tried to work keeping that in mind. I believed that those rough days would pass. If I can contribute to minimizing this tension, then I will really be useful.
What sparked your affection for Turkey when you lived in Trabzon and Ankara ?
Back in 2011, before being appointed to Turkey, I spent a month taking language classes in Trabzon. It was quite an interesting period for me. I stayed in a dormitory and took language classes six hours a day. At the bookstores, restaurants, on the streets, everywhere, I spoke Turkish and everyone I met was very helpful to me. It is hard to explain this special relationship. Even before getting to know Anatolia, I felt myself close to this land. My wife and I felt at home very quickly. We felt always very happy in Ankara and Anatolia. I really can’t explain it !
Why Trabzon ?
I chose a smaller, historical and traditional city to do my internship. I knew that it was likely that I would become ambassador and I didn’t want to lie about it. So I thought I would be more comfortable in Trabzon. One of the reasons I chose Trabzon was to have a more traditional and conservative experience. During my first mission, I went to nearly every corner of Turkey, even to Zakho and the Habur border gate but because I had never been to Trabzon, I wanted to fill that gap. It was a short period of one month but it was totally a new experience for me.
I SHARE HOPE WITH THE PEOPLE OF TRABZON
You grew up in Brittany in France. Are there similarities with Trabzon ?
I knew that I would feel close to Trabzon. I found a lot of similarities in the climate, human behavior and football. For example in 2011, I watched the championship match between Trabzonspor and Fenerbahçe, together with the owner of the dormitory where I used to stay and it reminded me of my old memories. It made me think of the match between Rennes and Paris in 1971. I shared hope with the people of Trabzon and I felt myself at home. The people of the Black Sea, like the people of Brittany, are not very warm blooded at first, but once you get to know them things change and once the doors are open they never close.
You also gave Turkish names to your children...
Yes, by naming them Volkan and Tayfun we wanted to make a symbolic gesture so we used their Turkish names before the French ones (Aurelien and Florian). My children are proud of their names and it makes them feel special. They even have Trabzonspor shirts with their Turkish names and signed by the players. My wife and children have Turkish lessons for an hour and a half on Saturday mornings.
Your Turkish is remarkable. Do you feel the need to use an interpreter ?
Lately I’ve started to feel more confident in my Turkish. One month ago I participated in a live TV program which lasted 50 minutes on Channel 24 and it was all in Turkish. I love Turkish but it is not my mother tongue and I started learning it a bit late. I go to meetings at the ministries without an interpreter most of the time. A short while ago, I took part in a meeting on the Budapest process where representatives from 50 countries were present. Almost all the participants opted for Russian or English. It wasn’t possible for me to speak in French so I made my speech in Turkish and I was the only representative who spoke in Turkish.
What are the differences you’ve noticed between your first mission and now ?
A lot has changed and continues to change. First of all, when we came to Anatolia for a holiday in 2006 we noticed that the highways had improved a lot. There is also stability in politics. Previously Turkey lived with a single state of mind but today there are many different perspectives and people can discuss things openly. When I first came to Turkey in 1991, the existence of Kurds wasn’t accepted, when I came back in 1995 the Kurdish issue and the Kurdish reality had begun to be discussed. A lot more has changed just during the past year. It is obvious that there is a terror problem but aside from that, political solutions are being discussed. Everything can be expressed more openly. This is the most important development. Again, as far as I can see, Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code is not widely applied on issues like this. The concept of secularism has also changed in Turkey. Secularism requires both religious liberty for everyone and impartiality in the public space. I believe that this impartiality is essential.
FOUR HUNDRED FRENCH COMPANIES IN TURKEY
We see the French influence in Turkey in domains such as politics, education, and architecture and there are lots of French words in Turkish. What kind of work do you do to protect and promote these historical ties ?
We have a partnership that goes back 150 years with Turkey. This collaboration still continues and to promote it we want to bring the French private sector more to Turkey. The French private sector wasn’t this strong in Turkey before. During my first mission in Turkey the number of French companies in Turkey didn’t exceed two digits. Now there are nearly 400 companies and this number keeps climbing. I think that in strengthening our cultural collaboration the private sector can play a special role. Apart from this, our collaboration depends heavily on European Union funds and programs. There are many projects and programs on issues like drinking water quality, mining and waste processing. We didn’t have very dynamic relations in the military domain but one month ago our defense minister came to Turkey and we hope that our military relations will also gain momentum again.
