EXECUTIVE interviewed French Ambassador Emmanuel Bonne via email about French contributions to Lebanon’s entrepreneurship ecosystem as well as his country’s assistance to Lebanon.
E In terms of the economic relationship between the two countries, we’ve heard the French government will be helping to fund and build Smart ESA (École supérieure des affaires). What added value will the government of France bring to this partnership and the wider Lebanese entrepreneurship ecosystem?
France is very active in the development of entrepreneurship and digital technology, namely through its “French Tech” initiative. Launched in 2013, this initiative aims not only to enable French entrepreneurs and innovators to develop and expand internationally, but also to share their expertise and create synergies with entrepreneurs and incubators from other countries. Smart ESA, the new incubator and accelerator of the ESA Business School, aspires to become the relay of French Tech and thus connect France to the entire Middle East.
On May 27, ESA Business School received an extended lease agreement from the French government and launched renovation works on a 3,000 square meter building with a financial donation from Bank Med. The French Minister of State, Jean-Vincent Placé, joined us on this occasion. The new “smart building” is set to be operational in fall 2018. In the meantime, Smart ESA has planned for temporary offices and innovation spaces on campus to welcome the first three batches.
A new initiative, the Smart ESA Business Matching platform, was also launched last September through a strategic partnership with Ville de Paris and Paris & Co; an initiative that was championed by the French embassy. It will eventually be expanded to the rest of France and to all of Europe. “Scale up to compete!”
Smart ESA also took part in the Banque du Liban (BDL) Accelerate Event in November in Beirut, during which it announced its four programs: Ideation, Incubation, Acceleration and a unique “à la carte” option.
From the heart of Beirut, ESA Business School’s campus is now the strategic location from which startups, entrepreneurs and companies at all stages (from seed to growth) will be the actors of Lebanon’s digital transition.
E What do you see as the potential impact of entrepreneurship on Lebanon’s economy? Will the embassy try to connect French entrepreneurs with Lebanese entrepreneurs? If so, how and what value do you hope this will add?
France is traditionally one of Lebanon’s leading trading partners. Every year, France ranks among the leading suppliers in Lebanon, with a market share of around seven percent, which represents one of our highest market shares in the Near and Middle East. Moreover, Lebanon holds 45 percent of the stock of Middle Eastern foreign direct investments in France.
Lebanon is a small country indeed, but it is destined for greatness, as it is strategically located at the crossroads of East and West. It offers many opportunities for companies, not only for its own market, but also outside its borders, particularly in the Near and Middle East, as well as Africa. Besides, Lebanon has a very large diaspora which directly partakes in enriching the exchanges between our countries. Among French entrepreneurs, a considerable share are of Lebanese origin, thus contributing to building new bridges between our two countries.
In this landscape, France has a privileged place: it is a partner of choice, maybe even a partner of heart.
The number of French companies exporting to Lebanon has increased significantly in recent years, namely due to the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In 2015, over 4,600 French companies exported their products to Lebanon, nearly 14 percent more than 10 years ago. In addition, more than 100 French companies are based in Lebanon today, in various sectors as diverse as wholesale, food processing, financial services, and health and telecoms, to name but a few. French investments are also steadily increasing, jumping from 66 million euros in 2007 to 530 million euros in 2015.
Through our Business France office in Beirut – the trade department of our embassy – we aim to develop links between French SMEs and Lebanese companies. Practically, our efforts can be as varying as raising awareness of and promoting communication on the Lebanese market, establishing direct commercial ties between French and Lebanese entrepreneurs, or organizing theme-based collective operations in Beirut or Paris.
In 2017, several programs will be launched to promote bilateral commercial ties: a symposium on health and hygiene in hospitals, the display of equipment and French food products at the Horeca fair, and the ninth edition of the French pavilion at Project Lebanon, as well as collective assignments of French companies specializing in various sectors related to well-being and the environment. This aim of cooperating and working together strengthens the trade ties between France and Lebanon, which in turn can increase and create new market opportunities and boost mutual investments.
