A strong message of hope and gratitude to the UAE has been recorded by one of France’s most prominent political figures to mark the closing stages of a Ramadan, observed in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jack Lang, a former education and culture minister and since 2013, president of the Institute of the Arab World (IMA) in Paris, said he wanted to seize the opportunity at a troubled time for the world to declare his “profound respect” for the country, its Founding Father Sheikh Zayed and current leaders. He also warmly praised the UAE’s promotion of an “Islam of enlightenment” with no place for extremism.
In the video, recorded in fluent if heavily accented English, Mr Lang said: “I am very happy and proud to speak to the people of the UAE. I admire your country. I admired Sheikh Zayed, who was a visionary [who] opened the way to the future.
“And today your country is a model for his engagement in culture, education, new technologies, ecology [and] development. The relations we have established with you are friendly and deep.”
Mr Lang highlighted the creation of Louvre Abu Dhabi, with the significant involvement of the IMA, enthusiastic encouragement of the teaching of Arabic and the establishment of an international fund to restore priceless historic monuments “destroyed by fanatics in Syria, Iraq and other areas” where ISIS and similar groups operated.
The former minister, now 80, is a passionate champion of Arabic. In the face of fierce criticism from France’s right and far right, he has argued that the language should be made widely available in the French school curriculum.
In his book, La langue arabe, tresor de France (The Arabic Language, a French Treasure), published in February, he calls for a determined effort from government to expand its teaching and protect it from “ideological, demagogic and populist manipulation”.
“In this period of Ramadan, I am happy also to say that we share the same values against fanaticism and obscurantism,” he says in the video. “I wish that this period, during which we have to struggle against the pandemic, will give to both our countries a new hope, a new future. I am sure we will continue to co-operate actively.”
Louvre was a 'great opportunity'
Interviewed by The National, Mr Lang recalled his attendance at the inauguration ceremony on Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017 with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and contrasted the “great success of this ambitious project”, the largest art museum in the Arabian peninsula, with the initial opposition that had to be overcome.
“Many in France were not so happy and inside the Louvre, there were conservatives who felt anxious about it,” he said. “I remember explaining in French publications at the time that this really was a great opportunity for both countries, as has been proved by the popularity of the museum.”
The joint venture of the UAE and France to protect heritage sites in conflict zones was launched in 2016 by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and Francois Hollande, then president of France, at a conference in the UAE capital. The US$100m (Dh367m) fund is supporting the creation of safe havens for endangered artefacts and the transport and restoration of treasures damaged by war in Syria, Iraq, Mali and other countries. The destruction by ISIS of the Baal Shamin temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, among other monuments, was condemned as a war crime by the UN cultural agency Unesco.
Mr Lang said long-established cultural collaboration between the UAE and the institute includes strong support from Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, for the institute’s expanding language courses and the introduction of the first international certification of standard modern Arabic, the Certificat International de Maitrise en Arabe (CIMA).
Among the institute’s artistic projects inspired by the UAE were a 2018 exhibition focused on Abdul Qader Al Rais, a pioneer of the country’s modern art, and a collaboration in the previous year with the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation.
Discussions are being held with the Sheikh Zayed Book Award on setting up a literary event on the institute’s digital cultural channel, #LImaALaMaison (the IMA at home), launched when the Covid-19 lockdown caused public spaces to be closed. Further partnerships are planned, building on existing strong relationships with the Dubai-based art collector, Farhad Farjam, and participation in Expo 2020 Dubai, now postponed until next year.
The IMA was inaugurated in 1987, delivering a project intended by successive French presidents to improve Franco-Arab relations in the post-colonial era. As a further gesture, the square where it is located in Paris’s fifth arrondissement was renamed Place Mohammed V in 2003, honouring the Moroccan king who ruled from 1957 to 1961 and is seen as the father of modern Morocco. The institute has been closed since March, when Mr Macron ordered a national lockdown, but has run a number of online events and courses including internet access to its collections.