Karim Amellal, Macron's asset for the Mediterranean

After a professional career as a teacher, entrepreneur and writer, Karim Amellal (born in 1978) was appointed ambassador for the Mediterranean in July 2020. Here he takes stock of his diplomatic mission within this transnational territory crossed by current geopolitical issues and France’s involvement in cultural projects based on cooperation between Mediterranean states, including the preparation of a “Mediterranean cultural season” in 2026.

What is the scope of your function from a geographic point of view?

The scope is set by a decree of 2013, creating the function of interministerial delegate for the Mediterranean whose mission is to implement France’s Mediterranean policy, towards the countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. By extension, this includes the Mediterranean as a geopolitical space, therefore the Mediterranean European countries, the Balkans and obviously Turkey are included. But this geography is extremely fluid depending on the subjects and current events.

Why is it important that this position is interdepartmental?

This is very important because it means that I can mobilize State services on the Mediterranean subject, which is transversal in essence. I therefore deal a lot with international action, with the countries and companies of the southern shore, but also with everything which, in France, has a Mediterranean dimension, like in Marseille, for example, which is a bit like the Mediterranean capital of France, but also Toulon, Nice and Montpellier. The fact that the delegation to the Mediterranean has an ambassador at its head, however, reflects the importance of the diplomatic issues.

You are therefore attached to the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs [MEAE] which allocates you a budget…

Indeed, the delegation has been attached to the MEAE since 2015, by decision of Laurent Fabius, but this has not always been the case. The delegation was previously attached to the Prime Minister. We have a budget supplemented by the general secretariat of the MEAE which allows us to finance our operations, projects, and organize our own events, which is an asset.

How does your role relate to the missions of the French diplomatic network?

French diplomacy has both a bilateral dimension which relies on our embassies abroad, and a multilateral, or regional, dimension which is more mine: the two must naturally be coordinated. The multilateral dimension concerns States, but also organizations, notably the Union for the Mediterranean (UPM), the Barcelona Convention, the Anna Lindh Foundation, which is a bit like the cultural arm of the UPM. We also rely a lot on the European Union as at the moment when Spain presides over it. It is in this general plan that we implement France’s Mediterranean policy, and it turns out that Emmanuel Macron has a strong ambition for the Mediterranean. We must face common challenges in this area crossed by tensions and crises, and promote cooperation. We are therefore developing political but also cultural projects in Lebanon, the Maghreb, and Egypt. In Libya for example, France has long experience with archaeological sites, despite the very complicated political situation, and it is essential to support these projects, in cooperation with the Libyans.

On a cultural level, what are the interventions of the delegation that you lead?

As I said, the Mediterranean faces many challenges, climatic, demographic, economic, and it is within this framework that cultural issues fall. We already have existing tools, but which do not always work as well as desired. Among them the UPM, which we are trying to revitalize, the “5+5 Dialogue” [forum regroupant cinq pays du nord de la Méditerranée occidentale, dont la France, et cinq pays du Sud] or the Anna Lindh Foundation which recently adopted new governance.

There are therefore many tools but the aim of our action is also to imagine new instruments or new modes of cooperation. The “Books from the Two Shores” project corresponds exactly to this perspective: it is a project emblematic of our ambition for the Mediterranean. It mobilizes publishers and translators on an essential subject, the book, in France and in three Maghreb countries. This is the type of project that gets people working together beyond regional difficulties and rivalries. Another example, the Forum of Mediterranean Worlds which was held in Marseille in February 2022, and which brought together nearly 3,000 representatives of civil societies from around the Mediterranean. Because the Mediterranean is States, of course, but it is also a multitude of actors in civil society: entrepreneurs, academics, artists, publishers… We have, for example, created a talent academy of the Mediterranean, in Marseille, financed by the French Development Agency (AFD) and which has a cultural component. This involves helping civil society actors to carry out a project, thanks to financing and training. I also mention the “Safir” project carried out by the French Institute which is aimed at young leaders of projects with social, cultural or environmental impact in the Maghreb and the Middle East: in a few years it has made it possible to identify a thousand of entrepreneurs and creators.

What advantages does France have in the Mediterranean compared to the influence of other European countries, such as Germany and Great Britain?

France is fortunate to be able to rely on a cultural and diplomatic network which is one of the densest in the world, thanks to the French Institutes, but also to the numerous French educational establishments. This sometimes little-known network is a considerable asset, which also includes numerous bilingual schools or schools under contract with France, in the Maghreb and Lebanon in particular. This provides a formidable territorial network in the Mediterranean and remains a fundamental tool for outreach despite the criticism that we can hear about a possible decline in the French presence. Finally, among the cultural tools that contribute to our influence, there are the numerous partnerships implemented by our cultural establishments, such as the MuCEM [Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, à Marseille] or the Arab World Institute in Paris, but also by the numerous French festivals which are interested in the Mediterranean. I also think of the numerous residencies which allow artists and thinkers to immerse themselves in another reality.

What are the major Mediterranean projects for the years to come?

The President of the Republic announced in Marseille, last June, the programming of a major “Mediterranean cultural season” in 2026, on which we are working with the French Institute. It will have a strong cultural dimension, but will also offer projects on sport or innovation. It is a season designed to mirror the “2020 Africa Season”, with youth, creators, digital innovation, major exhibitions… We will be very attentive to the popular dimension of this Season, with events in the neighborhoods popular and an involvement of the diasporas: this will be somewhat the high point of this Mediterranean policy mentioned above. This Season should make it possible to create links, but also to change the way France views the Mediterranean and its diasporas.

Do you intervene on questions of memory policy, in particular those linked to colonial Algeria?

Yes, I was a member of the Stora commission which helped launch concrete projects around the appeasement of memories resulting from colonization and the Algerian war. But the blockages on this subject are not new and will not dissipate quickly, here as in Algeria. The Institute of France and Algeria project that the president announced is also emblematic, and I hope that it can see the light of day, despite the obstacles [ce projet fait suite à la création avortée d’un musée de la France et de l’Algérie, à Montpellier]. Generally speaking, I find that over the last ten years France has done enormous work on these issues, particularly with Emmanuel Macron through his recognition policy: we clearly see a generational change.

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