Eurointegrators: Interview with Etienne de Poncins and Ruslana Rymarska

In this episode, the guests are Ambassador of France to Ukraine Etienne de Poncins and Ruslana Rymarska, creator of “Smakuli” brand, winner of the “Created by Women” award.

The show is produced by a Ukrainian NGO Information Security and Oboz.TV.

Popova: Your Excellency, you just started your work in Ukraine this year. What is your opinion of France-Ukraine relations? What are your plans?

De Poncins: Thank you very much for inviting me. Yes. I’ve just arrived in Ukraine and started to work immediately, because the agenda is quite busy. It is very interesting to be here at this very moment in Ukraine, because there is a new president, a new government and a real will to reform this country, which is going in the right direction. My plan is to support the Ukrainian government in its effort to reform the country, to try to get peace for the conflict in the East. So, we are fully supportive of the Ukraine’s government in its effort. In addition to that, the moment is very convenient to be here, because the relationships between France and Ukraine are going very well. There is a good understanding between our two presidents – between President Macron and President Zelensky. They are more or less of the same age, both of them are very energetic persons, they established good communication and good contact between them. So, I’d say, it’s easy at this moment to be a French Ambassador to Ukraine.

Popova: Isabelle Dumont, the previous Ambassador of France to Ukraine was actively involved in different aspect of Ukraine, from politics to business. She was one of the members of the jury of the contest “Created by women”. Why does the French Embassy support this project?

De Poncins: I will continue in the same way, as my predecessor did, even if I am a man, not a woman.

Popova: It’s not a problem.

De Poncins: Thank you for that. It’s very important because gender equality is one of the priorities of the President Macron, both in the internal politics, he has devoted his mandate to improve this situation in France between men and women, and in the international spectrum he has also done gender equality one of the top priorities of his diplomacy. For example, as you know, France is chairing the G7 group for the current year, and one of the takeaway from the Biarritz Summit in France in the end of August was gender equality. On that occasion, a pact was adopted by the G7 member states to improve the situation of women all over the planet.

Popova: Ruslana, you became a winner last year competition or even this year competition actually. What has this award given you?

Rymarska: This award has given me an inspiration to move on, as my business is new, and when you move from scratch, sometimes your efforts go down, sometimes even faith that you will succeed falls down. And when I found out that I am the winner of this competition – I got a second wind to move on and to believe in those goals that are essentially for the competition, I had to formulate the goals I want to achieve, and then to move on to those goals. This contest gave me faith.

Popova: If possible, please tell us what happened after you had been awarded? What was the main prize? And how is your business going on now?

Rymarska: I will be honest that I really wanted my products to be sold on the “Auchan” network. When this competition came up, I thought that it was necessary to submit exactly because the jury were the decision makers in “Auchan”. In order to make them seeing my brand, I would very much like to participate in this competition. One of the important benefits of being the winner was the fact that I was introduced to the responsible persons of “Auchan” and we signed the agreement and the products are already selling in the “Auchan” network today. It was also a very inspiring trip for me to Paris, where I met with the sponsoring companies. I didn’t think it would be so inspiring in terms of my experience gained, to see how the business in France works and to visit the largest bank in France “Crédit Agricole”, to get acquainted with how this corporate culture is built there. Yes, this is a big company, and I have a small one, but it is still a certain experience that you can strive for. This is a meeting with “Michele et Augustin” company and when I got there, it seemed to me that I was in my own company, but many years later, because I wanted to build a business so much by the same way. They also started as I did – they did a lot of work from the small craft company in the beginning and were able to win the loyalty and love of the buyers of their product

Popova: An issue of gender equality is included in French legislation, as far as I know. Could you please tell us a concept, why it is in the law, and why it is important for gender balance?

De Poncins: Yes, we have reinforces our own legal environment. In France it is important, because it’s creating new impetus to the French companies, when they respect the law. We have to be determined in that matter. You cannot just wait for things to move in the right direction. You have to be active and proactive in favoring and empowering women in the business environment. This is why we support here through the Chamber of Commerce this award. I want to congratulate you for having this award last year. We will continue this support here, because we want also to demonstrate how it is important to have more women in top positions in the business community.

