The ties between France and Iceland date back to the 11th century, when Sæmundr Sigfússon “the Learned” studied in Paris. The two countries share converging views on several international issues, such as climate and energy, issues relating to the Arctic, and protecting human rights. Iceland worked alongside France to ensure the success of COP21.
The President of the French Republic, François Hollande, made an official visit to Iceland on 16 October 2015. This was the first presidential visit since that of François Mitterrand in 1990. The President visited a glacier, before giving a keynote speech at the Arctic Circle Assembly. He met with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, with Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson in the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, and with the Mayor of Reykjavik.
The French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, Ségolène Royal, visited Iceland from 27 to 29 July 2015 and accompanied the President on his visit in October.
For the first time since 1983, the Icelandic President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, made an official visit to Paris from 25 February to 1 March 2013, where he met with the President of the French Republic, François Hollande; the French Ambassador for the Poles, Michel Rocard; the Secretary-General of the OECD, Angel Gurria; a Vice-President of the French National Assembly, Laurence Dumont; the President of the French Senate, Jean-Pierre Bel; and other members of parliament. He also attended a conference on the Arctic and opened an economic seminar entitled “Islande : la renaissance”, which was attended by the governor of the Central Bank of Iceland.
The Icelandic Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, was received by Laurent Fabius on 17 December 2014. The Icelandic Minister of Industry and Trade, Ms Ragnheidur Elin Arnadottir, was received by the French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, Ségolène Royal, in Paris, from 28 to 30 April 2014 for a working visit.
The Icelandic Minister of Education, Science and Culture, Mr Illugi Gunnarsson, met with the French Minister Delegate for Francophony, Ms Yamina Benguigui, on 5 November 2013.
Trade between France and Iceland remains limited, not only due to the size of the Icelandic market (roughly 200 times smaller than the French market), but also because, with exports of €64 million and a market share of 2.5% in 2014, we have not yet regained pre-crisis levels, despite a recent recovery in our sales. Icelandic exports remain strong (€234 million, mainly fishery products and aluminium), so France continues to have a trade deficit (€170 million). Franco-Icelandic trade accounts for just a small portion of French foreign trade (€288 million in 2014 for trading of goods) and our country is one of Iceland’s secondary trading partners (fifth-largest customer for goods, with 5% of total Icelandic exports of goods, and eleventh-largest supplier of goods, with 2.5% of total Icelandic imports). This trade is primarily in cars and electrical equipment, but also in dynamic sectors such as pharmaceutical products, plastics and communication equipment. French imports reflect the sectors in which Iceland specializes (fishery products, aluminium and pharmaceuticals).
France’s stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Iceland is relatively small (€19.5 million of €7.5 billion in 2013). A total of 29 French companies are present in Iceland. The economic crisis led Icelandic businesses to reduce their investments abroad: Iceland’s stock of FDI fell from €421 million in 2010 to €138 million in 2013. A dozen Icelandic companies are established in France and directly provide around 2000 jobs. Iceland invests in a range of sectors, including fishery (Euronor, Compagnie des Pêches), agrifood equipment (Marel), healthcare (Gibaud/Össur) and engineering (Hecla).
Tourism, which is now Iceland’s leading industry ahead of fishery and aluminium, plays an increasingly important role in Franco-Icelandic relations. France accounts for the fifth-largest contingent of tourists (6% of tourists, 58,000 travellers - an average rise of 20% per year since 2009) and hosted 12,000 tourists from Iceland last year (+73% between 2009 and 2014, and double the number of nights spent).
In the field of tourism, Iceland could benefit from our expertise in developing the tourism potential of its natural sites. In February 2015 the Icelandic low-cost airline Wow air announced the purchase of two Airbus A321-211 aircraft worth about €200 million (ISK15 billion per aircraft). They supplement a fleet which includes three Airbus A320-232s. The airline operates flights to Paris all year round and summer flights to Lyon, competing with Icelandair which operates regular flights to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport. Iceland could be an opportunity for Airbus Helicopters to sign contracts, and the company is closely monitoring prospects for replacing Super Puma Coast Guard helicopters. This project must first obtain the political go-ahead of the Minister of the Interior before an open call for tenders is made in 2016. In addition, Thales is interested in the planned enhancement of radar coverage under the NATO Air Command and Control System (ACCs): the resolution of the irritant regarding the financing of the joint work for the Keflavik Air Base improves our chances in these two projects, which could make progress in 2016. The withdrawal of the Icelandic business sector following the crisis has been worsened by the impact of capital controls, which has disrupted the international development of Icelandic companies.
Our cooperation is based on the Franco-Icelandic agreement of 1983, which established a joint commission that last met in Paris in February 2006. The embassy set up a cultural and scientific council to strengthen dialogue between all those involved in Franco-Icelandic relations (associations, researchers, universities, museums, etc.). France is currently one of the only diplomatic representations, along with Germany, China and Canada, to have a cultural service, and the only one apart from China to have its own language teaching association: the Alliance Française. France therefore has a strong cultural presence there.
Scientific cooperation is a priority of our action in Iceland. The Hubert Curien Partnership (PHC) entitled Jules Verne, which was set up by the embassy in 2003, allows researchers to travel and new partnerships to be set up in cutting-edge areas (Arctic issues, geothermal energy, earth sciences, life sciences). Franco-Icelandic links with regard to Arctic issues have grown stronger in recent years, with Iceland’s participation in the European consortium ACCESS, coordinated by the Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC), and the opening of French research stations in Svalbard and the Antarctic to Icelandic scientists.
The Alliance Française in Reykjavik, founded in 1911, is a reference point for French language learning in Iceland. There is a long-standing tradition of French in Iceland, but it takes third place among optional languages, after German and Spanish, with English and Danish compulsory in secondary education. Efforts to diversify the range of classes offered are already bearing fruit (the Alliance Française doubled its number of pupils between 2008 and 2012; French language training for Icelandic civil servants; agreement with the University of Iceland on teaching French as a foreign language). In September 2014, distance learning was set up at the Grundarfjördur Lycée and in other places where there is no French teacher. With the aim of promoting the French language, a project to create an electronic bilingual French-Icelandic dictionary, with over 50,000 entries, was re-launched in March 2014 and the dictionary should be available online from 2017 or early 2018.
French universities were the first to introduce joint degrees with the University of Iceland. Student exchanges are mainly organized under the Erasmus programme. In 2012-2013, France hosted 15 Icelandic students and ranked as the seventh most popular student destination. The 77 French students (out of 620 in total) hosted by Iceland formed the second-largest group after Germany (148 students).
The cultural activities organized by the Alliance Française in liaison with the embassy range from music and cinema to book-related events, exhibitions and conferences. The Francophone Film Festival held in Reykjavik and Akureyri is extremely popular and, since 2000, has remained the second-largest film event in Iceland.