From terrorism to terroir, France’s Consul General Eric Berti’s career encompasses the highs and lows of France’s complex role in the world and her modern history. Photo credit: Jeni Zhi
Hong Kong is no hardship posting in diplomatic circles, but some duties are undertaken with a heavy, heavy heart.
This year’s Bastille Day celebrations in Nice were violently interrupted as yet another terrorist attack unfolded in France, taking more than 80 souls. Consul General Eric Berti, who assumed the post as France’s top envoy in Hong Kong two months before the November 2015 Paris attacks, later gathered his community to stand in support of their country.
“I add my personal condolences to those of the [French] Ambassador [to China] for all the victims and their families and hope that no one in the Hong Kong and Macau communities has lost relatives in this cruel attack,” Mr Berti stated in his personal message. On 16 July, he led a minute of silence in a rally hosted by L’Union des Français de l’Etranger’s Hong Kong commemoration at Tamar Park to pay homage to the victims, just eight months after a similar condolence event was held for those killed in the Paris attacks.
“What impressed me was the great solidarity among the French and Hong Kong communities and the government here. All government [officials] came to sign the [condolence] book … Personally, I met in a few days’ time a lot of people whom I would not have met. So it was very moving,” Mr Berti recalls.
This is not the first time this seasoned diplomat has had to deal with the horrible consequences of terrorism as part of his official duties. In August 2001, His Asia-focused career brought him to Islamabad, Pakistan as Deputy Head of Mission. On the occasion of a mission of officials from the French Foreign Ministry there, he arranged a high-level visit to the Taliban Afghanistan Embassy – one day before the September 11 attacks took place.
After, “We knew [the Taliban Embassy] would close … We knew that Al-Qaeda was involved in [the attacks] and that Pakistan would have to choose between pursuing its support to the Taliban or condemn the attack of the World Trade Center and support the American-led riposte . Whatever would be the decision of the Pakistani government, we knew that there would be bombs,” Mr Berti bluntly explains. He notes that while Islamabad had kept itself away from the war that followed, bomb attacks still became a monthly routine from February the next year, when the US was claiming a victory that was to prove much more ephemeral.
Those bombs weren’t just targeted at Americans. A bomb was planted underneath a car that holds the plate No.2 of the French Embassy – the day before this plate was transferred on Mr Berti’s car. Luckily the bomb was soon discovered and defused before it could take the life of the diplomat or his colleagues or family. France was clearly targeted, but to whom exactly the bomb was meant to take down they never knew.
Right before and after his post in Islamabad, he was also stationed in the French Embassies when calamity struck. He was on holiday in the south of Turkey, stationed in Ankara, when the 1999 earthquake hit Northeastern Turkey. Today, a school of 600 pupils in Akyazi and an hospital in Golçük (Turkey) built by the French Red Cross with the support of French companies based in Turkey, remain as a testament to these efforts.
He was again on holiday from his posting in Hanoi when the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami killed 230,000 around the Indian Ocean. In both cases, Berti rushed back on duty to help organise the French rescue efforts, in the second case at the request of the Ambassador of France in Thailand, former Hong Kong Consul General Laurent Aublin.
It’s not always about disaster management though. Between July 2012 and July 2015, he was Paris’ top envoy in Sydney, Australia – not a nation one thinks of having a strong French influence.
He set out to change that by gathering a group of historians to embark a collaboration on a collection of biographical essays on remarkable French women and men in Australia between 1788 and the 1980’s. The final product, a 453-paged ‘French lives in Australia’, was launched just days after he concluded his tenure there. Mr Berti has had his own contribution on French diplomats in Australia to the collection.
Apart from bringing people in France and Australia closer together, Mr Berti also initiated a cooperation pact that tied the Consulate, the French Chamber of Commerce, the Embassy in Canberra and Business France (an organisation in charge of regional business and small companies) into a ‘Team France’.
“The idea was that it was beneficial to work together because [Business France and the Chamber of Commerce] do partly the same work … So if they fight each other it’s not good and as the Consulate, you need to put oil in the system,” Mr Berti explains. Now as head of Consulate General in Hong Kong leading a staff of roughly 88 people, he is eager to replicate this public-private success.
“We have the biggest [French] Chamber of Commerce in Asia here and we have a very active Business France so we want them to work together. I’d like to bring more start-ups to enhance the incubators here. The 24 French companies in Cyberport, out of 200, speaks for all,” he adds. “France has very much an image of gastronomy, food, wine, but we want to promote this image of France also being a technological power. So we were very happy to have the visit of Chief Executive CY Leung in beginning of June this year. He went to Toulouse to the Airbus headquarters, and to Paris to visit Saclay [a research-intensive and business cluster] and the incubator Usine IO.”
Still, the French May will remain one of the biggest projects for the Consulate. According to Mr Berti, the list of performers for next year’s Le French May is almost ready and Hong Kong eagerly awaits the annual festival of French culture expressed in film, theatre, music, dance, wine (le terroir!) and more.
The National Day reception on 14 July saw a rare collection of principal officials, including guest of honour Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah (曾俊華), Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing (黃錦星), as well as Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim (吳克儉).
Tsang, in his usual style on stage, did not fail to raise a laugh while showing his appreciation to the host country.
“Yes, Euro 2016, live from France, night after night. Well, here in Hong Kong, it was more like late night and early morning after late night and early morning. And my panda eyes for a week are true testament of my devotion to this beautiful sport,” he applauds. “If the results, for some, did not quite meet expectations, the games themselves gave us brilliant sport, spectacular displays and so much more. They brought together the fans; they brought together the peoples of not just Europe, but all around the globe. They united a world in passionate conversation, ecstatic celebration, momentary agony and abiding hope for tomorrow.”
Mr Berti had an optimistic message for a nation that had recently faced up to adversity and was to stand strong again. “Bastille Day not only marks the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July, 1789. It also marks Federation Day a year later which celebrated the unity of French people around the values of liberty, equality and fraternity … Throughout the year in Hong Kong and Macau, we have also felt the unity of the French community … The year 2016/17 looks very promising as we will celebrate the 25th edition of Le French May. It will be the occasion to celebrate along with the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover and the bonds of friendship that France has developed with Hong Kong and Macau over the years.”
The nation that has withstood so much was in mourning again later that day. But France has faced adversity and risen above it time and time again – and never lost its joie de vivre. No matter what comes, there are friends, allies and the French themselves proud to proclaim ‘Vive la France!’