Popova: Do you mean that you have in French legislation the official percentage of women, which should be on top positions?

De Poncins: Yes, it’s an ongoing process. It’s not mandatory for the moment, but there are some incentives to push companies to improve the gender balance for the top positions. The rationale behind the French legislation is to support and to convince, not to punish companies. But there are some incentives to respect gender balance within French companies.

Popova: Ruslana, do you support this idea of gender equality on a government level?

Rymarska: Yes, I do support and believe that the more women will be involved in decision-making (because most women work in alternate positions and work very well), the more will probably be social impact. Because women are still tend to think more on long-term and what will be the impact on the environment. My opinion is that this is correct when the balance of women in government at the state level is maintained.

Popova: Did you try with this award to go to the EU market to sell your product?

Rymarska: I’m in the process. We participated in the exhibition, though not in Europe, but in Canada and there I met companies from Europe. Now we are in the negotiation process, but this is a long game. It is not like today we have agreed, we now have to go through our labels for compliance and after that it will be possible to go to the stage of discussing the commercial terms. And for now we have to find out do we generally fit the ingredients in compliance with all their requirements.

Popova: Your Excellency, your President Mr. Macron is doing a lot in order to end an active phase of war in Donbass. What is your opinion about the situation there? Would it be possible to stop this active phase? You were in Mariupol recently. What do you think about the situation in the East?

De Poncins: Yes, you are right saying that President Macron is doing a lot trying to find a solution for the conflict in the East and the Donbass region. He is devoting a lot of time, a lot of energy consulting with Chancellor Merkel, with President Putin and with President Zelensky to organize as soon as possible Normandy format summit in Paris. We are reasonably optimist that this summit could take place quite soon. There were some conditions to be fulfilled through the Minsk process. Those conditions are now almost fulfilled, so this should open the door for a summit to take place in Normandy format.

Popova: Do you think it will happen?

De Poncins: I think it will happen. Yes, definitely. No date yet, but there is really a will for all the parties to have this summit soon and to end this terrible conflict in the East, which is not a frozen conflict as sometimes we can hear in the international press. It is not frozen at all. It’s an ongoing conflict with casualties. And I want to pay tribute to Ukrainian soldiers, who are dying on a monthly basis. This is a terrible pain for Ukraine, and I share this pain as a French representative. I was in Mariupol. This was a very successful event, organized by the Ukrainian authorities, because we need to invest in the eastern part of Ukraine. There was a quite big delegation of French companies; more than 20 French companies were represented in Mariupol. They have some very practical projects to develop the economic situation in that part of the country. In Mariupol we have signed an agreement to create a water plant facility for the city of Mariupol, because this city is in great need of getting fresh and drinkable water. So, this has demonstrated on a real basis how involved we are in that part of the country. And more generally I want just to recall that French companies are the fifth foreign investor in Ukraine. And depending how we are calculating, we are set to be the first foreign employer in Ukraine. You mentioned “Auchan” and some other French companies in retail sector, we are very visible, and I hope, this is my plan, that we will reinforce this trend in the coming months. Because there is a lot of opportunities in Ukraine for French companies and for foreign investors.

Popova: Do you think that Russia is ready to stop this active situation in the east, based on Minsk agreement?

De Poncins: I don’t want to over-interpret, but our feeling is that yes, there is a window of opportunity at this moment to make progress in that direction. I’m not here to interpret the Russian position, but our feeling and the feeling of my president and Chancellor Merkel also is that it’s time for us, for the international community to act and to put this conflict to an end.

Popova: Do I understand it correctly, that the French and German governments, who are involved in the Normandy format, support the idea of the Minsk agreement, the Steinmeier Formula, and troop withdrawal which is now taking place in east Ukraine?

