The pandemic has upset some of the biggest projects of the French consulate this year. Unlike other countries with smaller expatriate communities, the consulate not only provides diplomatic support, but works closely with French educational and cultural institutions across the city such as the French International School and the Alliance française de Hong Kong. Part of this work includes managing large-scale events, such as Le French May.
However, due to COVID-19, the status of these annual events is unclear. No event has been officially canceled, although the status of concert hall closings after April is still pending. Educational institutions, such as the International School of France, need additional support from the consulate. Nevertheless, Consul General Alexandre Giorgini remains optimistic and sends his best to all Hong Kongers, promising that France’s activities in the city will resume fully.
The French Consul General, Alexandre Giorgini, took office in 2018, replacing former Consul General Eric Berti. Giorgini has been a diplomat since the late 1990s, having previously been First Secretary of the French Embassy in Rome. He was also a political adviser at the French Embassy in Moscow. While in Russia, he studied Mandarin at Lomonosov State University. As early as March 21, Giorgini urged the French community in Hong Kong to wear masks, which the French health ministry only started to defend last Saturday.
What functions have you stopped or slowed down in your office on the consular, commercial, immigration or other fronts?
In times of crisis, our top priority is to support our fellow citizens in Hong Kong and Macao. However, after the Schengen area was closed to foreigners, and as we entered a new phase of the epidemic in Hong Kong, we reduced our consular activities and provided in-person services only to people with urgent needs and by appointment. The consulate will only accept new visa requests in special emergencies. We also issue travel documents (temporary passports) to French people who must return home.
On the other hand, it is inevitable that our cultural, business and academic events have been canceled or postponed. But we are already working on the organization of the next editions after the summer. We have to be ready because the Hong Kong people are always moving fast!
What awareness-raising measures has the office taken to make services accessible to your nationals? Have additional resources been created to adapt to the viral situation?
Our office remained open to the public throughout the crisis thanks to precautionary measures such as temperature tests. We also decided to impose masks on visitors; anyone without a mask will be denied access. In practical terms, face masks and hand sanitizer were provided to all of our staff.
We also permanently contact our nationals online to keep them informed of the situation and help them deal with travel bans and other administrative restrictions they may face. The situation is complex and constantly changing. New regulations are sometimes difficult for non-specialists to understand. As much as my consular team is mobilized, helping people in person or answering numerous requests by phone, my communication team strives to transmit precise and clear information to our fellow citizens via our website and our social networks.
Which activities have increased?
The activities of our consular section have increased considerably. With more than 14,000 registered French citizens, Hong Kong is home to the largest French community in China.
The French community is young, with many families and children. We are deeply touched by the closure of schools. The challenges are enormous for the International School of France (2,700 students, 4 campuses) whose teachers do their best to organize online courses. I am really impressed with the work they have done. We participate in each crisis management meeting organized by the International School of France: it is up to us to support it in the current circumstances.
We are in close contact with the French who are now in quarantine in government centers when they need psychological support. Telephone calls and requests by e-mail or on social networks – coming from French citizens in Hong Kong but also in Asia-Pacific or in France – have greatly increased. With the borders closed everywhere, many are also blocked and we are here to help to the best of our ability so that they can return home. It’s not easy, because there are fewer and fewer thefts.
As a diplomat, this is one of the most complex situations I have ever experienced. But cooperation with the HKSAR government has been effective and of great benefit to the consular community.
How do you reconcile work and home measures and security?
Our top priority is the safety and health of the French community and our staff. We have implemented social distancing measures such as the suspension of meetings and staggered lags. No formal dinners, no receptions. Staff are divided into two separate teams, which alternate at the office. The team outside the office works from home. This is what I call a “tight brigade” system.
Did your home office ask you to do something different?
We are working closely with our headquarters in Paris to deal with the current situation. Along with China, the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia, France is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and has one of the most extensive diplomatic networks in the world. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has instructed us to encourage all efforts to strengthen international coordination to curb the spread of the virus.
This is why we decided from the start to keep everyone mobilized. None of our employees returning to France has ever been a question. However, parents have been given working hours to take care of the children at home while waiting for classes to resume.
Do you find that more of your nationals are registering with your office than before? Were the numbers rising because of the protests? Did they increase again when the coronavirus pandemic started to spread?
We have seen an increase in registrations in recent months. It is indeed always a pleasure for a consul to discover that there are more and more French citizens living in this amazing city!
Registration is useful. You can be contacted and informed of our safety advice or health recommendations.
For example, last week, I sent a message to appeal to the sense of responsibility of French expatriates, encouraging them to observe social distancing, to wear a mask and to fully respect the obligations in terms of self-quarantine for those who had recently returned from Europe. We are a visible and well integrated community in Hong Kong. No way, we live here, Hong Kong welcomes us, we must be exemplary!
To conclude, I would like to add that if my country is suffering at the moment, I am struck by the messages of solidarity that I have received from Hong Kongers who love France. It goes to my heart. And it’s in difficult times that you recognize real friends!
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Jasmine Lee is a writer, commentator and journalist. She graduated from McGill University where she took advantage of many opportunities to study and work around the world. Her specific areas of interest include media and human rights studies.