What are the things Sweden is best known for in France?
I've been there for four years this autumn, time has flown by. This is important context: in January 2015, Charlie Hebdo happened and that put an abrupt stop to many things. That first half-year, the issue of fighting terrorism came top, then in the autumn there was the terrible November attack in Paris and in summer the following year, the attack on Nice – for two years security issues dominated my agenda and promoting Sweden was not really possible.
Then we had a year of election campaign, 2016-17, with a lot of inward-looking focus in France. With the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron, we've seen dramatic change in France over the past year, which has been very reform-oriented.
Now we have a France that looks to Sweden on many issues and draws on our experience – we had major economic, social and pension reforms in the 1990s. I find it rewarding to be in Paris because French politicians so often refer to Sweden as a model. President Macron talks a lot about the Nordic social security models, and, in this past year all of a sudden France seems to have “re-discovered” Sweden.
French press and media often refer to Sweden's social model, Sweden's equal opportunities, and the role of women. I've been invited twice to the National Assembly to talk about our feminist foreign policy and I've been amazed to see how quickly they've acted, inspired partly by Sweden's policy and presenting their own national programme.
In relation to these feminist values, the #MeToo movement for example has been received very differently in France and Sweden, so what are the differences in feminism in both countries?
I've been interviewed about this in France; there's a particular interest in Sweden's very strong reaction to the #MeToo campaign. It became a very big issue, discussed in Swedish society on every level. In France, it didn't raise the same attention politically, and there was a different approach to how to handle the concerns.
There was a hashtag in France, Balance ton porc, with the idea that men who have been disrespectful or sexually harassed women and girls should be named and shamed, focused on going after individual men rather than trying to see how we can change the general perception and view of women. There was also Catherine Deneuve and a number of prominent figures who – perhaps a bit unhelpfully, I would claim – tried to show women's independence claiming “women like men flirting and being gallant”. I think they tried to play it down in reaction to Balance ton porc which perhaps went a bit far, and I think they did certain harm by not taking the issue seriously.
In Sweden [the debate] goes on, with many different groups, and there is a sudden openness to tell these stories. In France, the debate hasn’t taken the same prominent place but work and efforts are ongoing. New laws are being passed. We however also have to take into account the different cultures and traditions of our two countries.
And is this something you think should be accepted; differences in values and how to react to this kind of debate?
As Sweden's ambassador, and as a Swedish woman, I'm not in France to lecture them. I'm there to understand and explain French behaviour and politics and economics to Sweden, and to explain in France what's going on in Sweden and why. For example on the #MeToo question I was asked why we had so many cases. I was personally quite shocked by many of the stories; I thought we'd moved beyond that thanks to many years of equal opportunity policy. Sometimes we can claim we've found solutions to every issue but work remains to be done, so it's very good to have this debate.
And which issues are there where Sweden can learn from France?
There are many things. I think France has a fantastically strong administration: once they go for something, they go for it fully. They have incredible organizational capacity, they have strong businesses, they're very creative on the cultural scene. It's one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, and I have to pinch myself walking down the street.
I've lived in France before and went to a French school when I was young, so I think I've become a bit Parisian and I like how they sometimes take things a bit more easily than we do. That's something I would promote in Sweden, being a bit more easygoing and a bit more open. We're very rule-based with strict codes, for example in how we dress, but in France there is a great tolerance, maybe because it's a more mixed society. At every level, you find differences that I believe are enriching so yes, there's a lot for us to learn from France.
Another issue we look at a lot at The Local is misinformation about Sweden abroad. Do you ever come across misconceptions of Sweden in France?
Well, we talked initially about the positive image of Sweden. People are often really amazed – we have all these women in power, we came out of the financial crisis very strongly. In many areas, they admire our success but sometimes don’t fully understand how we function and how we think.
Over the past few months, many have been taken aback by the apparent rise of far-right forces in Sweden. This summer I've seen very tough articles on Sweden, so I'm a bit worried that the image of Sweden may change because of a tougher attitude to immigration. We were seen as a very open society, but had to start controlling our borders because we didn't find the same solidarity in other countries. We received in 2015 163,000 refugees and were pushing to get a European migration policy but didn't get much support from other EU states.
Whether there's a direct connection or not, today [The Local spoke to Veronika Wand-Danielsson before the September 9th election] the Sweden Democrats are polling at around 20 percent, and the French find that extremely peculiar because of our values. I've seen more negative articles questioning the Swedish model over the past two months, but let's wait and see.
How do France and Sweden's views align in terms of EU cooperation?
On certain issues we share the same ambition; we both want a stronger Europe. But there is a lot of talk in France about French-German leadership. My personal view is that we need those countries to agree otherwise the whole machinery would block, but in my role as Sweden's ambassador I remind them that this cooperation alone is not sufficient. Those two countries will not necessarily always find the best solution to a common problem.
I'm a strong believer in that the value of the EU is that all the 28 countries together have a richness and are important in our own right. To develop a system that's dependent on one country's influence is not good for any country. As a smaller country we're often able to reform and modernize more easily, so we might have different views on how the EU reforms should be conducted. So on many issues we agree [with France], and on some I think the discussion needs to continue.
Any issues in particular where the discussion needs to continue?
Security and defence, for example, that's an area I know very well. I don't think Europe can manage its own defence alone with the insecurities we have. Therefore Nato is a crucial organization for Europe and we have to maintain a strong transatlantic link.
Keeping the 28 together, and free trade [are other priorities for Sweden]. Enlargement has served us well, and we're part of the EU thanks to enlargement policy. France has a different attitude. I believe in openness and tolerance and helping those countries get closer to us, and being tough on third countries like Russia who try to influence neighbouring countries' access to the EU or to Nato. It's not for big powers or for a single country to say no, especially not a third party.
Do you see the relationship between France and Sweden becoming more important, especially with the UK leaving the EU?
Well, I think it's never good to make these comparisons. Right now we have a very strong relationship with France; in November President Macron visited Stockholm for the first time and we concluded a Swedish-French innovation partnership, and we're looking at deepening cooperation in the life-science, transport, and green finance sectors, as well as developing our startup communities and allowing startups to grow and prosper.
That framework makes it possible to raise certain issues politically, and I'm certain that that partnership will continue to be the basis of our cooperation for years to come.