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Analysis & Opinion
01.02.10 Parlez-Vous Francais?
By Elena Rubinova

The year 2010 will have special significance for the relationship between Russia and France. This year has been officially named as the year of Russia in France and the year of France in Russia. Some 400 events dedicated to culture, trade, industry, science and space research, education and sport will take place in both countries. At the highest level, the program includes a visit by President Dmitry Medvedev to Paris and a visit by President Nicolas Sarkozy to Russia. France will also be the guest of honor at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Russia and France have a lot on common: their intellectual, artistic and cultural ties (which at times translated into political and economic connections) date back over three centuries. The decision to hold a reciprocal national year, made back in 2007 by the two heads of state, was motivated by the desire to demonstrate what those ties are like today. “Russians will be able to discover France in its diversity, as a country with rich history and proud of its cultural legacy on the one hand, and as one that is modern, vibrant and inspired by everlasting ideas of freedom and multicultural society on the other. By holding this cross year we hope to overcome many stereotypes and prejudices, as well as to trigger mutual interest, so that the French and the Russians meet the challenges of the 21st century together with other European nations,” said Nicolas Chibaeff, the French general commissioner of the year France-Russia. Chibaeff has been working on preparing the cross year together with his Russian colleague Mikhail Shvydkoy for over two years.

Philippe Pegorier, the Head of Ubifrance, the French economic mission in Russia, thinks more pragmatically but no less highly about the upcoming cooperation in various fields. “In my opinion, the cross year can greatly contribute to Russia’s image in France. It’s important to give the broader French audience an idea of what modern Russia is like. Economic relations will benefit from this approach.”

On January 25, the Pleyel Concert Hall in Paris hosted the official launch of the cross year, with maestro Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra. In fact, the cross year started long before the festival opening in the French capital, and has already spurred many cultural events. From early January, the French public has been enjoying Russian ballet: the Perm Theater is on tour in 12 cities across the country. In the beginning of January, Nice city center hosted the "Ruskoff" festival of Russian art. Thousands of kilometers away, Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, celebrated the beginning of the Year of France in Russia with the “Beijing-Amur-Paris” exhibition, featuring works by a French photo artist Charles Vaprout.

But contemporary culture is not just about the established brand that Russian culture represents. It also encompasses the creations of young people working outside the mainstream, away from the spotlight. This year, the International Comics Festival in Angouleme displays the work of young Russian cartoonists within the framework of an exchange with its St. Petersburg counterpart, the “Boomfest.” Eight artists from Moscow and St. Petersburg put on a collective exhibition entitled "Born in the USSR," a theme largely unknown to younger French audiences. “By all means, the cross year of Russia and France presents an opportunity for young artists to show their art at this prestigious European art forum. It took us a year to develop this idea, and our participation in Angouleme demonstrates the power of cultural relations,” said Dmitry Yakovlev, the artistic director of “Boomfest.”

Two other remarkable events aimed at the younger audience will take place later in the year: the “Trans Musicales de Rennes” festival that will be travelling from Samara to Sochi and а special writers’ train across the Trans-Siberian railway will allow young Russians to experience today’s French literature and music first hand.

France is known for its well thought-out and well funded cultural policy, with a very broad and active network of various French institutes. The Russian counterpart of the Alliance Francais is the Russky Mir Foundation, set up several years ago to promote the Russian language abroad and popularize Russia's national heritage. Russky Mir is launching a series of projects, such as opening a Russian library at the bilingual education center in Paris and a library at the Russian Orthodox seminary, as well as financially supporting Russian-language media in France, such as “L’Observateur Russe” and “La Pansee Russe.” “While preparing for the year of Russia in France we used the experience gained last year during the year of Russian language in China. For example, we are going to translate a few interactive education games and applications into French, so that French kids can learn Russian playing board and computer games. I am pretty sure that French children will like them just as much as the Chinese do,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, the executive director of the foundation. “Among other projects, the foundation is preparing a large-scale diversified joint program with Rossotrudnichestvo, which includes jointly organizing student forums, linguistic exhibitions and events dedicated to outstanding Russians,” he added.

France is now Russia’s ninth-biggest trade partner. Back in November, during Vladimir Putin’s visit to France, the two countries signed 15 strategic deals, the South Stream gas project and joint gas field exploration with France’s Total among them. But this year, a new approach to economic and commercial relations has been taken. In June, France will be the first country to be the guest of honor at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. “The interest in investment is huge among French businesses; this year we will be bringing nearly 800 companies to Russia, almost twice as many as we brought to Brazil in 2009, when France had a national year there,” Pegorier said. “Ubifrance will be holding a variety of events, but three of them are of special significance. The exhibition in the Manezh dedicated to French know-how and the ‘art of living’ will give Russian consumers, professionals and trade organizations a chance to see the latest products from over 100 French manufacturers that are not on the Russian market yet. Also in the second half of the year, we are organizing a meeting for professional winemakers and a B2B business forum in Moscow.”

As always, space cooperation will be in the spotlight, but this time also in a special format: a planned exhibition will follow the first flights of the Soyuz rocket from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana. Russia will welcome a major tour by the Comedie Francaise and the Opera de Paris ballet troupe, which will perform in Novosibirsk.

Choreographer Angelin Preljocaj will bring together the Bolshoi and his own dancers in contemporary ballet. But for the Russian audience, the year of France in Russia would be incomplete without Patricia Kaas. Her concert tour “Thank You, Russia” is coming to Moscow in February. And Kaas is indeed thankful to Russia, where she has been popular for over 20 years.

The cross year’s closing ceremony will take place at the Bolshoi Theater on December 8, 2010.
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