De Poncins: Yes, the Minsk agreement was signed in 2015. It’s valid and it includes the Steinmeier Formula. That was part of the pre-requisites for having the summit of Normandy format.

Popova: Did you try to sell your products on the eastern Ukraine? Where is actually your distribution?

Rymarska: Our model mainly deals with the network stores. It’s little ones – like “Eco-Lavka” or retails ones like “Auchan”. We have signed an agreement with the “Auchan” network. So our products are sold now in the east too. “Novus” simply does not have a representative offices in Kharkiv, in Dnipro, the farthest point is Mykolaiv and they do not move any further.

Popova: Recently, there was a speech of Mr. Macron that he supports integration for people from Africa, but not from Bulgarian and Ukrainian networks. What does it mean?

De Poncins: I had an explanation with my colleague in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There was misinterpretation about what the president said. The interview was not about foreign policy, it was for internal consumption, and there was nothing negative about Ukraine. It was not related in the proper way in the local Ukrainian press as it was.

Popova: What are the next steps about the “Created by Women” competition? As far as I understand, you both will participate in a future project?

De Poncins: Absolutely. The French Chamber of Commerce will continue to support the award for this year. This partnership is ongoing, and very successful. And French Embassy is fully backing this competition.

Popova: You will be in a jury?

De Poncins: I will be a member of the jury.

Popova: What would you advise to all these women who will participate in this competition?

Rymarska: I would also like to point out that it is very pleasant that a foreign country created this award. And it shows to our country how to support women because in fact, in Ukraine there has not been such an award that honored women in business. Not just a rating but such an award. What I would like to wish is to believe in yourself because, as I said, the award has given to me the faith to move on to my ambitious goals. And even if something goes wrong, then raise your hands and head and go further forward because the road is always reinforced by the one who walks it. And probably you should never feel sorry for yourself and use the words like “I am a woman, so…” If we are in business, we have to be equal and competitive and think accordingly how to represent your product and your company in a best way.

Popova: Thank you. At least it seems to me that women have less of a potential problem getting into a situation like #MeToo – a well-known project around the world when women were told how they were harassed by men. Do you know this #MeeToo project, which started in the US and then came to Ukraine as well. We had some incidents even in our army that started to expose. How it was in France? I know that even Catherine Deneuve was against it?

De Poncins: Catherine Deneuve was against when it was going too far. She thought that it was sometimes going too far, and we have imported some culture, which is not a part pf the French culture. Anyway, it’s going public in every sector. Now this is not acceptable, and less and less acceptable by women and by population as a whole. For example, now there are some new indication about the situation in the film industry, in the media industry – and this is positive. More and more awareness about this situation, in France, as it is in Ukraine and other democracies.

Popova: Russia has been returned to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and France supported this idea. Why?

De Poncins: Not only France. There was a vote of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, where Russia was not presented and now they are back. There was a huge consensus to bring back Russia to this Parliamentary Assembly. Why? Because we think it’s better to have within the Council of Europe than outside the Council of Europe. It is positive to protect the Russian citizens, because they would have legal recourses to the Court of human rights in Strasbourg. If they are not part of the Council of Europe, they could not raise and protect their own rights, as Russian citizens. That was the rationality behind the decision. Why France was particularly in the forefront, because we were chairing the Council of Europe at that moment. This presidency is ending at the end of November, so that would be for another presidency of Georgia to take over from France. Once again, France was not isolated in that position. It was a decision supported by most of the member-states of the Council of Europe.

Popova: Whom exactly from prisoners can this Russian participation help? Are you sure Russia is fulfilling what is needed by European institutions about prisoners?

De Poncins: Not completely but if they are outside the legal framework if the Council of Europe, we can be certain that the rights of the Russian citizens will not be protected as they are if they are a member of the Council of Europe.

Popova: There were arrests in the streets of Moscow this year before the local elections. Does the Council of Europe help with that?

De Poncins: At least Russian citizens have possibility to make an appeal to the Council of Europe Court of human rights. And this is possible because Russia is a member of the Council of Europe.

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