BANGKOK — A glance at the swanky department stores in Bangkok’s luxury malls like an advertisement for french presence in Thailand, with high-end fashion such as Chanel and Hermes. But lesser-known is that looking into factories in Thailand will show a similar amount of French names.
In the 333rd anniversary of the inauguration of Thai-French relations, French ambassador to Thailand Jacques Lapouge spoke to Khaosod English about the lesser-known presence of French trade, tourism, and even art in Thailand.
“Thais use French planes, drive cars with French tires, wear French spectacles, have French walls in their house, stay at French hotels, take French medicines, eat French biscuits, yogurt, apples, cheese, wine, and carry French luxury handbags,” Lapouge said.
More than half of Thailand’s imports from France in terms of value are transport equipment, such as Airbus planes, with the rest of the trade volume going to industrial, mechanical, and agricultural equipment and machinery. Thailand sells industrial products as well as agricultural and fishery products to France.
“I think France and Thailand suffer from the same kinds of stereotypes. We are beautiful countries known for tourism. We are very proud to be appreciated for our cuisines and beautiful language,” Lapouge said. “But people tend to forget we are are both a major industrial and economic country. We are not only a nice place.”
Not Just Food
France has the 7th largest GDP in the world, according to the IMF in April 2019. In 2018, Thailand exported EUR2.8 billion worth of trade, while importing almost EUR1.7 billion. France’s market share in Thailand, according to 2017 data, is 1.5 percent, which is smaller than Germany’s share (2.7 percent) but larger than the UK’s (1.2 percent).
There are 300-odd French companies in Thailand, especially in the Eastern Economic Corridor by Laem Chabang port in Chonburi.
Some familiar names are Michelin (the tire company, and its food guide), Saint-Gobain manufacturing, Schneider Electric. And don’t forget cosmetics like L’oreal and Bangkokian hiso staples like Hermes, Chanel, Cartier, and so on. The largest international hotel operator in Thailand is also French – Accor Hotels has more than 80 hotels in Bangkok, under labels like Ibis, Movenpick, and Novotel.
The French are even looking to sell medical and funerary equipment to Thailand, as Khaosod English reported from a recent trade show.
But some of these French items are now facing stiff competition from cheaper products from Asian countries, especially China.
“For quality, lifetime use, and safety, especially for cosmetics, medicine, and food, it’s better to choose French products,” Lapouge said. “Thailand 4.0 should be about climbing the value chain…not choosing just cheap products.”
It’s not just French products coming in. Officially there are about 13,500 French expats in Thailand, although the actual number may be as high as 30,000 to 40,000 because not everyone registered their presence with the embassy. Around half of them are in Bangkok, with the other half in expat-popular areas such as Pattaya, Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui.
Many work in the 300 French companies, while others are teachers, entrepreneurs, as well as retirees. Many are in interracial marriages with Thais, an overwhelming number of them with French men and Thai women.
“There is an image that Thailand is a paradise, and the cost of living is not so high,” Lapouge said.
Indeed, Thailand is the number one tourist destination in Asia for the French, with about 750,000 tourists a year. In reverse, about 90,000 Thais visit France, the world’s top tourist destination, in a year.
Engagement and Disengagement
Thai-French diplomacy is also one of the longer established ones with the Western world: 2019 is the 333rd anniversary of the first Siamese envoy’s visit to the court of French monarch Louis XIV, during the reign of King Narai in 1686. The embassy recently held an open house of the ambassador’s residence in celebration of the event.
The French embassy in Thailand is also used as a hub for connecting with the Indo Pacific, including their territories in Polynesia such as New Caledonia.
France’s tradition of democracy and liberty can be seen as a contrast to a country that vacillates in and out of junta rule. France herself is often a haven for Thai political exiles as well; three well known monarchy critics were granted asylum status by the French government in 2015, according to BBC Thai.
Lapouge said the diplomatic policy is to not interfere or to “give tips” to pro-democracy activists, but to keep up to date with the political happenings with “great interest” from the coronation to the recent elections and formation of post-coup government.
Although France and the EU condemned the 2014 Thai coup and suspended all agreements and visits, the ambassador said cooperation is now back in full.
“There were EU measures after the 2014 coup. And now France, like the EU, has complete cooperation with the government,” Lapouge said. “We are interested in the good function of democracy and human rights in Thailand, not just in France.”
The French may be one of the most active missions to hold cultural events in Thailand. Until June 2020, the embassy is holding a variety of exhibitions around Bangkok under the Galleries Night event.
At the riverside French embassy on Charoen Krung, there’s a hub of Michelin-starred street food within reach for all the embassy staff. Lapouge’s favorite Thai dishes? Pad Thai and mango sticky rice. “Not too spicy though, because I’m a farang,” the 61-year-old said, chuckling.