Since Mohammad Khatami last visited Paris in 1999, no Iranian president had been invited in France. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who traveled to South America, Africa, Russia or even Bielorussia, never made it to Paris– although he may have enjoyed the publicity. As the internal and external situation of Iran is undergoing major changes, President Hassan Rohani’s visit to France last week understandably raised many expectations.
These changes were largely felt at the Iranian embassy’s reception given for the Iranian community of France, which took place on Wednesday night at the Intercontinental Hotel. A couple of hundreds of Iranians, all invited by the embassy, gathered in the hotel to welcome ‘their’ president. Just like every stop of his European tour, Rouhani was welcomed by thundering applause of the crowd. A closer look at the list of invitations reveals an astounding truth : besides the expected crowd (businessmen and diplomats), Iranian intellectuals, artists, students, and even political refugees in France were seen rushing to steal a picture with the president. This perfect snapshot of the Iranian expatriate community in France perfectly mirrored the major upheavals that the Iranian political scene has gone through recently.
Adressing an electrified crowd, the Iranian president depicted a new era for Iran and Iranians, which impact is to be felt both inside and outside the country. He insisted the nuclear deal created a precedent, « a model that we should replicate when we deal with issues, both internal and external ». He also didn’t shy away from domestic politics : calling the audience to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections (scheduled to take place at the of February), Rohani implicitly asked for support to provide a clear victory for the reformist camp. Considering the fact Iranians leaving abroad can’t vote in these elections, this call shoud be understood as part of a larger communicaton strategy, aiming to draw attention (and participation) to these elections and foster a popular vote in favor of the president’s party and allies.
Amidst an eclectic crowd, Iranian stars such as Reza Kianian (one of the most beloved and popular Iranian actors) were invited. Yet, even Kianian’s star paled in comparison to Javad Zarif, the charismatic Iranian minister of Foreign Affairs. The audience greeted him with even louder cheers than Rohani, as he made histoire way into the room. Impressively patient with fans pressing him for a word (or more often : a selfie), the minister – the focus of all attentions- lingered for more than an hour in this sea of supporters. Even Rohani, who by now must have grown accucustomed to the popularity of his minister, didn’t miss the chance to honor Zarif’s achievements :
« Had M. Zarif not been here » he said, « we would not be where we are today in the world ».
Iran may not be considered a « normal » country by the whole world, yet it is with the full honors due to an important partner that the Iranian presidential delegation was wlecomed in Paris. The French-Iranian business forum organized by Medef (that represents the entire French business community) featured not only 250 French CEOs, but also no less than the Prime Minister, the minister for external trade and the entire leadership of Medef. There again, as the president walked the halls of the Medef’s headquarters, he was greeted more like a movie star than the head of state of a country still considered a pariah not so long ago. As he walked out the room after his speech, participants who had been watching the speech from a separate room (due to the main auditorium being full) could be seen rushing out to steal a picture of him.
« A new page », « a new energy », « a new will » : according to Rohani himself, a new era for French-Iranian relations began that week – even though French Prime Minister Manuel Valls insisted these « two great nations » were only « meeting again », after history drove them apart due to « some unfortunate turn of events ». The French were clearly on message, even more so than the Iranians : let us forget these nuclear quarrels, now is the time for « ambitious partnerships ».
« France », they said again and again, « is now at Iran’s service » - seemingly forgetting it wasn’t so until very recently.
The choices made by French diplomacy in the past 10 years (often disputed by CEOs of major French firms) have made way to the firm determination that France should not let this tremendous economic opportunity escape it.
After speeches were made and contracts between French and Iranian firms were signed, the participants met in roundtables, each dedicated to one area : industry/automobile, transportation, agriculture, etc. The first roundtable was moderated by Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, Iranian minister of Industry, Mining and Trade. The way it proceeded could remind one of a speed dating session, albeit where participants would be directed to their future partner by a smiling and visibly content matchmaker : the minister himself. As French businessmen asked how to materialize their thirst for partnerships, Nematzadeh directly pointed to representatives of Iranians firms (or one of his deputies) also present in the room, advising them « to get in touch ». French business leaders asked several questions about their (potential) Iranian partner’s readiness to comply with environmental, security and legal norms, voicing concerns that Iranian firms may not be up to date with international or European legislation.
Beyond the very ostentatious signature of business deals and the fact that France welcomed an Iranian president for the first time in 17 years, Rohani’s visit to Paris is undoubtedly a major communication success. The buzz surrounding his entire trip to Europe and the warm welcome given by the Iranian community in France mean that the president is coming back to Tehran strengthened by this trip. He will need this newfound strength to tackle the many challenges awaiting him at home : implementing economic reforms, furthering new business relations with the rest of the world, and winning the upcoming parliamentary elections in one month from now.