In a freewheeling interview outgoing French Ambassador, Michel Jolivet speaks about the changes he has seen in Nepal, the Nagarjuna murders, and mountaineering accidents.
Nepali Times: What has been the highlight of your tenure here?
Michel Jolivet: I have witnessed many historical events, but I will always remember 21 November at the convention centre. Everyone was happy, sitting together, talking, hugging, there was very little security. There was a strong sense of nationhood. On this night I thought Nepal could be definitely on a new path.
So does Nepal look very different than when you first arrived here in 2004?
The problems are largely the same as they were in 1990, and even in the pre-1950 period. Jana Andolan II was fairly successful, but Nepal still has a problem of national consciousness and solidarity. Most people are proud to be Nepali. But Nepal remains a patchwork of different ethnicities and caste and interests, and national feeling is perhaps not ripe enough to easily build a modern nation. The people can be modern, but the state and the government are not.
The parties too are not modern-they do not have programs or agendas. How can you tell the difference between them? Even the Maoists-they say we are a Marxist-Leninist party for the 21st century-what does that mean concretely? ou can change a few words here and there in speeches and all the parties sound the same. As for the Maoist revolution, it was anachronistic as early as 1996 because the international revolutionary movement was already dead.
Nepal has always been a rather weak state. This means poor governance, even non-governance. Regarding non-governance some examples stand out. One is the inability to appoint ambassadors. Nepal, which has only friends, lost a golden opportunity to tell them: this is our new regime, this is our national achievement, please understand and help us.
Then there are the wilful defaulters. In my three years here there have been four or five finance ministers. All told me they'd tackle this, but I doubt a single rupee has been given back by wilful defaulters. Another consequence of a weak state is widespread corruption. Just one example-a few years ago I had to call on a finance minister to tell him that a head of a government body was asking for a kickback in order to implement a cabinet decision. The minister said to me: "that is normal".
You seem to be saying nothing has been gained in the past year.
It is a real issue that there are no representatives from a younger generation at the decision-making level. In so many countries, after a big popular movement for democracy, talented, intelligent young people emerge. Where are the young leaders from last year? For a country to change, it has to give a role to younger people. The political parties have to do that.
What is happening in the tarai is a concentrate of almost all the problems that have not been addressed in Nepal for too long. Another one is that a powerful neighbour like India is an ideal scapegoat for everything. Nepal has to learn to live with an elephant at its door, so to speak. When an elephant is properly dealt with, it is a very kind, friendly, useful giant. I am also concerned about this strange custom of bandas, chakka jams, and blocking highways. Going on strike is a basic right, but you can't torch someone else's car. Such petty terrorism destroys democracy, not to mention the economy. Regarding the peace process, Ian Martin and the UN have been doing a great job. It is unfair to criticise them or to make them scapegoats too. This reflects the inability of some other actors to do their own job. Is there any better alternative to UN involvement? Overall, I am still optimistic. The most important thing by far for changes to gain momentum is elections. I think Nepalis have the backbone and political will to go to elections and set a mandate.
You've had to deal with some difficult situations for French citizens in Nepal, notably the murder of Celine Henri.
I was closely involved with the investigation of the Nagarjuna murder. I used to also train there and had been up the mountain 60 or 70 times. I have never thought the army was involved. Of course Nagarjuna is a military area and there are so many strange stories about the murder of the German woman and of C?line Henry. But I can tell you they come from people who have never set foot there. I think I know this story the best, I have been involved every step of the way, I recovered some of the clothing. To the best of my knowledge the two ladies were killed by the same man and this man is still at large. I must thank the Nepali authorities for their help in this investigation. At a time of war they had hundreds of soldiers and policemen combing the area with German and French police experts. The body of C?line Henri was found much later by a mushroom collector.
You've also dealt with problematic adoptions. Do you think the government response has been reasonable? Over 400 families with processed papers can't take their children home.
Just over 50 French adoptive parents are in this position. Before adoptions were suspended, children were being taken away without the consent of their parents, and too much money was changing hands. It was good to stop that, and that an overhaul of the system is being planned. For the adoptive parents who cannot take a child back with them, their files will have first to be processed properly. Nepal needs to organise international adoption the way many other countries do, through a centralised national adoption agency that other national agencies can organise adoption through.
Your tenure has also been a bit 'disastrous' in terms of French mountaineering accidents-the bodies of four French climbers were found on Ganesh Himal just ten days ago.
This was a very bad series. We had no major mountaineering accident for years and years. Then we had Kangguru in 2005 where 18 climbers including seven French died. Shortly after, two French people died on Chulu. Jean-Christophe Lafaille, the top French climber, died on Makalu in January 2006, then a French gentleman on Everest in May 2006, and then the four young men on Ganesh last October. I appreciated the help and comradeship of Nepali mountaineers in the search operations. I also pay respect to the families of all the deceased. They showed great dignity.
And you yourself have a passion for mountains.
Yes, I've trekked and hiked in many places and went to Island and Mera peaks. I've travelled to many parts of Nepal. People are so helpful, welcoming and kind everywhere. On the way from Bardiya recently some women had closed the highway. They refused to reopen it for us, but the gentlemen did show us away around the blockade! I like this story, it proves again how everybody is kind in Nepal. Prime Minister Koirala, Prachanda, the king, everyone has been so kind to me!
So you have positive impressions of each of these people?
They all do what they think is the best solution. The only time I was really worried was between the king's two announcements last April. Today, my main concern is for the elections and the many very important issues that need to be sorted out before them-law and order, the tarai, marginalised groups. But Nepal has a true magic to move forward in complex situations that a foreign observer can hardly understand. Everybody seems to be trying hard.