Colonel Stéphane Richou was defence attaché in Ethiopia until summer 2020. In that role, besides protecting and developing French defence interests, he organised a large number of commemorative actions to stimulate the two countries’ shared remembrance.
Lieutenant-Colonel Stéphane Richou. © Rights reserved
France has stone memorial heritage in Ethiopia. In what way is it a pillar of Franco-Ethiopian shared remembrance?
The French stone heritage in Ethiopia is comprised essentially of the site of the French Embassy itself, which bears witness to the century-old friendship that joins our two countries. The embassy received a military mission straight after the First World War, in August 1919. The first on the African continent, it symbolises our ongoing defence diplomacy over the past century. We celebrated that centenary on 24 September, with an event attended by more than 300 French and Ethiopian guests.
Meanwhile, a French plot in Addis Ababa War Cemetery was officially opened on 16 December 2018, the anniversary of the disappearance of the last crew of the Aden Escadrille. With the decisive support of the Directorate for Heritage, Remembrance and Archives and the Ethiopia section of the National Union of Combatants, the airmen of the Free French Air Forces killed in action were at last given a final resting place, 78 years after their deaths.
So there are a series of shared memories, including the Korean War. Does this shared history have an impact on the diplomatic sphere?
Rediscovering the bonds which our French and Ethiopian forebears developed during the Korean War has been a wonderful tool for mutual rediscovery today. When the 12 members of the UN French Battalion in Korea veterans’ association agreed to come to Addis Ababa in June 2018, we organised their trip around the themes of brotherhood between servicemen, the ongoing commitment to peacekeeping by the Blue Helmets today, and the telling of their stories to students of Addis Ababa University. The bonds formed at such an event are worth more than months of administrative efforts in the corridors of the embassy!
You also did a lot of outreach work with French and German school pupils, for the First World War centenary.
We wanted to take a multidimensional approach to the First World War centenary commemorations in Addis Ababa. A screening and discussion of the film Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) was held at the city’s national theatre, attended by a large audience from the international community and Ethiopian civil society. It was a chance for Europeans and Africans to reflect together on the theme of reconciliation, and to seek common threads between the Franco-German friendship forged after the world wars and the reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea desired by the two countries in 2018. We subsequently focused our efforts on young people, with the creation of a “Franco-German club” at the French lycée and German Embassy School. The projects done by this group of students, coordinated by a handful of motivated teachers, centred on First World War remembrance. The summaries and results went on to be presented to a large audience as part of an Armistice Centenary Day held at the French lycée.
Military ceremony to mark the centenary of the French mission in Ethiopia, highlighting the close ties of bilateral military cooperation between the French and Ethiopian armed forces, which was reinforced by the signing of a series of important agreements during a visit by the French president in March 2019, Embassy of France in Ethiopia, 24 September 2019.
© Ambassade de France
How to avoid a kind of commemorative repetition of key anniversaries like VE Day and Remembrance Day?
The tributes paid to combatants on these anniversaries promote the values of commitment, courage and patriotism, by delivering positive messages for both the expatriate community and our partners. Overseas, more than elsewhere, these ceremonies build bridges between generations and countries. I am struck by how popular these military ceremonies at the French Embassy are with the Ethiopians.
2020 is an important year for commemorations. How will that be reflected in Ethiopia?
Over the next few months, I would like to promote the epic of Free France, to mark the 80th anniversary of its founding. So I am planning a big event at Gondar, in the castles of Emperor Fasilides. A tribute will be paid to General Monclar, commander of the Free French Orient Brigade, which took part in the liberation of the city alongside Ethiopian patriots and British forces. Nine years later, this same legendary officer commanded the UN French Battalion in Korea, relieved at Heartbreak Ridge in 1951 by the Ethiopians of Kagnew Battalion. The 70th anniversary of the Korean War is a fresh opportunity to celebrate Franco-Ethiopian brotherhood-in-arms.