Good neighbours: embassy marks one year of Les Voisins

Last year the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge launched Les Voisins in Paris, tonight the focus will be on the many less-famous people who make up the Franco-British relationship

One year on from the launch of the Les Voisins programme by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the British Embassy is holding a special celebration of Franco-British friendship tonight.

Tonight's event will especially honour ordinary French and British people whose daily lives attest to the links between the countries, many of whom have shared their stories on the Les Voisins site (see some examples below). 

It comes as new projects are on the way, such as ‘Les Voisins on Tour’, in the summer, promoting Britain as a fun tourist destination for the French, a British film festival in the embassy gardens in July, a partnership with Le Petit Palais about French Impressionist painters who spent time in the UK, and concerts of British music.

While the embassy says this push to celebrate the countries’ links is not a reaction to Brexit – spokesman Olaf Henricson-Bell said they started planning it in the spring of 2016 – it says it is partly about how they may face the future together remaining “the strongest of allies” in “uncertain times”.

Events so far have included new twinning schemes, a Franco-British Young Leaders programme, cultural events such as a costumed ball for the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and the launch of France’s national Fête des Voisins last year at the ambassador’s residence.

Mr Henricson-Bell, the embassy's head of politics, engagement and public affairs, said: “The whole idea of tonight will be that it’s about the people who make up the Franco-British relationship: those who have shared their stories, members of the young leaders’ programme and student organisations, associations from the UK and France, mayors who organise twinnings… A lot of diplomacy is about government links, but this is about the mass of interaction that goes on beyond that.”

He added: “The aim is to celebrate what’s so special about this relationship and it begins with a simple thought – that the relationship between neighbours is different and special and not like other relationships, because of the depth of the things we do together and the human relationships we have and our shared history and culture.

“And while this was not planned around Brexit it is important that as things change we remember what is so important to both our peoples.”

Mr Henricson-Bell said they have made a particular effort over the last year to show that the Franco-British relationship is not all about Paris and London. “We’ve had over 30 visits across the country and held lots of public meetings for the British community and met French people working with them and have supported new twinnings, including one that’s being finalised between Guildford and Versailles.

“There will be a summit in the UK this year for French and British mayors to help them work together, and at the Franco-British [governments] summit earlier this year we agreed with President Macron to aim for at least ten new twinnings a year.”

They are not necessarily looking to reproduce the ‘post-war model’ of the concept, but are looking for new ways to do it.

“They might be different depending on what each town or village wants from it. Some are working together on how to use digital services, sometimes it will be about languages and schools, sometimes about climate change.

“Some will want it to be for the very long-term and in other cases it will be about working together for three years on a project. It’s a flexible, dynamic, 21st century way of cooperating.”

Mr Henricson-Bell said the first year of the young leaders programme had been successful, with plenty of applications received to take part in a second cohort. Those accepted onto the scheme will be announced in the next few weeks. “They will meet the President in Paris this summer, much as the young leaders met the Prime Minister in London last year,” he said.

He said they have also “re-energised” the Entente Cordiale scholarships, for masters students to travel across the Channel, and held events to tell students about diplomacy.

He added: “With the launch of the Fête des Voisins at the residence, Franco-British relations became the theme of the fête last year, which worked really well, because its spirit and philosophy is the same as Les Voisins’.”

  • The embassy is still looking for more testimonies from 'Voisins': see more about it here, and read some previous ones, below.

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