French envoy bets on former colony - Bonjour, new era of amity

French ambassador Alexandre Ziegler visited Chandernagore today and set in motion a process of collaboration that would be channelled through the third edition of Bonjour India, a celebration of Indo-French partnership starting this November.

The envoy sailed down the Hooghly aboard The Skydancer to the former French colony to be a part of the foundation day celebrations of the Institut de Chandernagore, marking the signing of the treaty of cession of the town in 1951. He inaugurated an exhibition that would continue till February 9.

"Chandernagore is the symbolic link between France and India. Every student in France has heard of Chandernagore. But it is not enough to celebrate the shared history. This visit is aimed at providing fresh impetus to work for the future," the ambassador told Metro.

This vision is in synergy with the changed focus of Bonjour India. "It used to be a festival of France in India. But instead of showcasing cultural acts which do not leave a lasting effect, we would prefer to use Bonjour India as an incubator for forthcoming partnerships between the two countries," said Bertrand de Hartingh, counsellor for cooperation and cultural affairs in the French embassy and Bonjour India's general curator.

India, he pointed out, was the first port of call in 1984 when the Festival of France was conceptualised. "We wanted to roll out Bonjour in its new format from India."

A partner from Bengal in this exchange is likely to be Chandernagore College. The institution, founded in 1862, houses a French department. The ambassador was received by the head of the French department, Basabi Pal. Ziegler also met principal Debashis Sarkar and spoke to higher education minister Partha Chatterjee over the phone from his chamber. Addressing the faculty, the French ambassador promised to create a digital corner in the college to give students "a window to French culture" through books, films and music. He informed students of the French embassy's policy of waiving tuition fees if an Indian student completes the B2 level (an intensive course in French) and aspires to study any subject in French in state-run colleges in France. "We can also plan a seminar here at the year-end," he said, adding that he was ready to help start courses like tourism studies.

The ambassador took a walk down the Strand, the promenade dotted with French-era historical monuments, and even walked into private residences with Indo-French architecture. His guide was architect Aishwarya Tipnis, who has created with French support an online inventory of 99 such heritage buildings in the town.

"With every visit, I find one or two buildings missing. The heritage buildings need immediate legal protection. We do not want this to be a museum town but there should be a sensible approach to development," Tipnis said.

One site that is in need of immediate intervention is the Registry Office. The first French courthouse at the starting point on the Strand, facing the river, is in ruins. The roots of a banyan tree hold the building in a tight embrace. The roof of the ground floor has caved in. Encroachers occupy the remaining rooms. "We need to work collectively towards its strategic restoration," said consul general Damien Syed.

Tipnis suggested to the ambassador that the place be turned into a tourist information and cultural centre. "I have fallen in love with Chandernagore. This place has huge potential. We will use Bonjour India as a catalyst to accelerate the process of reinvigoration. I am interested in projects that can be completed within a reasonable time. The Registry Office could be the first step," said the ambassador on the way back.

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