E What economic hopes do you have for Lebanon in 2017?
We are well aware of the extent of the challenges that Lebanon has to overcome. The Lebanese economy is facing strong pressure from the Syrian crisis, the impact of which is estimated at more than $12 billion. Lebanon’s real GDP has grown 1.8 percent per year on average since 2011, which contrasts greatly with the 9.2 percent average registered between 2007 and 2010.
The main message that France wishes to deliver to the Lebanese people is that of its unwavering friendship. We are standing by Lebanon’s side through this difficult time as we look to further deepen our cooperation with the country’s institutions.
As mentioned earlier, French companies have built trust and long-standing relationships in Lebanon. We wish to strengthen and expand these connections by exploring new partnerships to create more ground for sustainable and inclusive growth. There are many projects in the making to support Lebanon’s economy. For example, the French Development Agency (AFD, Agence Française de Développement) has been assisting Lebanon in developing its private sector for the past 15 years by financing companies and banks through loans, portfolio warranties, investment capital, etc. The AFD’s action also contributes to looking for ways to better exploit Lebanon’s growth potential, as well as the competitiveness of its economic actors, in areas such as vocational training or sustainable development.
We truly hope that Lebanon will see a resumption of economic growth in 2017 and that financial and monetary stability will be preserved. We also look forward to seeing the government take appropriate measures to control the public deficit, stabilize the public debt and bring about the structural reforms needed to modernize the country’s infrastructure.
E In terms of assistance pledged specifically to Lebanon at the London Conference in early 2016, how much has France actually deployed to date and where/how was it spent (i.e. focused on any specific sectors/needs)?
The issue of refugees is very sensitive, especially in Lebanon where they have a considerable presence. This is why our aid is directed not only toward Syrian communities, but also toward supporting the Lebanese people who have welcomed them.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, we have spent 90 million euros on humanitarian and development projects in Lebanon – making it the biggest receiver of French aid in the region.
During his recent visit to Lebanon last April, President François Hollande announced that half of the amount pledged by France at the London Conference would be allocated to Lebanon, totalling 100 million euros for 2016-2018, 50 million euros of which would be spent in 2016. We are currently in the process of finalizing the allocation of those grants. This assistance comes in addition to the other actions that France carries out in Lebanon, through our investments in supporting the security and stability of the country.
As announced during the London Conference, France’s priorities are mainly oriented toward youth and education. We are implementing those priorities by closely working with the Lebanese government, UN agencies, NGOs and local partners such as municipalities. This follows France’s tradition of close educational cooperation with Lebanon.
On top of these priorities, our programs have also targeted other sectors, such as food assistance, access to water, shelter, vocational training, health and the protection of women and children.
Since President Hollande’s visit to Lebanon, France has also tripled its humanitarian resettlement program for Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon. As a result, 3,000 Syrian refugees will be resettled in France in 2016-2017, as we aim to welcome the most vulnerable refugees, such as people in need of urgent medical care.
E How does the embassy judge the actual impact of this assistance (any metrics/hard numbers would be appreciated)?
We are working hard to maximize our impact. First, our assistance programs, regardless of the sector, are all designed to support Syrian refugees as well as the host communities in Lebanon, as we are very much aware of the generosity the country has shown in welcoming and hosting Syrian refugees. Secondly, most of our programs combine emergency relief and capacity building, as we look to achieve a long term-impact. Capacity building is addressed both toward Lebanese civil society and the Lebanese government.
Allow me to give one example: one of our programs dedicated to Lebanese NGOs was designed in partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs. This program started with a budget of 600,000 euros and now has a budget of 2.6 million euros. We have adapted it in view of working with as many Lebanese NGOs as possible.
Thirdly, French programs implemented by French NGOs are developed in a way that French expertise is transferred to local stakeholders. This continuum guarantees the efficiency of our humanitarian programs in the long term.
A lot has been done and a lot remains to be done in Lebanon, with Lebanon and for Lebanon. We continue to work for the sake of the long and meaningful friendship that exists between our two countries.