By Philippe Mottaz
Thursday, April 1, 2021
Will a new French law and unlimited funds pose a threat to International Geneva?
After years of studies and deliberations, the French government has finally given itself a set of nimble legislative tools—and a very significant budget—to engage in an organized and massive effort to attract international and non-governmental organizations, associations and foundations on its soil. The first target of these efforts—some of them already underway—is Switzerland and particularly International Geneva.
The Macron government has made this initiative a “priority of its action,” hoping it will contribute to increasing France’s international influence abroad and “generate important economic revenues.” These legal dispositions are wrapped in a soon to be finalized new law to develop social progress and reduce inequalities which broadly align France’s development policy with the UN 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
THE SWISS MODEL
The French government makes no bones in admitting having borrowed Switzerland's playbook and adapted it to the country’s political system and institutions. The move has been years in the making. Most of the recommendations were contained in a study written by former French and Euro MP Michel Hunault in 2012: “France lacks the necessary mechanisms to attract international organizations that some host countries have been able to set up. (…)The contrast with Switzerland—widely considered a model—is telling,” he wrote at the time. The rapporteur specifically mentions the Geneva-based and -created Foundation for Buildings for International Organizations (FIPOI), which serves as a landlord to international entities based in Geneva, and the Centre d’accueil pour la Genève international (CAGI) as two innovative examples. “I was clearly impressed by the Swiss system,” Hunault told The G|O.
Nine years later, along with a recognition of Switzerland’s success, a whiff of frustration still filters through the French documentation supporting the new legislation. Over the last twenty years, “Switzerland was able to attract major global health organizations, sometimes created at France’s initiative, such as the Global Fund or GAVI,” it regrets, conceding that “France was not able to formulate attractive enough conditions despite its political and economic engagement with the two organizations.” That’s exactly the position France doesn’t want to find itself in any longer. It might finally have found the winning formula.
SPEED MATTERS BUT MONEY TALKS
A clause in the law allows the government to bypass the slow parliamentarian process when swift decisions are key to be on the winning side of a public bid. But if speed matters, money and political clout talk. Informed sources tell The G|O that France put €200 million to have the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) relocate from Washington, DC to Paris, dwarfing the offers submitted by Washington, Copenhagen and Geneva. According to the same sources, Emmanuel Macron personally intervened to clinch the yet undisclosed deal.
Besides contributing to France’s international influence , notes the government in its communication to the National Assembly, the presence of international organizations would have direct and indirect economic benefits. As an example, it discloses that in 2018, the OECD brought France revenues of €548 million, against a €30 million contribution from the state. CERN, for its part, brings in roughly €500 million, three or four times the amount of France’s annual contribution to the organization.
Now Monaco’s top financial regulator and no longer an elected official, Michel Hunault elegantly eschews the question of how aggressively he expects the Macron government to pursue its interested charm offensive and go on its spending spree. He’s quick, however, to stress the excellent relationship between the two countries, sharing his conviction that existing multilateral institutions ought to be strengthened to be able “to adapt to the challenges of the moment.”
Several knowledgeable Swiss sources contacted by The G|O see France’s initiative as another example of the increased competition between host countries and tend to downplay its disruptive potential for International Geneva. Other countries, like Austria, have recently adopted host country legislation similar to Switzerland and now France. “International Geneva constitutes a very strong ecosystem with many advantages and assets. Paris has a long tradition of being a multilateral actor, but International Geneva is the global center of multilateral governance. I am not saying we should get complacent and rest on our laurels, but I believe the fundamentals are sound,” a seasoned insider and contributor to Switzerland’s host policy tells The G|O.
“The situation might be different for some NGOs which have been financially hard hit by the pandemic,” notes another G|O interlocutor, “at one euro, the French ‘baguette’ might prove to be attractive.” The impact of NGOs relocating across the border, however, would be quite marginal both for International Geneva and France, with no real economic benefit. “IOs and other international entities are constantly assessing the costs associated with being in Geneva. They often conclude that from the advantage of having a critical mass of actors, a highly qualified workforce, both in the public and private sector, a strong academic presence and a high quality of life, Geneva offers the best return on investment,” a Swiss source with a long experience in International Geneva tells The G|O.
Nothing in the documents points to a French disengagement from International Geneva and its multilateral institutions. In October 2019, France and Germany launched the so-called Alliance for Multilateralism, an initiative that gathered the support of 80 like-minded countries. In June of last year, the French and German Health ministers paid a joint visit to the WHO.
Rather, Paris seems to be developing a two-prong approach, targeting specific sectors, “in phase with current political priorities.” In light of the current heated political debate in France around Islam, it comes as no surprise that Geneva-based GCERF, which works on preventing radicalization and prevent violent extremism, has been identified as of interest by the French government. Both France and Switzerland are among CGERF’s donors. But, writes the French government, the conditions that partners are able to extend to GCERF and such organizations “particularly when it comes to privileges and immunities do not put us in a favorable position.” Contacted by the G|O, GCERF’s Executive Director Khalid Koser told us it was the first time “he ever heard of the policy and had not been approached.”
Similarly, global health is high on the French agenda, and as in the case of the GPE, Paris is willing to pay the price to achieve its ambitions. The position of director of the recently created WHO Academy has been online for a few days. Location? Lyon, the result of a 2019 agreement between WHO and the French government, which invested €90 million to create the academy.
And FIFA should be opening a Paris antenna. The deal was sealed in Zurich with a handshake between Emmanuel Macron and Gianni Infantino. It falls under the “Choose France” initiative, which aims to attract foreign businesses and investments in France. “With such an agreement, FIFA, created in Paris in 1904, returns to its roots,” states the official communiqué from L’Elysée Palace, tellingly adding that “the Federation will reinforce its relationship with UNESCO.”
The G|O could not get a French official perspective on its new policy: repeated requests for comments to the French Foreign Ministry remained unanswered at pixel time.