France has traditionally been looked on with friendship and trust in Bulgaria. Though this was less so during the Communist era, the fall of the Berlin Wall gave this outlook a boost at the instigation of French-speaking and Francophile leaders and then in the light of France’s support for Bulgaria’s dual application for European Union and NATO membership.
Bilateral political dialogue has developed significantly since the early 2000s when a number of high-level visits took place. A strategic partnership agreement was signed by France and Bulgaria on 4 July 2008 on the occasion of the visit to Paris of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev (further to President Sarkozy’s visit to Sofia on 4 October 2007). This Agreement aims to strengthen French-Bulgarian cooperation on European issues, as well as in several areas such as the economy, defence, migration issues, culture, education and science, according to a road map agreed by the Parties.
The Bulgarian President, Rosen Plevneliev, was received by President Hollande in France on 28 January 2013. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov participated on 11 January 2015 in the republican march in Paris following the attack on Charlie Hebdo. He was accompanied by his Deputy Prime Minister for EU Funds and Economic policies Tomislav Donchev, and by the Minister of Energy Ms Temenuzhka Petkova. He returned to France on 14 April 2015 for the opening at the Louvre Museum of the high-profile exhibition “The Saga of the Thracian Kings, Archaeological Discoveries in Bulgaria”, together with his Deputy Prime Minister for Coalition Policy and Public Administration, Ms Rumiana Bachvarova, and the Minister of Culture Vezhoi Rashidov and of the Economy Bojidar Loukarsky. He met with the President of the French Republic and the French Prime Minister.
Subsequently, Ms Meglena Kuneva, Deputy Prime Minister for European Policies Coordination and Institutional Affairs, went to Paris on 27 April 2015 for talks with the Minister of State for European Affairs, Mr Harlem Désir, and with the Justice Minister and Keeper of the Seals, Ms Christiane Taubira. Mr Harlem Désir in turn visited Sofia on 11 and 12 June 2015. On that occasion, he met with the Deputy Prime Ministers Meglena Kuneva and Tomislav Donchev, and with the French business community, and, together with the Mayor of Sofia Ms Yordanka Fandakova, opened a French exhibition in one of the new museums of the Bulgarian capital.
The France-Bulgaria Friendship Group of the French National Assembly is chaired by the Deputy Mr Germinal Peiro and that of the Senate by Senator Yves Pozzo di Borgo.
Mr Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes has been French Ambassador to Bulgaria since October 2013. Mr Anguel Tcholakov became Bulgarian Ambassador to France on 13 September 2013.
Despite an 80% increase in 10 years, trade with Bulgaria remains low (€1.78 billion in 2015), below the potential of this country with a population of seven million. With a volume of French exports of €764 million against 1.017 million in imports, trade also shows a deficit balance for France, which has decreased slightly since 2014 following a three-year increase. France’s market share (Bulgaria’s sixth-largest customer and 11th-largest supplier in 2014) seems to have settled at 3% after eroding slightly (it was 4% in 2009).
France is likewise a small investor in Bulgaria (ranks tenth with €586 million in FDI stocks), even if France’s presence is increasing: around 160 French businesses now employ 11,000 people, with strong positions in the financial sector (Societe Generale Expressbank Group is the largest French investor in Bulgaria with a network of 150 branches); in environmental services (Veolia manages water in the city of Sofia and part of the district heating network of the city of Varna); in large-scale distribution; in industry (Montupet, Schneider Electric, Saint-Gobain, Serta Group and Air Liquide, the latter having three factories which make it the leading industrial gas producer on the Bulgarian market); and in transport, agrifood and software development.
Over the last three years, several companies have made new investments: Accor opened a Novotel hotel in Sofia at the end of 2012 and is finalizing an Ibis hotel project; Decathlon (Oxylane Group) has gradually opened six retail outlets since the second half of 2013; the Soufflet Group, which has been operating two malthouses since 2011, is planning to build a new production facility (€20 million investment); finally, Total, which signed in 2012 with the Spanish Repsol and the Austrian OMV oil and gas companies an important contract for oil exploration and production in the Bulgarian waters of the Black Sea (Khan Asparuh exploration block), started its operations in the second half of 2014 (planned investment of €250 million).
Although the opacity of the Bulgarian market may sometimes discourage French companies, opportunities do exist. The cost of labour in Bulgaria is among the lowest in Europe and corporate taxation is low with a flat tax of 10%. The distinct improvement in Bulgaria’s capacity to absorb European funds (65.5% at the end of 2014) is expected to have a significant impact in terms of growth and to generate opportunities for our businesses, especially in the field of water (supply, treatment, networks) and transport infrastructure (including road contracts, rail network modernization and urban transport development).
Support for and promotion of the French business community was strengthened in 2012 by the opening of the Ubifrance office. Bulgaria has 14 foreign trade advisers and a very active French-Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce (CCFB). A French-Bulgarian Business Forum was held for the first time on 15 April 2015 in Paris in the presence of the French Minister of State for European Affairs, Mr Harlem Désir, and the Bulgarian Minister of the Economy, Mr Bojidar Loukarsky.
Bulgaria joined the International Organisation of La Francophonie (IOF) in 1993 during the IOF Summit in Mauritius, and the French language, which is understood by 8% of Bulgarians, is still widely taught, despite falling student numbers. In secondary education, French is the fourth most widely learnt language. There are 47 high-school French-Bulgarian bilingual sections throughout the country. In addition, the Victor Hugo French school (lycée) in Sofia (approved by the Agency for French Education Abroad (AEFE)) is still developing: at the start of the 2015 school year 744 students were enrolled at the school in all primary and secondary levels, including a majority of Bulgarian children. The same applies to the French International School in Varna (EFIV) which is under the aegis of the French Secular Mission (MLF); 163 students are registered from primary school to lower secondary level).
In higher education, there are a number of French-language courses, including in nine member institutions of the University Agency for Francophonie (AUF). Almost 2,000 Bulgarian students are studying in France, which is the fourth leading host country after Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States (and the second leading destination after Germany for Erasmus exchanges).
In the scientific field, France remains Bulgaria’s second-largest European partner (behind Germany) and accounts for 9% to 10% of total Bulgarian publications (mainly in physics, chemistry and earth sciences). Around 150 French researchers visit Bulgaria every year under cooperation agreements signed by INRA, CEA and CNRS and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The Hubert Curien (PHC) “Rila” partnership (which supports mobility projects for short-stay researchers) is financed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs up to €30,000. Three archaeological missions are also financed by the French Advisory Commission for Archaeological Research Abroad.
In the field of culture, a major heritage exhibition is traditionally organized yearly in Bulgaria and attracts from 30,000 to 65,000 visitors depending on the years. In 2015, an exhibition on “The Saga of the Thracian Kings, Archaeological Discoveries in Bulgaria” was organized for the first time at the Louvre Museum from 16 April to 20 July. It presented archaeological treasures, some of which were exhibited to the public for the first time.
Cooperation on governance supports the training of civil servants, in particular to help prepare Bulgaria’s EU Presidency (theoretically in the second half of 2018) and implements social actions and actions to combat trafficking in human beings, particularly in relation to the Roma community.
The French Institute in Bulgaria, established at the end of 2013 in the prestigious premises on Slaveykov Square in Sofia which enhance its visibility, has an office in Varna and is supported by a network of eight Alliance Française teaching centres.