Which sectors draw the interest of French companies ?
You can find French companies in almost every sector. Automotive is quite special but apart from that you can find French companies active in energy, transport, banking, insurance, food, tourism, maritime, cosmetics, IT and many other sectors. Recently there has been particular interest in the energy and aviation sectors. French entrepreneurs and companies prefer to work with Turkish partners because there are high quality Turkish firms. They see the benefits of working methodically.
OUR DOORS ARE OPEN FOR TURKISH COMPANIES
What kind of a market does France provide for Turkish companies who wish to invest ? What advice do you have for Turkish companies ?
I believe investment in France is necessary. I had meetings with many businessmen concerning investment possibilities in France. There is a growing interest in the private sector. There aren’t big investors except for a few important names but we expect growth in Turkish investments in the future. I always say that our doors are open.
France is closely concerned about what is happening in the Middle East. What can tell us, especially about Syria ?
In fact we share the same perspective with Turkey on this matter and we have been collaborating for the last two years. We worked hand in hand at the ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting held in Istanbul. Turkey, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US are the most active countries in this process.
The 1915-17 events have caused major problems and damaged Turkish-French relations for a while now. How do you think this problem can be overcome ?
I believe three aspects are very important on this issue : Being cool-headed, dialogue, and mutual understanding. The year 2015 is perceived as a threat in Turkey, but it can also be an important opportunity for closure of the pain. You ask ‘What can we do ?’ We have to talk more openly about history. Until a few years ago, no one knew much about what happened in 1915 in Anatolia except for a few experts working on the subject. History is being opened up for everyone little by little. I observe that while Today’s Zaman and Hurriyet Daily News discuss this issue more openly, newspapers published in Turkish are more cautious and restricted. It is not enough just to hold this kind of discussion in English. Today in Turkey there are around 80,000 people of Armenian origin, and 500,000 in France. Naturally, this makes it a more intense topic of debate in France. If we are to go back to 2015, it’s known that a gesture is expected from Turkey. That means that the ball is in Turkey’s court.
What kind of a gesture is expected from Turkey ?
All countries face difficulties related to their past and they have to weigh these gestures with their societies. For example, last year our president visited Algeria and talked very frankly about the torture and French violence that was applied in Algeria. He used words that would satisfy the expectations in Algeria and which would also be tolerated by French citizens. It may not be enough but it was an important step and it corresponded to the sensitivity created by the Algerian War. We held an exhibition at our war museum last year. It was an exhibition which covered the Algerian War and the methods used by the resistance and by France during this period. Nothing was kept secret and everything was discussed openly. French society started facing this issue transparently. It is not a weakness to discuss your history. On the contrary, it raises and exalts both the state and the statesman.
What kind of developments and changes are expected in Turkey’s EU accession process after the election of Mr. Hollande ?
The first step was France’s change in his traditional position concerning Turkey’s accession to the EU and his statement on opening new chapters. This was an important development since no European Union country is inclined toward expansion because of the economic crisis. Despite that, Mr. Hollande stood by his word and we are about open new chapters. Additionally our president doesn’t want to use Turkey’s internal politics and wants to strengthen our relations again. Unfortunately no official visits have been made to Turkey on the presidential level for the last 20 years. All we had was a short visit as part of the G20 process. We expect that our president will make an official visit to Turkey in order to foster and strengthen the new atmosphere.
WE FEEL AT HOME IN ANKARA
What do you think about Ankara as a city ?
After Paris, Ankara is the city I have lived for the longest and we feel ourselves at home. The most important thing for us in Ankara is its people. It is still the open, intimate, warm town that Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu described in his novel ‘Ankara’ and it hasn’t changed a lot. Additionally, we are deeply impressed by the colors of Ankara. You can look outside now and see the beautiful natural colors. Sometimes they are so beautiful that we are surprised. We go to Tunali Hilmi very often, we like walking and sometimes we go to Elmadağ. It is also very pleasant to travel in Anatolia. When we have a holiday we go to Konya, Cappadocia and Amasra by car. We used to go to Gölbaşı too, but nowadays I have to travel very often, especially to Istanbul for work so we don’t find enough time to go to Gölbaşı. We went to Kastamonu, İnebolu and Amasra recently. We came back via Kızılcahamam. We saw Beypazarı and we liked it a lot. Beypazarı has an old and interesting atmosphere. We tasted the black mulberry juice and we loved it.
