Ambassador of France to India, Alexander Ziegler, opens up about his three-yearstay in India, his desire to visit the Northeast and his admiration for Amitabh Bachchan. Vinayak Surya Swami takes notes
Tell us about your stint in India.
It has been over three years since I’ve been in India, yet the country continues to surprise and fascinate me every day. I wished to be posted to India because I believe that the close ties between the two nations hold untold potential. And these three years have confirmed this belief, especially with French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India in March 2018, when he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to give an extraordinary momentum to our strategic partnership.
Had you ever travelled to India before?
Even before my posting, I had been to India several times but all of them were short visits. I had actually come during former French President François Hollande’s state visit in January 2016, and I must say that from the very first day, I was struck and touched by the warmth of the people here. I have since then been to 22 Indian states and UTs, and all my trips have echoed the same feeling.
What similarities do you find between the two countries?
France and India’s age-old cultures have a global influence – as can be seen, for instance, in the popularity of our dynamic film industries. Also, our longstanding cultural exchanges continue to be revitalised with fruitful initiatives like Bonjour India and Namasté France, spearheaded by our embassies. But it’s through our youth, above all, that we build the ties and visions of our bilateral relations.
Where have you been to in India? Do you have a favourite destination?
Having travelled extensively both for work and leisure I have witnessed first hand, the beauty and the diversity of India. And although I travel out of New Delhi almost weekly, the city is home, and therefore, holds a special place in my heart.
But I have immensely enjoyed exploring Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. I have been moved by the spectacular beauty of Ladakh’s vast and arid landscapes, interspersed with swathes of greenery and surrounded by towering mountains. The coasts of Goa and South India, with their golden beaches, charming villages and lush greenery are idyllic haunts. But it is the ancient city of Varanasi with its inestimable heritage and palpable spiritual power that has impressed me the most.
Any Indian destination on your bucket list?
Despite numerous trips across the country, I still haven’t had the time to visit the Northeast. The beauty of its landscapes and the diversity of cultures really draw me.
What are the three things that you would suggest an Indian do in France?
I would recommend that an Indian tourist experience Paris first. But let the country’s capital be an entry point to France, from where one can move on to the countryside and to such other notable and equally breathtaking destinations as Provence or Bordeaux, where I spent my summer holidays. Each and every charming village there has its unique market place filled with local produce and local delicacies! Spending a leisurely afternoon in an outdoor café and watching the world go by is a very French thing to do. Do not forget to interact with the locals; they’ll give you tips and guide you to places that aren’t on the tourist map!
And vice versa – what are the three things that you would suggest a traveller from France do while visiting India?
My recommendations to a French traveller on a trip to India would be quite the same – get to know the real India and the warmth of its people. Apart from the country’s many well-known spots, the town of Orchha in Madhya Pradesh, with its magnificent fort and lively people, is one of my favourites. Flying is convenient but one should also take the train – then one can meet people from all over India and catch glimpses of its beautiful countryside.
What is the best time to visit France?
France is a year-long tourist destination and every season offers something different. You can spend long summer days in the lavender fields in Provence, or on the never-ending beaches of the Atlantic coast. Autumn is great for vineyard tours and one of the best can be experienced in Saint Emilion, famous for excellent wine and historic heritage sites. Winter is all about skiing on the beautiful mountain slopes and savouring seasonal specialties as raclette (semi hard cheese) or hot chocolate. But spring in Paris is probably my favourite season.