The photos at the Elysee Palace in Paris said it all. French President Emmanuel Macron posing with Somdet Phra Maha Theerajarn -- the abbot of Wat Pho -- their hands firmly clasped, not only manifested the affinity between Thailand and France, but also their leaders and people, as well as their spiritual inspiration.
During their recent 45-minute dialogue, Mr Macron and Somdet Phra Maha Theerajarn talked about humanity, destiny, love for mankind, and, of course, global peace. It was supposed to be a 15-minute photo-op, but it turned out to be much longer. Their chemistry was palpable. Truth be told, the Wat Pho abbot was surprised by the guard of honour that greeted him.
The abbot is well-known in Thailand for his wisdom and witty remarks. He is also a well-respected monk who has conducted numerous horoscope readings for Thai leaders and common folk. Before the abbot left the palace, he asked Mr Macron for permission to read his horoscope. The French president nodded and, without hesitation, gave the abbot his birthday and birthplace as well as the exact time of his birth.
The next day, the abbot delivered his reading to Mr Macron's personal adviser, Walid Fouque. It was in Thai in the presence of a Thai interpreter. That young diplomat now has an important task to keep the abbot's reading secret. But diplomatic sources said that the reading was good overall. Indeed, it has taken 337 years of Franco-Thai relations to reach this epic moment.
Frankly speaking, Mr Macron has made Franco-Thai ties "special and colourful", as many Thai diplomats would applaud. The president made his presence strongly felt during his visit to Bangkok last November to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Leaders' Meeting. He won local admiration for mingling with ordinary Thais in Yaowarat (Chinatown), at boxing venues, and, of course, at the enigmatic Wat Pho, where he established a personal rapport with Somdet Phra Maha Theerajarn.
Mr Macron said he would welcome him if the abbot visited France. After all, the president was grateful for the Apec host's invitation to a European leader to attend the world's largest economic meeting in the Asia-Pacific.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Mr Macron is very supportive of the idea of the construction of Wat Pho Paris, an extension of Wat Phra Chetuphon Temple. Wat Pho is one of dozens of temples under royal patronage. In the future, it is hoped that it will become a centre for the teaching of Dhamma for the French and the rest of Europe.
From now on, Thai-Franco relations will never be the same as both sides are enthusiastic to strengthen diplomatic ties, to deal with new geopolitical landscapes, especially in Europe, which encompass challenges and uncertainties. The reasons are many, but three important outcomes can be discerned.
New two-year Roadmap for Thai-French Relations
At the moment, the two countries are drafting the second two-year Roadmap for Thai-French Relations, 2024-2026. This roadmap will be more comprehensive as relations will be elevated to a strategic partnership next year.
This is an important step as France is reaching out to the Indo-Pacific region, in particular Southeast Asia. Lest we forget, France was the first European nation to come up with an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018. Thailand has welcomed the French strategy as it is inclusive and not aimed at any third party. Furthermore, the emphasis on environmental protection has also received strong support from Thai policymakers as the country continues on its trajectory toward sustainable and green development.
As a potential strategic partner, Thailand can utilise France's expertise in the areas of security and defence, in particular maritime security. The French strategy can be synergised with the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, Bangkok can serve as a bridge for France to link with and deepen cooperation with other Asean members. France was the first EU member to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2007 and finally became a development partner in 2020. In addition, France is also an observer of the Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus and has been active in the working group on maritime security and peacekeeping operations.
Educational, Science and Technology Cooperation
Most importantly, both France and Thailand have strengthened their cooperation in national development by focusing on cooperation in education, science, and innovation. To commemorate the "Thailand-France Year of Innovation 2023", Professor Sylvie Retailleau, French Minister of Higher Education and Research, was in Bangkok last week to conclude a declaration of intent on cooperation in higher education, science, research, and innovation. This paves the way for greater and broader scientific cooperation.
One outstanding feature of Franco-Thai relations has been in the area of aerospace. In June 2022, Airbus Defence & Space delivered a satellite called THEOS-2 to the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency of Thailand (GISTDA). Under the 2018 Thai-Franco agreement, more than 20 Thai engineers had been trained to assemble and test THEOS-2 before its launch, which occurred successfully last month. In the future, this technological transfer will enable Thai space engineers to develop their own space capability and build their own small observation satellites.
Bilateral trade and investment have been on the rise. Last year, French companies invested a total of 1.5 billion baht, while leading Thai companies such as Double A, Thai Union Frozen, Sea Value, and Indorama are also pouring money into France. France is Thailand's fourth-largest trading partner in the EU, amounting to US$4.5 billion. Thailand's exports to France last year were worth US$2.4 billion.
Of late, France has become a popular European country where Thais would like to stay. Currently, there are around 30,000 Thais residing in France. In contrast, around 40,000 French nationals are living in Thailand. Last year, approximately 270,000 tourists from France visited the kingdom.
Looking forward, as the two countries plan their next roadmap, they will want to expand their cooperation in the creative economy as well as in niche areas such as the culinary, design and wellness fields, among others.