Which place most affected you ?
It is not easy to answer this question because we fell in love with many places we visited. Mount Nemrut, Ürgüp, Ortahisar, Cappadocia, Safranbolu and Pamukkale are some of those places. Indeed, we like to discover small villages, isolated or unknown places. You get great surprises in places like that. Like the small Seljuk mosque in Beyşehir for example…
What kind of activities do you do in Ankara with your family ?
Nowadays I have a very busy working schedule. If I don’t work on the weekends we go to the movies, museums, concerts and try to spend time with the family. Sabine knows music better than me and she is interested in the events.
What do you think about the Turkish cuisine ? What are your favorite dishes ?
The real answer to that question is this : We keep putting on weight and constantly fight against it. I especially like Antakya and Adana cuisines. My wife struggles against all those baklavas and desserts… I am more on the kebab side. I love Beyti and Aleppo kebab.
Do you enjoy cooking yourself ?
I had several attempts in France but I am not that successful. I spent hours in the kitchen but the kids ate everything in five minutes. I was criticized for using too much salt, spice and vegetables. After a few efforts I concentrated on the simple dishes and as soon as possible I handed this labor to Sabine. When I retire I want to spend more time on cooking. I believe that cuisine is a part of our culture and I don’t want to lose this culture. Everyone should at least try to do that.
What refreshes you the most when you have spare time ?
Reading comes top of the list. I read novels and history books. I used to actively collect stamps. I have all the stamps of the Republican period (up to the 1990s). After the 90s I couldn’t keep up and I have many missing items. I had an easier life as a first secretary 15 years ago, I had more time for myself.
I READ OTTOMAN HISTORY
What kind of books do you read ?
I read different types. Sometimes I even choose them randomly. I asked my Turkish friends and they recommended Zülfü Livaneli and Sabahattin Ali. Apart from Turkish novels and history, I read books in English and French. I have read a lot on the Balkan Wars and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. I consider it a very important period : most of the current problems of this region stem from those times. Of course I don’t find all the answers but it gives me some clues. I discuss a lot with İlber Ortaylı.
You used to play rugby. Do you find the chance to play in Ankara ?
There were no rugby teams in Ankara back in the 90s and I quit playing. I don’t want to play anymore anyway because it is a difficult sport and the risk of injury increases with age. I would end up in the hospital if I played, that is for sure. I still feel young but my muscles are not as strong as they were. My wife also complains about it and says I used to be more muscular. I give financial and moral support to METU’s rugby team now. Of course, I do sport and I do weights. Actually I do sport to struggle better against my belly.
What about music ?
Of course we like French songs. We have rather nostalgic taste. We have a large collection of 90s Turkish pop music. I liked ‘Zor Yollar’ by Zülfü Livaneli a lot.
Do you plan to settle down in Turkey ?
We will never abandon our bonds with Turkey. If you ask me why I don’t buy a house in Bodrum or Istanbul, I am not sure yet but if it goes on like this we will have to buy too many houses because we love everywhere we see in Turkey. After my mission we are certain we will visit Turkey often. We have close friends here.
THE KIDS ALSO ADORE THEIR FATHER
How do you find Laurent Bili as a father and a husband ?
Sabine Bili : Laurent wasn’t a diplomat when we got married. I was going to become a judge and I didn’t want to live abroad. That is why he promised he wouldn’t become a diplomat. I accepted him becoming a diplomat later on.
Laurent Bili : But as a good diplomat, I made early preparations to convince Sabine about diplomacy and I succeeded.
Sabine Bili : Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for my career but we made such a decision because this is a passionate profession and I accepted it. Living as a diplomat you never get bored and we are both very happy with the choice we have made. Laurent is an attentive and caring husband. We share a lot and we like talking to each other a lot. Sometimes we might not share the same opinion but we can resolve everything through dialogue. We have many things in common.
As a father Laurent doesn’t have too much time because of his profession. But he taught his children the importance of discovering and learning new things and, like I do, the children adore their father.
Laurent Bili : I say to myself ‘I wish I could be better as a father’. Especially when I worked with our president, I was mostly tied up with my job. It would have been better if it was more balanced.