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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 20 December, 2014

French Minister says France can learn from how Ireland treats its diaspora

‘The diaspora can be a force and a resource,’ says French Minister for French Abroad Hélène Conway.

Working Abroad Expo in Dublin.
Working Abroad Expo in Dublin.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland!

FRANCE’S MINISTER FOR French Abroad was in Dublin this weekend on an information-gathering mission.

Hélène Conway, who lived in Ireland for thirty years before being appointed to Cabinet by Francois Hollande, said she attended the Global Economic Forum to “learn from what is being done here” in terms of the nation’s relationship with its citizens living abroad.

The biennial event took place for the third time over the past two days in Dublin Castle with 300 delegates taking part from more than 40 countries. It was set up with an aim to bring business and cultural leaders together to explore how the Irish abroad could contribute to the nation’s economic recovery.

Conway believes France is not as proud of those who succeed abroad as Ireland is.

“We need to have the competence of everybody, wherever they live in the world,” she said, noting that one of Ireland’s actions following ‘the big bang’ in 2008 was to set up the forum.

Maybe [the Troika] was the incentive to go and find everybody who can help. I think, in the middle of the Celtic Tiger, there was no incentive to go and seek help. We [in France] have the same now.

“Ireland was hit by a global crisis in 2008. We were as well but it was hidden…when Hollande was elected, we came to power and discovered huge holes everywhere in terms of debts.

“All of these were left hidden and maybe we were more honest. We said this is all the debt we have, if we continue like that we will have the Troika on top of us the way the Irish had.”

Hollande appointed Conway as the Minister for French Abroad in 2012.

“There is an awareness now that this diaspora can do something. But the problem is they have never been a diaspora in the French mind,” she explained.

“But now that France is in trouble. We really need to rely on the competence on everybody to get out of this hole. The French don’t really have a collective thinking. That is why I have to say you belong to a network, you are part of it.”

The positives of emigration

Although careful not to repeat Michael Noonan’s infamous ‘emigration is a lifestyle choice’ remark, she outlined why emigration, to her, is not always a negative.

“I want to change the image and perception. Today, the world belongs to everybody. It is easier to travel, it is cheaper. Communication is better so home sickness is not felt as much.

“People are more mobile. And what I want to show is that people now go out, seek an international experience, learn other languages and then they come back. My focus this year is to facilitate the movement and mobility of people.

We have 2.5 million French abroad. It is not enormous out of 60 million but it is a force and a resource.

“They are a little piece of France themselves with the language and the culture. They bring that and exchange that. They learn and they also teach.”

Two-way street

Conway was in Ireland to learn about using business links for the greater economic good but she admitted that France is, in some ways, ahead of Ireland in how it treats its citizens overseas.

“You have the forum today which we don’t. But we have other things. In Europe, we have to put our best practice together and inspire the others with what we do well.”

In recent times, following mass emigration from Ireland, a debate on whether Irish citizens living abroad should be allowed vote in elections and referendums has bubbled.

Conway concedes that it is a complex question.

We have 2.5 million out of 60 million. You have 40 million. I think there is quite the imbalance there.

But she has told Eamon Gilmore that Ireland could benefit from having a minister dedicated to the diaspora, as they do in France.

“You could have this person, like myself, all the time going out, reaching out to where the Irish will be. Not having to bring them to Ireland once a year.”

She also mentioned that there is solidarity in France for those who are not doing as well outside the country, as well as a significant cultural network.

There are grants for families who do not have the means to put their children in French schools and social grants for people with various problems.

She described France’s 480 international schools, the Institute francais and the Alliance Francaise as “little satellites that have influence locally”.

The idea now is to activate them the way the Irish have to understand “where we should be and where our companies should go”.

In a recent meeting with ministers responsible for the diaspora, there were discussions on how to help people continue to feel that they belong and are linked to their home country.

“That they are still French citizens.”

Related: Eamon Gilmore agrees that the Irish abroad should have their own minister

Read: French minister with Irish links says Hollande supports bank debt deal

More: How a French cabinet minister owes €157 property tax in Ireland

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