Diplomacy in the time of COVID-19: France continues to support Santé, Amitié, Solidarité (Health, Friendship, Solidarity)

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The French consulate fights COVID-19 head on with optimism: “Hong Kong welcomes us, we must be exemplary.”

The pandemic has shaken up some of the French consulate’s biggest plans of the year. Unlike other nations with smaller expatriate communities, the consulate provides not only diplomatic support but works closely with French educational and cultural institutions across the city such as the French International School and Alliance Française de Hong Kong. Some of this work includes handling large-scale events, such as Le French May.

Due to COVID-19 however, the status of these annual events remains unclear. No events have been officially cancelled, although the status of performance venue closures after April is still up in the air.  Educational institutions, such as the French International School, require extra support from the consulate. Nonetheless, Consul General Alexandre Giorgini remains optimistic and sends his best to all Hongkongers, promising that France’s activities in the city will come back in full force. 

The French Consul General, Alexandre Giorgini, took up the position in 2018, replacing the former Consul General Eric Berti. Giorgini has been a diplomat since the late 90s, having previously served as the First Secretary to the French Embassy in Rome. He also served as the Political Counselor at the French Embassy in Moscow. While in Russia, he studied Mandarin at the State University of Lomonosov. As early as 21 March, Giorgini urged the French community in Hong Kong to wear masks, something the French Ministry of Health only began advocating last Saturday.

Consul General Alexandre Giorgini admires the messages of solidarity Hongkongers have shared with France.

What functions have you stopped or slowed in your office on the consular, trade, immigration or other fronts?

In times of crisis, our top priority is to support our fellow citizens in Hong Kong and Macao. Yet, after the closure of the Schengen area to foreigners, and as we entered a new stage of the outbreak in Hong Kong, we scaled down our consular activities and have been providing services in person only to those with urgent needs and by appointment. The Consulate accepts new visa applications in special emergency cases only. We also issue travel documents (temporary passports) for French people who need to go back home. 

On the other side, it is inevitable that our cultural, business, and academic events have been either cancelled or postponed. But we are already working on organising the next editions after the summer. We have to be ready as Hongkongers always move fast!

What kind of outreach measures has the office carried out to make services accessible to your nationals? Were any additional resources created to accommodate for the virus situation?

Our office has remained open to the public throughout the crisis with precautionary measures such as temperature screenings. We also decided to impose wearing masks for visitors; anyone without a mask will be denied access. On a practical level, face masks and hand sanitizer have been provided to all our staff.

We are also continuously reaching out to our nationals online to keep them informed about the situation and help them cope with the travel bans and other administrative restrictions they might face. The situation is complex and constantly changing. The new regulations are sometimes difficult to understand for non-specialists. As much as my consular team has mobilised, helping people in person or answering the numerous requests by phone, my communication team strives to convey accurate and clear information to our citizens through our website and our social networks.

What activities have increased?

Activities at our consular section have significantly increased. With more than 14,000 registered French citizens, Hong Kong is home to China’s largest French community. 

The French community is young, with numerous families and children. We are deeply affected by the closure of schools. The challenges are high for the French International School (2,700 students, 4 campuses) whose teachers do their best to organise online lessons. I am really impressed by the job they have been doing. We take part in every crisis management meeting organised by the French International School: it is our duty to support it in the current circumstances. 

We are in close contact with the French who are now in quarantine in government centres when they need psychological support. Phone calls and requests via email or social network – coming from French citizens in Hong Kong but also in the Asia-Pacific or in France – have increased a lot. With border closures everywhere, many are also stranded and we are here to help to the best of our ability for them to be able to come back home. It is not easy, as there are fewer and fewer flights. 

As a diplomat, this is one of the most complex situations I have ever experienced. But cooperation with the HKSAR Government has been efficient and is of great help to the consular community. 

How do you reconcile work from home measures and security?

Our top priority is the safety and the health of the French community and of our staff. We have implemented social distancing measures such as the suspension of meetings and staggered shifts. No official dinners, no receptions. The staff is divided into two separate teams, which alternate at the office. The team who is not in office works from home. It is what I call a system of “waterproof brigades”. 

Has your home office asked you to do anything differently?

We are working closely with our headquarters in Paris to address the current situation. With China, US, UK, and Russia, France is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations and has one of the widest diplomatic networks in the world. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has instructed us to encourage all efforts to strengthen international coordination in order to curb the spread of the virus.

That’s why we decided from the start to keep everyone mobilised. Any of our staff returning to France was never a question. Nevertheless, working time arrangements have been granted to parents to take care of children at home, pending the resumption of classes.

Do you find that more of your nationals are registering with your office than previously? Were numbers up because of the protests? Did they spike again as the coronavirus pandemic started to spread?

We have witnessed an increase of registrations in the last months. It is indeed always a pleasure for a Consul to discover that there are more and more French citizens living in this amazing town! 

To be registered is useful. You can be reached and informed of our security advice or health recommendations. 

For example, last week I sent a message to appeal to the sense of responsibility of the French expatriates, encouraging them to observe social distancing, to wear a mask and to fully comply with the obligations in terms of self-quarantine for those who had recently returned from Europe. We are a visible and well-integrated community in Hong Kong. No question, we live here, Hong Kong welcomes us, we must be exemplary!

In conclusion, I would like to add that while my country is suffering at the moment, I am struck by the messages of solidarity that I have received from Hongkongers who love France. It goes to my heart. And it is in difficult times that you recognise true friends!

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