Thai-French ties: more than meets the eyes

opinion July 14, 2014 00:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

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Streams of Thai investment in canned sea food, paper and petrochemical in recent years in France have contributed to the well beings of French people and improve their country's stuttering economy.

In Correze, 382 kilometers outside Paris, it has been Yothin Dumnernchanvanit’s determination that eventually turns a dying French paper company, Alizay Paper Mill, into a lively enterprise, saving hundreds of jobs for the supporters of President Francois Hollande, who was elected in this constituency.
Yothin, who is the president of Double A Paper Plc, Thailand’s leading copy paper manufacture, was brave enough to invest in this mill back in 1991. It paid off nicely. Now, his company has symbolized the success of Thai investment in France – a rare undertaking. The Thai company has miraculously rejuvenated the pulp and paper industry in France.
Meanwhile, few ordinary French or tourists know that the 160-year-old famous tea shop, Mariage Freres, in central Paris was run by a Thai entrepreneur and visionary, Monsieur Kitti “Cha” Saengmanee. He invented “French Tea” or “French The” for the coffee-lover country – the biggest challenge of his life in the early 1980’s. His ingenuity with a Thai Midas touch has earned him international respect from the tea lovers over the world as a rare master of France’s tea blender.
Within the French officialdom and high-society, Kitti is no stranger because they are his principle clients. He was given numerous honors and awards for his “Frenchness” in promoting and creating the brand associated with France. In the recent D-Day 70th Anniversary celebration, he prepared a special blend tea – Earl Gray Imperial – as requested by the major of Paris, for the visiting British Queen Elizabeth. For his nearly four decades in France, he blended more than 800 perfumed tea. 
These are two leading Thai personalities, representing new dynamic contours of Thai-France relations, a far cry from the past which was rich with history. It helps explain why President Hollande was the first foreign leader to comment on the coup on 22 May, long before anyone. France sees Thailand as a strategic partner and gateway to Asean and attach great importance to stability and security of this country. Later on, it was left to European Community to assess the Thai situation.
In his speech on Asean policy in August 2013, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius cited the first Thai Siamese Embassy as a good example of France’s interest in the region. In 1684, the Thai envoy under King Narai was received in the Hall of Mirrors of the Chateau de Versailles by Louis XIV. It was the French way of saying welcome.
France tried to colonize Siam twice – the first in 17th and second in early 20th century but both times failed, which has indeed earned high respects from the French noblemen. That kind of attitude prevail until today.
In the past decade, France has been active in engaging with Asean. Under Hollande, Paris even came out with its own “pivot” which boasts a more holistic approach towards the region focusing on peace-building efforts, green growth’s investment and soft power building on people-to-people contacts.
Before the pivot, France was the first and only EU member to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) back in 2006. As a leading European nation, France wants to craft a unique position within Asean due to its historical ties with the region, especially among the new Asean members of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Later on, both United Kingdom and EU followed France for the TAC signatories.  
Given the current economic recession in France, which reflects the broader Europe, Thai Ambassador Apichart Chinwanno said that there are great opportunities for the Thai investors because of France’s supreme location and logistic networks. Indeed, he added, the Thai investors are now making their strong presence felt in the heartland of Europe with well over Euro 1 billion investment.
In 2010, Thai Union Frozen Products PCL brought a French canned sea food, MW Brands with 680 million Euros, the biggest Thai investment so far in France. The PTT Global Chemical has also brought 51 per cent stock of Perstorp Holding France SA, which owns the technology known as Isocyanate. The envoy said more Thai investments are coming to France due to the ease of doing business in France.
Back in 1995, during the early day of Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), Thailand and France collaborated to ensure the ASEM took off. The premium leadership meeting has double the size of participants from 25 at its first meeting to 52. Croatia will join ASEM, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary, as the 53th members in October in Milan.
As Thailand-France friendship become more consolidated, France also seeks the Thai support to gain a membership of East Asia Meeting (EAS), even though it is a member of European Union, which also seeks a similar membership. But France, as a member of UN Security Council and a nuclear power, views any closer and more intimate relations with Asean as valuable asset that would enhance its profile in the region.