Éric Lebédel (b. 1957), France's ambassador to Bulgaria, is not a newcomer to either the former Soviet bloc nor the Balkans. He has worked in Moscow in the 1980s and in Istanbul in the 1990s. This is not his first visit to Bulgaria either. He had been to this country several times on various short missions before he took up his post as ambassador in October 2016. This is less than a year in total, in a country notorious for being at least challenging to understand by people not well versed in either the language or the culture. However, what amazed me as we sat down for a chat in the elegant library of the French Residence in Central Sofia was Lebédel's profound, almost intimate knowledge of things even Bulgarians fail to notice and/or understand.
I am trying to confirm the truism that those who know a country best are the foreign diplomats in the short time I've been here I have tried to visit as many places as possible. To put it in another way, it is a part of my job to get to know the place as best as possible, but also it is a pleasure to explore.
Which places have so far impressed you the most?
I would especially recommend a small village near Sliven called Zheravna. Very well preserved wooden houses, magnificent setting in the mountain, and a lot of tourist potential, but at the same time unfrequented by many visitors. A kind of Koprivshtitsa, but even more humane.
Another place, just 40 kilometres out of Sofia, is a village called Popovyane. Popovyane is a very small village which may be the international capital of storks. I discovered this totally by chance. I had asked a lot of Bulgarians where I could see storks near Sofia. The answer I got was not fully satisfactory. The first time I saw storks near Sofia on Tsarigradsko Shose, just on the way out of town, where there are three huge nests. And 40 kilometres south of the capital, in Popovyane, a German expert on storks explained that there were at least 45 nests which means at the end of the season there are over 100 storks.
Belmeken, about two hours out of Sofia in the Rila mountain, is yet another wonderful place. It is about 2,000 metres above sea level and is a professional sports training base. I did some cross-country skiing there. Totally white in winter, green in spring.
It is difficult to limit myself to just a few. I should mention Blagoevgrad, which has a marvellous collection at its history museum, and of course Plovdiv, the European Capital of Culture in 2019. There we will have an important common project.
Apart from sports, which you obviously take in, do you have any other favourite spare time activities?
Sometimes it is difficult to make the difference between one's job, one's passions and one's hobbies. For example, when I try to learn a foreign language I always ask myself the question is it a hobby or is it a professional obligation? I do a lot of reading, both fiction and historical non-fiction. Again, I cannot tell where the job ends and the passion starts. Whenever I read a book about Bulgarian history for example, I cannot really tell.
If you had friends from France visiting here, what would you advise them to do?
They have to taste Ayryan and Kapama. They have to drink Mavrud and Melnik red wines. And they have to walk everywhere in Sofia.
My more general suggestion would be to always look around and venture off the beaten path. For example, if you go to a well-known landmark like Rila Monastery, try not to miss the hermitage of St John, which is a few kilometres away from the main site. And do try to squeeze through the rocks in the cave where he lived.
And what would you advise them against doing?
These are things that are probably at odds with popular perceptions about Bulgarians, at least in France. Never be late. Bulgarians are actually rather punctual. Do not jaywalk. Many French people cross the street when there are no cars and don't pay attention to the signals. Bulgarians in fact wait patiently at crossings. Never say that Bulgarian is very close to Russian or Turkish.
Which of the two is more dangerous?
I don't know the answer. I am still quite new here.
Speaking of which, Bulgaria has a new government. As an ambassador, I suppose, you are talking with all the political parties represented in the Bulgarian parliament.
Yes, I have to.
Do you talk with Ataka as well?
I haven't had the occasion so far.
Do you want to?
What I can say on the issue of nationalist parties, having in mind the recent experience of France, is that in Western Europe as a whole they seem to be more or less receding. This has been the case in The Netherlands, in Austria and relatively speaking in France as well. I think it is important to make a deeper analysis of parties that represent the far right, nationalism and populism. These are all different. Some of these parties evolve once they become members of a ruling coalition.
As for Bulgaria, the nationalists represent just 9 percent of the voters, which is less than other European countries including France. This doesn't mean that we collectively shouldn't be vigilant. Perhaps it would be more helpful to inspire rather than to lecture, in order to promote judiciary reforms to facilitate the fight against corruption.
How do you fight corruption?
Through adequate legislation and its genuine implementation. The EU especially can assist in this by giving advice regarding the legislation and exercising controls over the implementation.
Implementing judiciary reforms and fighting corruption have been on the agenda for many years in Bulgaria. However, nothing has happened for the past 10 years. Do you think we have a better reason to be optimistic now, in 2017, when Boyko Borisov became prime minister again?
The last CVM, or Cooperation and Verification Mechanism concerning Bulgaria and Romania, report did note a few improvements in Bulgaria in the field of countering organised crime. It also noted that challenges remained in judiciary reforms and the fight against corruption. It is in these two areas that we will encourage more reforms.
Is there a French expat community in Bulgaria?
My feeling is that the French community in Bulgaria doubles every five years. At the moment we have about 1,500 French citizens, but the number is increasing rapidly. There are cases of young people wanting to come to Bulgaria in search of jobs in, for example, the IT sector.