French people in Slovakia. Many returned, others stayed
Christophe Léonzi, French ambassador to Slovakia - English translation of the interview given to the newspaper PRAVDA with the assistance of Mr. Pavol Demes.
1. How are foreign embassies in Bratislava working in these pandemic times ?
The embassy lives (and its 60 employees including the french cultural institute) on a daily basis in the form of crisis management at the service of our fellow citizens but also of french-slovak cooperation against covid-19.
For instance, we mobilised the embassy security committee, made up of our honorary consuls in Košice and Martin and of French citizens living on slovakian territory to surround and watch over the French community in Slovakia and in particular over its most fragile members. We are also connected constantly with the French school in Bratislava, with our students and teachers, with the French business community (around 1500 people).
In its work, like everybody, the embassy is practicing social distancing. It means that 90% of our staff is now working from home and that we communicate with our usual contacts by phone, by emails and through audio or visio-conference and do not meet face to face anymore. However, some presence is still necessary at the embassy, so we have established a schedule for some of our collaborators to come to the office. Of course we respect strict rules of hygiene : we stay 2 meters away from other people at all times and work with masks and hand sanitizers.
We had to adapt in a context of emergency and provide the best answer on a many burning issues : providing assistance to our citizens who were in Slovakia after the interruption of international connections, cooperating with the Slovak authorities in the fight against the covid-19 and working towards a European response to the crisis, answering to the questions of the French companies based here, exchanging views and launching a new bilateral partnership with the new Slovak government etc.
2. Is online communication the only way/home office ?
Our consular section has been closed to the public since March 16th. However, this does not mean that we do not keep working for our community. During the first days of the crisis, when the Slovak airports and international connections were closed without much notice, we established several emergency hotlines to answer the questions of our citizens. We also worked very hard on our website, in order to provide accurate and up to date information in French for our citizens who were willing to go back to France or had questions about the sanitary situation and measures implemented in Slovakia. Presence in our premises is limited to a strict minimum in accordance with local sanitary measures. Most of our team works from home, but we are ready to go on site should there be a particular need.
3. Repatriation is a big theme for Slovak MFA, I am sure for you as well. How many French citizens (students, workers, tourists…) left Slovakia during corona crisis ? How did they leave mostly ?
Repatriation is a big priority for France : worldwide, most of 130 000 French citizens (tourists or students who were abroad ) have already been repatriated and the others will be repatriated in the next days, from European countries or from third countries. We had hundreds of French students or tourists present in Slovakia, whom we helped in the past week to go back to France.
Part of our Erasmus students who decided to go back to their families in France have been repatriated by bus, with the precious help of the Ministry of Foreign affairs of the Slovak republic. Around 100 French students already took Slovak busses to France directly ; these busses were sent by MZV to France, Spain or UK to repatriate Slovak citizens. We optimised these travels by using the busses on the one way trip to France and other European countries for European students and for Slovaks for the return trip. Others took planes or found cars. More trips are foreseen.
We provided recommendations to many more citizens, who were able to go back to France by their own means (personal vehicle, or flights from Vienna). French expatriates or French residents in Slovakia chose to stay in Slovakia. (There are also many French-Slovak families for who it made more sense to stay here.)
4. You played coordination role in helping other countries as well. Do you have idea how many foreigners left through efforts of foreign embassies ? Which countries cooperated in this effort ?
As of the number of foreigners who left the country, we have no overview, but for Europeans only, the number of departures is in thousands.
We cooperated with the Ministry of Foreign affairs of the Slovak republic and associated other European embassies in order to set joint departures by bus with the help of the Slovak MFA. According to the destination of the busses we cooperated with our German or Portuguese colleagues and were also in contact with other European countries like Spain, Ireland or the Netherlands. The Irish also cooperated with MFA for repatriations. We know the British Embassy also organized its own repatriations with the help of the Slovak government.
5. Who from Slovak authorities was helping you in these repatriation effort ?
The Slovak ministry of foreign affairs and its crisis center have been instrumental in organising this repatriation effort, we are very grateful for their support.
During this period of transition between two governments, our requests always received a careful attention and the new government immediately showed a strong will to enhance European cooperation.
Many Slovak friends also spontaneously brought us support and advice, like Pavol Demes, whom this embassy would like to thank particularly ! It is important that European countries show solidarity in these circumstances. France took its part of repatriations in the first phase of the crisis in January and February, transporting hundreds of Europeans from China back to Europe, among them Slovaks. We now actively cooperate for the repatriation of European citizens from third countries.
6. Any lessons learned for future ?
The crisis is always an opportunity to accelerate changes : we have also learnt a lot about our ability to work efficiently from home, and will be better prepared if we need to set another crisis team in the future. Like the embassy, the French school had to adapt, as every other Slovak schools, and provides distance learning to all its pupils. The French cultural institute had to postpone all the events and festivals which were planned and also proposes distance learning to all its clients such as a rich digital cultural offer.
Cooperation, coordination and solidarity between the EU member states is essential. The EU commission issued guidelines for the cooperation to ease the transit of European citizens back to their country of residence, but also to keep the well-functioning of the single market : this is essential in order to preserve the supply of essential products for our societies faced to this crisis (notably food and medication) and for their economies.
We shall need much more European support and cooperation in the coming weeks and months. Only solidarity will allow us to overcome the sanitary crisis, such as the economic and social crisis. As Jacques Delors, former President of the EU Commission strongly warned few days ago, a lack of solidarity in such a tragic context could be fatal for the EU. Hopefully this crisis could turn out to be the very much needed wake up call for our Union.