“the [free trade] agreement opened the way for new trade and investment opportunities for the business communities on both sides”

Promoting strong global relationships

Swiss Ambassador to Japan Jean-François Paroz

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Benjamin Parks

Swiss Ambassador to Japan Jean-François Paroz only arrived in Tokyo in September, but his career with Switzerland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spans nearly 30 years. In the four years before coming to Japan, he was Ambassador to Hungary, and between 2007 and 2009, he was posted to Dakar, where he oversaw six west African countries — Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Cape Verde, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. In addition to having different roles dealing with the relations of Switzerland with the United Nations between 1997 and 2007 — including counsellor at the Swiss Mission in New York, and head of the UN Coordination Unit of Political Affairs in Bern — Ambassador Paroz acted as advisor to Boutros Boutros-Ghali when the former UN head was Secretary General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, from 2000 to 2002. The Ambassador spoke with Eurobiz Japan about his time in Africa, the positive results of Switzerland’s free trade agreement with Japan, and the 100th anniversary of Dada.

You have worked extensively with the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie in your career. Why is this organisation important?

The French language is one of the four national languages of Switzerland, and we consider the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie to be a framework for global influence. The promotion of linguistic pluralism is part of our constitution; we think that multilingualism and cultural diversity are very important. The Francophonie is certainly one network where you can work to promote these.

It is also an organisation that stands for democracy worldwide. Basically, taking into account the observers as well, there are more than 70 countries that are part of this organisation — including many French-speaking African countries, countries in Asia, and some countries in South America — which is already a significant part of the UN’s membership; and it helps you to work in closer contact with them within the framework of the UN.

Could you tell me about a few of your experiences in Africa?

In Africa, when you cover several countries, you have a lot of stories you could tell. For example, I presented my credentials to the president of Mauritania, but the country had a coup-d’état some months later. At one point, we had some Swiss hostages taken in Mali, and we had to make sure they were freed.

When I was serving as head of the Francophonie section in Bern in 2006, we decided to hold a special event in honour of President Senghor of Senegal for the centennial of his birth, so I organised a ballet performance in Geneva with Maurice Béjart, the great ballet dancer and choreographer. Interestingly enough, Béjart had lived in Senegal when he was a boy. He knew Senghor very well and told me the president had been like a father to him.

The next year, after I had become the Swiss Ambassador in Dakar, Béjart passed away. Béjart had started a dance school in Senegal; and with this school, we held a performance to remember him. So, I had the chance to celebrate Senghor with Maurice Béjart in Switzerland. And in Senghor’s country, I was able to celebrate Maurice Béjart’s life a year later.

How have you spent your first two months in Japan?

I’ve been busy! When an ambassador first arrives, you have to meet the officials. A few days after my arrival, I met the Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Shinsuke Sugiyama to whom I presented a certified copy of my letter of credence. And then, with great anticipation, you wait for the opportunity to present your credentials to His Majesty the Emperor, which took place three weeks after my arrival.

You also have to meet all the partners of the embassy — so it’s a lot of courtesy calls, a lot of visitors, a lot of visits. I was quite surprised by how many people were interested in visiting so soon after my arrival. It’s always a good sign that the embassy is considered useful, so I must pay tribute to the work of my predecessor and the great team at this embassy.

What are some of your specific goals for the coming year?

I would like to continue promoting political dialogue at a high level, and to further nurture the good economic relationship Switzerland has with Japan — in large part, thanks to the free trade agreement of 2009.

How have Swiss enterprises benefitted from the Japan-Switzerland Free Trade and Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan?

Switzerland was the first European country to conclude a free trade agreement with Japan. Both partners have noted that since the agreement entered into force in 2009, Swiss exports to Japan have increased 30% and Japanese exports to Switzerland by 15%. This shows that the agreement opened the way for new trade and investment opportunities for the business communities on both sides.

How do you think Switzerland views Japan from a business and investment point of view?

Switzerland is a significant foreign private investor in Japan. We are the sixth-largest foreign investor in Japan. Apparently, we invest more than Germany, which is quite impressive.

We consider Japan to be an essential partner, a strategic partner for Switzerland. It’s the fourth-largest export market for Switzerland. But, politically, it is hard for Switzerland to retain much attention from the Japanese authorities. We cannot contribute much to Japan on some of the bigger issues, so we strive to be an interesting partner.

What has been happening on the level of cultural exchange this year?

Just recently, we had a visit from a member of the Swiss parliament, who is also the mayor of Montreux; and we held the Montreux Jazz Festival Japan. The entire leadership of the Montreux Jazz Festival was present at Yebisu Garden Place, and I also attended.

Throughout the summer, there were also many events — such as concerts, live performances and exhibits — that were organised in connection with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Dada art movement that was born in Zurich.

Why is it important for Switzerland to commemorate the Dada legacy?

The Dada movement is one of Switzerland’s biggest contributions to contemporary art. I think it speaks to the fact that Switzerland has been an open society for centuries. Being neutral, Switzerland could offer a place of refuge for these artists and free thinkers who still inspire many artists today.

Dadaism was not accepted everywhere, but Switzerland has always been a harbour for progressive ideas. After all, we had Lenin as a refugee in Geneva. To have been a place of asylum for the Dadaists in a time of war is an example of how Switzerland doesn’t stop new ideas at the border.