In early August I had the pleasure to meet and interview Marianne Le Ba, Deputy Head of Communications of the French Pavilion at EXPO 2015. Within an interesting discussion we shared, we talked about the long lasting EXPO history of France, the country’s ideas and ideals for the future as well as its prior accomplishments in the sectors of food and international cooperation.
Pascal: Marianne Le Ba, thank you for the Interview. I just like to ask you a couple of questions about the French pavilion and would like to start off with France’s history of participation within the EXPO, because you had organized plenty of EXPOs yourself e.g. in Paris in the past. What does it mean to be a part of the EXPO for France, as well as complying with its theme this year?
Marianne: So as you’ve mentioned. It is true, France has always historically been part of EXPOs, I guess in that continuity it just makes sense that we continue to gather for these events. But I think the reason – if you want to talk about, why we are at this EXPO in particular, is because that’s the one we’re talking about – you know throughout different EXPOs, different topics are obviously talked about and the idea is that France has always found a way to relate to these topics and to answer to these questions. This year is very particular, because France has all the elements to properly respond to the question “feeding the planet, energy for the world”. The reason, why we’re here today is, because we talk or are talking about a topic that is very important for the world in fact, but is also really relevant in France. France has an agricultural background that is very strong, very important that really identifies the country, the way it is now. It seemed normal and obvious for us to be present for this EXPO, for that reason. So it is not only because of the historical participation, but because of the topics that are being talked about.
Pascal: Well, let’s stick to the topics of the EXPO, because the exhibition, the interior design of your pavilion, obviously meets several of them like the culinary “haute cuisine”, France’ scientific research, cultivation, production et cetera. Can you go a little into detail concerning those obstacles.
Marianne: Like I said, the topic of the EXPO is feeding the planet energy for the world. So the French response to that is to produce and to eat differently, to produce and feed a population differently, in a different way. First of all, before you even enter the pavilion, you walk through an agricultural garden. The idea was to really emerge the viewer, the public in agricultural diversity you can find in France. So at the beginning, we tried to present everything about monoculture, that’s usually the cultivation of cereals and grains, there is corn as well, there is also beets to make sugar and so we tried to show that this is for example one of our specialities, but we also have polyculture, the culture of vegetables and fruits of different associations of these different plants. We also talk about specialized agriculture, which is at the end, where we show sugar canes, grape vines and fruit trees growing. Throughout the seasons, we have different cultures in this garden, but that’s what we wanted to show – that France has a very diverse territory that allows for that diversity in agriculture – not just methods, but also cultures.
Pascal: When speaking of diversity, do you only mean the main country, to speak so, or also on the islands, like Corsica and La Reunion?
Marianne: Well, when we talk about sugar cane and banana-leafs for example that is all from the overseas departments and territories of France. So we don’t just talk about metropolitan France, we also talk about all the different regions, which are part of France.
Pascal: Compared to France, are they still an important part?
Marianne: Yes of course they are an important part, for example lots of fruits come from there, Bananas come from there. So we obviously rely on that diversity, because it makes our territory that much more diverse, by having territories outside of the European continent.
Pascal: Moving on from the agriculture to the production side of things – since there is a lingerie exhibition downstairs and things like that – I was thinking of the different steps, from the resource to the product. Could you tell me more on those.
Marianne: So like I said, at first we talk about the product itself, the primary product that is, in the agricultural garden and then, once you enter the pavilion, we start talking about means of production and that’s when we talk about the concept, we have in France, which is called “agroecology”. That is the combination of “agriculture” and “ecology” and the environment. The idea is that we want to promote a sustainable model of agriculture. There isn’t just one answer and there isn’t just one model. So you have to understand that agroecology is kind of like a global way to identify different methods. We are conscious of the diversity of our territory, which means that you cannot cultivate the same way, whether it is in the north of France, or the south of France. So the idea is that you have sustainable models that will take into account the ecosystem. So it can be on a very global scale, but also on a small scale, because a small territory, a parcel, can be very different from one meter to another, the type of soil can be different, the light can come in differently, so the idea is that these different models, will really take into account, the ecosystem around it and the use of natural resources that are available, in order to find a model that will suit that particular territory better. So that’s what agroecology is, it takes into account economical issues, social issues and environmental issues. The social part is for example the right retribution of farmers, because it is a very difficult job and with the way primary products are included in the market, some farmers unfortunately cannot make ends meet and the idea is that agroecology helps to find ways to have the proper retribution for the farmer.
Pascal: Right, we were talking about France up to this point, now we’re moving further on to the global scale, to other countries and how France can help other countries as well, with this agroecology. There is the storyline of young Ibrahim of Nigeria and Thomas from France within your pavilion, maybe you can talk about this.
Marianne: We have three big screens – the first shows how things are today and that we need to address these questions and the second one really explains the answer, France’s respond to that problem and to that theme. Basically the idea is that in France/we are capable of feeding our own population. Obviously there is poverty and famine everywhere, but France has the capacity to feed its own population. The idea is not necessarily to send food out and just give everything to another country, it’s to help them through international cooperation – through science and research – because you need those two elements, to better understand different territories and give farmers from other countries, different methods, which are more adapted to their territory and help them through research and through science to find the best way to optimize their way of farming. France has different technologies that we use here that could maybe be used somewhere else, but its not just technology, it’s knowledge as well, because France has a very heavy scientific background in agriculture. We have lots of research centers that actually were our partners in creating the scenography of the pavilion. The idea was to show that we have lots of organizations that specialize in cooperating with Mediterranean countries, for example, or different countries.
