Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Icelandic-French Relations

Speech by Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade,
in the French Senate, Paris - October 6, 1997


Senators,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour and a pleasure for me to address this distinguished audience here in the French Senate. I am also very pleased to see that the guests represent a cross section of Iceland's interests in France
and French interests in Iceland.

Our countries are linked by the sea, which has through the centuries played an important role in our relationship. Iceland is well known in France for its fisheries and fish products and many of you may be aware of the fact that French fishermen - les Pêcheurs d'Islande - are an integral part of Icelandic history.

This dates back to the year 1616 when the French boat owner Jean de Clerc sent his seven boats from Dunkerque to Iceland's cold and dangerous shores to fish cod. For over 300 years or until 1938 French fishermen continued to fish off the coast of Iceland - as many as 4-5000 each year. This number almost equals the total number of Icelandic fishermen today.

The Icelandic Nobel Prize author Mr. Halldór Laxness described in an article in 1943 the close ties between the French fishermen and the Icelanders. Both had to endure the harsh environment of Icelandic waters. This reality developed a mutual understanding and respect between the fishermen of both countries.

French fishermen were best known in two areas of Iceland, on the Northwest Coast and on the East Coast where they often came ashore during bad weather. I am personally well aware of this as I was born on the East Coast, where my parliamentary constituency happens to be. In these areas the memory of the Frenchmen who came to fish is still vivid in the minds of the older generation. In that period fishing took its toll on ships and men as some 4000 French fishermen where lost at sea. Only this summer, a monument was erected at Fáskrúðsfjörður on the East Coast in honour of these French fishermen.

To assist the fishermen the French government constructed various facilities in Iceland such as hospitals, including one on the East Coast of Iceland, in Fáskrúðsfjörður in 1904, the very first hospital to be built in this part of Iceland.

The best reminder of French presence in Iceland today is Höfði house, the official reception hall of the city of Reykjavík. The French authorities built Höfði for the French consul Mr. Briouin (Bríon) whose main function was to render assistance to the fishermen. The origin of Höfði can still be seen in the reception hall where the initials of the French Republic - R.F. - are carved in the wall along with other French symbols such as the French coat of arms and the hat of the Jacobines.

In 1986 Höfði was the venue for the Reagan-Gorbachov summit held in Iceland.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The history of the French fishermen is fascinating but now I would like to turn to some aspects of our relations as they are today.

The relations between our two countries are excellent both in terms of trade and politics. Iceland and France are founding members of NATO and the OECD. Even though Iceland is not a member of the European Union it has close links to the Union through the EEA Agreement that enables Iceland to participate in the internal market and the four freedoms; the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons.

I am often asked why Iceland has chosen not to join the EU. The major reason is that Iceland cannot accept the current EU Common Fisheries Policy. Iceland is in a unique position, as regional considerations do not apply to the industry. Iceland does not use subsidies for the fishing industry and runs it purely on competitive basis. In Iceland fisheries support the state. In addition Iceland does not share viable fishing stocks with the EU.

Trade between Iceland and France has increased significantly in recent years and is now a major component of Iceland's foreign trade. Icelandic exports to France have increased from about 1% of our total exports 15 years ago to around 8% today, mostly fish products. Imports from France have also increased dramatically over the same period.

The main impetus for Iceland's increased exports is the direct involvement of Iceland's largest seafood concerns. They have in recent years established their sales offices in France, Iceland Seafood in Boulogne-sur-Mer and Icelandic France in Paris and the investment made by the Union of Icelandic Fish Producers in Nord-Morue, in Jonzac. Senator Belot who is with us here tonight is also the Mayor of Jonzac and his involvement and enthusiasm in supporting Nord-Morue's reconstruction is to be commended.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

French tourists are in increasing numbers discovering Iceland and its exceptional nature. Icelandair has direct flights with France eight months of the year and its goal is a year-around operation in two years time.

Iceland is Europe's outpost to the west with one of the highest living standards in the world. Icelandic legislation has created a friendly investment environment. And Iceland offers foreign investors favourable corporate taxes, advanced infrastructure and a stable economic environment.

In the last few years the fabric of Icelandic society has undergone dramatic changes. A new generation better educated and outward looking is taking the lead in Icelandic firms. Various Icelandic enterprises have made sizeable investments abroad and are constantly looking for investment opportunities. Joint ventures have been established in various countries as far away as Mexico, Namibia and Chile to name but a few.

All this has furthered the diversification of the Icelandic economy. Fish is of course still of vital importance but enterprises in other fields are increasingly gaining a more substantial role in the economy. There has been rapid growth in high-tech industries and various Icelandic firms are now serving the global market. The same can be said of the power intensive export industries, which are enjoying prosperity.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Icelanders today have caught on to what France has to offer. Many restaurants that have been established in Reykjavik are under the influence of French Cuisine - and then there is the wine. Discovering the French "Savoir-faire" of wines is a part of our culture today. Icelanders have abandoned their old ways of drinking only strong spirits and now we enjoy the wide range of French wines being offered in every restaurant in Iceland.

Culture, romance and Paris are one and I must say that I am particularly pleased to be in Paris with my wife Sigurjóna at my side in this historical and beautiful building.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have given you a brief overview of the long lasting and strong ties that exist between France and Iceland. There is no doubt in my mind that our future relations will continue to bring good fortune to both our countries.

I would like to raise my glass and propose a toast for the continued good relations between our two countries.

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