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Standing Together
France works with China in the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic
By Li Nan  ·  2020-03-02  ·   Source: NO.10 MARCH 5, 2020
French Consul General Olivier Guyonvarch in Wuhan (CNSPHOTO)

Olivier Guyonvarch, Consul General of France in Wuhan, Hubei Province in central China, was on vacation back in France when the city was put under lockdown due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at the end of January. "I was heartbroken when I knew that so many people were confirmed with COVID-19 and the city was not as bustling as it was normally," Guyonvarch told Beijing Review.

Special flights from different countries, including two from France, were sent to Wuhan to evacuate their nationals. But Guyonvarch made a bold and surprising choice: going back to Wuhan and keeping the consulate open. "I love Wuhan very much. It's an important part of my life," he said.

Wuhan is the first stop in Guyonvarch's diplomatic career. When the French Consulate General was first opened in 1998, Guyonvarch, then a newcomer in the French Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs, was assigned to work in the consulate for three years. It was also the first consulate in Wuhan.

And in September 2017, Guyonvarch came back to Wuhan to work as the sixth consul general. He speaks fluent Chinese and a little Wuhan dialect. He loves Wuhan's hot dry noodles, one of the most famous local snacks. His daughters also live and study in Wuhan. "I am a Wuhanese," he said.

Home to 500 French enterprises, Wuhan has the highest amount of French investment and the largest number of French nationals in China. According to Guyonvarch, there were about 40 French still in Wuhan by mid-February. "It's one of our responsibilities to stay and take care of the remaining French nationals," he said, adding that the French Consulate General will not be shut down because of the epidemic. Four French diplomats, besides Guyonvarch, volunteered to stay and keep the mission running.

"We want to stay here and tide over the difficulties with the city at this critical moment," Guyonvarch said.

Members of an overseas Chinese organization in Paris with donated epidemic control materials to be shipped to China on February 8 (XINHUA)

Medical support

France, as one of the first Western countries to establish diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China in 1964, has showed solidarity with China in many ways in the fight against the epidemic.

In less than a month, French President Emmanuel Macron called Chinese President Xi Jinping twice, expressing his support to China in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak. Macron, on his first call on January 22, said France is willing to work with China in the field of healthcare.

The two flights which came to evacuate French nationals in Wuhan on January 31 and February 2 were loaded with medical equipment and materials donated by France. The donation, worth 14 million yuan ($2 million), included more than 1.5 million facemasks, 20,000 protective suits, as well as goggles, gloves and disinfectant liquid. All these urgently needed materials were sent to the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, one of the designated hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients.

Besides medical supplies, Chinese and French medical experts have teamed up to find ways to control the virus. In a video message posted on the embassy's website on February 11, Laurent Bili, French Ambassador to China, said medical experts from both China and France are working together in Wuhan, Shanghai, Paris and Lyon to get a better knowledge of the novel coronavirus, to find a remedy and to stop it from spreading.

Macron's second phone call came on February 18. A day later, a plane loaded with 17 tons of medical supplies took off from France and headed to Wuhan.

Besides governmental support, many French organizations and companies have also contributed. For instance, Raphael Vialle, a hospital in Paris and member of the France-China Foundation, helped coordinate the delivery of the third batch of donated supplies to China. And thanks to the French Chamber of Commerce in China, French Healthcare as well as the Pasteur Institute, medical researchers from China and France joined hands to study the virus.

Standing with China

Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), a leading French football team, made changes in its usual red and blue jersey when it played its home match against Bordeaux in Ligue 1, the top league of French football, at the Parc des Princes Stadium on February 23. Four Chinese characters, Zhongguo Jiayou, which means "Stay strong, China," were printed on PSG players' jerseys.

Juan Bernat, a PSG player, told Nouvelles d'Europe, a Paris-based Chinese media outlet, that they did so to show their solidarity with the Chinese in the fight against the epidemic.

According to Buon Tan, President of the French-Chinese Parliamentary Friendship Group, this is the third time the PSG wore special jerseys to deliver special messages after a catastrophic event, the earlier two being the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris and the 2019 Notre Dame Cathedral fire. It's a message of support, care and friendship from the French sports and culture industries, Tan said.

French nationals in China said they have been impressed by the resilience of the Chinese people and the measures taken by the Chinese Government to protect its citizens, and also the rest of the world.

Fabien Azzi is the general manager of French headlight manufacturer Holophane, which employs 230 people in Dalian, northeast China. He said, "We will defeat this epidemic thanks to the cohesion and willingness of the Chinese and other foreign nationals staying in the country. We are in the same boat and this will make us stronger!"

Jing Legrand, CEO of Altavia Asia, was born in Wuhan. She is impressed by the "courage and dignity of Wuhan people during this tragedy," and is "touched by the solidarity that this natural catastrophe has created throughout China." Altavia is a Paris-based company specializing in commercial communication for the retail sector.

Louis Houdart, founder and CEO of branding agency Creative Capital China, was amazed by the resilience of the Chinese and how quickly they have adapted to this new situation by working from home. He found there is "real solidarity and willingness to go through this crisis together, in a collective way, and to be able to support our clients all our colleagues have been working from home, and everyone has been so dedicated."

Also, French companies in China have been doing as much as they can to support and protect their Chinese staff.

Jean-Etienne Gourgues is the managing director of Pernod Ricard China, the world's second largest wine and spirits company. His human resources team has worked tirelessly to make sure the employees are well protected and the salary payment is taken care of. The company donated 2 million yuan ($284,800) to support the medical personnel fighting the virus on January 29.

Continued communication

While some countries have imposed travel restrictions, flights between China and France are still operating, and people-to-people exchanges continue.

Didier Guillaume, French Minister of Agriculture, said in February that the epidemic will not impede agricultural cooperation between France and China and France will do its best to keep the bilateral agricultural ties going.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France is ready to strengthen bilateral cooperation with China in all fields as well as coordination with China on issues such as climate change. He made the remarks when he met with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the 56th Munich Security Conference on February 15.

Wang said, "The epidemic allows us to learn who China's friends are indeed. The China-France friendship will stand up to the test and deepen."

"When life in Wuhan is back to normal, we will waste no time to resume France-China cooperation in the economy, science and technology, culture, education and languages," Guyonvarch said, adding that more exhibitions, shows and concerts would be held. "We are staying in Wuhan during the epidemic because we believe in Wuhan. Wuhan has its future."

(Bertrand Regnier and Liu Ting contributed to the article)

Copyedited by Madhusudan Chaubey

Comments to linan@bjreview.com

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