Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev met outgoing French ambassador to Bulgaria Philippe Autié on September 4, who is set to leave Sofia later this week after his term ended, to thank him for his “efforts to strengthen bilateral relations.”
Such meetings are part of the diplomatic protocol routine and, usually, the occasion when the outgoing ambassador is presented with Bulgaria’s highest civilian honour, the Stara Planina First Degree.
In Autié’s case, however, the foreign ministry, which makes Stara Planina recommendations when foreign citizens are concerned, made no such proposal. This omission prompted headlines throughout the Bulgarian media on September 3, which linked the snub to the July joint statement by Autié and his German counterpart Matthias Höpfner calling on the government to heed the voice of the anti-government protesters.
At the time of the July joint statement by Autié and Höpfner, protesters demanding the resignation of the Bulgarian Socialist Party government paid their respects to the stance of the two diplomats by holding events outside their embassies. The French were given a double tribute, not only by a procession past the embassy during the July 14 Bastille Day reception but also by a live recreation of the famous Delacroix painting.
Some media said that the Plamen Oresharski government was “punishing” the French ambassador by depriving him of the order; others hinted that Höpfner, whose term in Sofia is set to expire soon, would receive similar treatment.
The foreign ministry denied such interpretations, through one of Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin’s aides, who said that there was a review regarding the conferring of state honours on foreigners underway and the absence of a Stara Planina for Autié had “nothing to do” with his position on the protests.
On September 4, Oresharski reinforced this narrative, saying that existing regulations envisioned that “Bulgaria’s highest honour is conferred only for exceptional contributions” and that his government will be a lot more restrictive in the future, concerning the awarding of state honours.
Meanwhile, mass-circulation daily Trud reported, citing unnamed sources at the presidency and the foreign ministry, that Plevneliev had a phone conversation with Vigenin to ask that the cabinet lodges a formal proposal to confer Stara Planina on Autié. Both institutions declined to comment the issue on record, as did the French embassy, the daily said.
Plevneliev had the utmost regard for Autié’s work, noting that France is “the country that had the strongest influence on the inception and development of the civil society in Bulgaria,” the presidency’s media office said – a statement that one could choose to interpret as referring to the now-famous meeting between French president Francois Mitterrand with Bulgarian dissidents in 1989 or Autié’s more recent open letter.
Plevneliev underscored the closer economic ties between the two countries and the 70 per cent increase in French investment, as well as the cultural events promoted by the French embassy in Sofia, most notably the Paris 1900 exhibition.
(Autié, right, did not leave his meeting with Plevneliev empty-handed – instead of a Stara Planina, he received a rhyton, a copy of one of the ancient Thracian golden drinking vessels found near Panagyurishte in 1949, known as the “Panagyurishte treasure”. Photo: president.bg)