Video-Installation within the French Pavilion at EXPO 2015
Pascal: Can you give me for example, one solution for the problem of the food-chain and distribution, which was raised as a question in the first video?
Marianne: Well for example we talk about waste a lot, one of the biggest problems in production is waste, so one of the solutions that science does help us understand, is how to better identify for example problems on a crop, to be very concrete – we use drones and satellites to understand the way parcels are evolving, because it is impossible to have an eye everywhere to be able to see how bad your parcel, your surface is doing and knowing where to exactly pinpoint, where you need to treat that problem. So the use of drones for example helps in identifying very restricted areas, so we don’t have to use pesticides everywhere, but only where the problem exists. So the idea is to use those different inventions in order to better specify where the problem is.
Pascal: Can you tell me, the reader to say so, more about those things, because I find them pretty interesting.
Marianne: Yeah, as I said, satellites help us better identify and better study the evolution of a crop and drones help agricultures/farmers understand exactly, where problems lie, where a disease is starting to spread for example within their crops – so they can treat it quicker and treat it exactly where it needs to be treated, without the extensive use of chemical products. At first we didn’t know where things were wrong and so we just treated everything – the idea is to now treat when necessary and use other normal elements.
Pascal: Would that be a system only adaptable for Western countries, or also developing countries?
Marianne: No not necessarily, this is actually something that is adapted now in a lot of countries, the use of satellites is obviously global and a lot of farmers are much more high-tech than we think and rely actually on these satellites. The idea is to introduce things like that through international cooperation, so we could help other countries to be able to feed their own population and sustain themselves.
Pascal: So now we discussed the first video, with its storyline being production/distribution the sustainability, pesticides, but you’ve got a third one as well, about food-fragmentation world-wide and why it is so important for France. Could you tell me more on this?
Marianne: The third screen, talks about food, the pleasure to eat of course and gastronomy and the importance of the meal itself. So that we talk about obviously quantitative aspects and quantitative issues in feeding the planet, but we also cannot forget the qualitative aspect, which is that we need good food that’s good for our body – in France there is a particularity in the way we apprehend a meal and for that reason it was inscribed as a UNESCO immaterial world heritage, because the “repas a la francaise” like we say, makes us sit down and take the time to eat, gastronomy is a very important part of French culture and what we try to explain in this movie is that, it allows us to have a pretty low rate of obesity, because it’s culturally normal to sit down and eat and take the time to eat and to elevate food the way we do it is not just pride or just for the pleasure to eat. There are actually health benefits to that and that’s what we try to explain, that it’s not just a cultural heritage, we see some really interesting health benefits in taking the time to eat.
Pascal: Of course, yet if we could stick to the topic of obesity, because it is one of the most interesting there is within those videos, and focus on the globalization of consuming choices, which also goes hand in hand with fragmentation and tell me about this a little bit.
Marianne: Yeah we talked about that – an answer to that obviously is “eating local”, and the idea in the film that we showed, is that if you know a bunch of people order pizzas from different places, it will cost more energy than if you eat things from a closer area – nearby. In France it is a little easier in a way, we have already a rich pool of products which you could pick from that are local to France, we promote and try to put forward – for example – French meats, we have labels that actually help identify the provenance of different ingredients, so that the consumer can make that choice, can have the possibility to make that choice. So, when we talk about the globalization of products, it’s true that in France we try to promote our own products but the idea is that it’s not only better for the environment, it’s obviously better for the country’s economy, because we have a better hold on legislation in our country and we have really high standards in quality of food and that’s what we try to put forward.
Pascal: When I saw the video I instantly thought of fast food chains worldwide, things like that, which in my sense makes for obesity and fits this profile of globalization/urbanization/consuming choices. Was I right in this kind of complex analysis?
Marianne: Yeah, I mean obviously we do talk about that, but at the same time, they are part of the industrial food chain, they are there which is why they are also here at EXPO, because it is also a reality. I think you can have a food-chain, a chain without it being necessarily harmful to the environment, so the idea is to find the right balance. You know, technically when one baker opens a bakery and then sees that it works and opens it in a different part of the city and then a third one that technically becomes a chain as well. That’s why you have to be very careful in the way you identify those things, because there are ways which work and you can stay within a reasonable range after this, obviously it’s a different issue regarding bigger spaces and longer distances. I think we have to find the right balance between a local and globalized world, because in the end that’s what helps us to travel, be here –
Pascal: Of course.
Marianne: I mean obviously I’m from France and Italy is not so far, so that’s ok, but in order to have different cultures meet, we have to have that movement and it’s a very big reality of our population in the way the world is evolving . Air traffic will increase greatly within the next years. So that is also a reality we have to face. The reality is that thankfully now we have this opening to the world and different cultures and that they also become part of French culture.
Pascal: Can the French food market even stay even competitive to the big global players to say so?
Marianne: As long as consumers become more interested in the quality of their food, yeah.
Pascal: But it still seems that they are more interested in the prices of food.
Marianne: Yeah, but that’s obviously a social – that’s even deeper than just buying – than the choice of buying cheap food. You have to understand and ask yourself, why do they need to buy cheap food. It’s because they don’t have the means and they can’t spend that much, they have limits. So it is like an even bigger problem it is a problem of distribution of wealth.
Pascal: Yeah, of course.
Marianne: So it really goes well beyond that, but then once the consumer understands that.
Pascal: – but also information, through commercials and this – I guess you can –
Marianne: Well, when you go to a supermarket in France, we have legislation that obliges people to know where things are from and that’s why we becoming more strict about those things and that’s actually a debate in itself –
Marianne: – for example I think in England, there was a big debate on labels and what needs to be on a label. So obviously we can’t say that we’re completely blinded by ads and everything because that’s not true, if that was true, then there would be no debate on what should be on the label. There would be no label at all actually and just a brand, which is not the case and which shows that there is a reason, why we try to implement that and why some people are for or against it.
Pascal: Yeah I get that.
Marianne: So I don’t think, we, the consumers, are blinded and I think events like this actually help the consumer to ask the right questions, like “Oh yeah that’s right I never thought about it like this, so why not”.
Pascal: Maybe a last question about the importance of France’s partners, friends of the pavilion, the corporate side of things and what they mean in establishing this pavilion and the ideas for the future.
Marianne: Yeah, so you’ve mentioned in the scenography you saw the lingerie and the presence of one of our partners “fédération de lingerie francaise”. So that’s a very interesting partnership actually, because the idea was to find a link with that particular craftsmanship, because it really is in France a trade in itself, and as you can see in the scenography we talk about food a lot and we talk about research a lot but we also have a couple of elements that are not food, are not research and the idea is to show that actually agricultural elements are present in things such as clothing. There is actually a dress that is part of an exhibition called “TEXTIFOOD” and this exhibition is all about clothes made of natural elements, so you can make things that are linen out of banana-fibers and eggshells and things like that and you actually find that in the fabric, in the origin of the fabric, in lingerie. We talk a lot about craftsmanship and artisan-ship in France, which is why we have a bakery for example. The lingerie represents that that in another sector and there is a link to be made, with food and agricultural products. We have to also remember that it’s not just about eating, it’s a very global field and partners are important to us obviously in different ways, for example some partners, like “roche bobois” gave us this furniture [meaning in the interview-room] in order to be able to fill the pavilion. They have different ways to participate in putting forward and elevating the pavilion.
Pascal: – parts of the pavilion as well as financial aid, I guess –
Marianne: Yes, so for example we have partnerships with a lot of inter-professions, groupments and associations of different métier. For example we work with “Intercéréales”, which is the groupment of all the bakers in France, it is the inter-profession for cereals and they are the ones that are taking care of the bakery. So those are the types of partnerships we have, we also have partnerships with regions, because that space changes every three weeks, about three weeks. The first one was “Rhône-Alpes”, which is a region that is very dynamic, economically in France, it’s also the closest to where we are here in Lombardy and they helped us finance the construction, in the elaboration of the pavilion and in the exchange they get to bring, put forward and explain the importance of their region in France and the relationship that they have with this theme, because in the end, different actors whether private or public do have a link to this theme.
Pascal: Does the pavilion, France in particular, have any – on the reverse side – responsibilities for those partners they are working together with?
Marianne: Well, obviously their responsibility is to address the theme that’s a pretty essential part of a partnership, that we help them and we help them through that, we are more experts in that area and they’re expert in their trade. But the idea is to see whether there is a common ground and to really put that forward, because we don’t want to have just partners, just for them to be there and not have anything to say about a theme that is obviously very important to us. So when AirFrance came, we talked about the importance of the meals that are served on airplanes, because AirFrance – I’m not sure if you ever taken a flight with them, but they spent a lot of time elaborating menus around that and the menus change between distances and destinations so it’s also a way for France to show, what they can do, in the gastronomy area to foreigners.
Pascal: So because you said Air France approached you,do the partners approach the pavilion or is it vice versa?
Marianne: It is both, we are a governmental project, just to be clear. The government funded this pavilion and then we had partnership help us up to ten percent of how much the pavilion cost. The pavilion is twenty million Euros and the partners are two million – brought in two million Euros.
Pascal: Okay. So the financial side of thing relies heavily on the government.
Marianne: Yeah. Other pavilions are not set that way, they don’t have the same budget and they don’t have the same proportions, when it comes to government input, and is private input.
Pascal: That was a very interesting interview. Is there any last quote, sentence, anything you’d like to add to the discussion we had.
Marianne: France tried to be present for this debate and to participate in it. I think it’s very important to say that, we have different elements that we talk about. There is no an unanimous answer, to these topics and the answers we present, but the idea was to just be present at this EXPO talk about it, continue the discussion and really open it to other countries as well.
Pascal: Thank you very much Marianne Le Ba.
Marianne: Thank You.