Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev conferred the country’s highest honour, the Stara Planina First Class, on France’s former ambassador in Sofia Philippe Autié and former German ambassador Matthias Höpfner at a formal ceremony on October 1 2014.
The ceremony had great symbolism because the now-departed government allowed Autié to end his term in 2013 with none of the traditional high honours customarily conferred on departing ambassadors – a snub that followed the joint statement by the French and German ambassadors at the time urging the government to heed the voice of civil society, amid widespread anti-government protests.
On September 4 2013, Plevneliev – who similarly had called on the government to listen what civil society was saying – paid his own tribute to Autié by receiving the outgoing French ambassador at the Presidency, praising his contribution to bilateral relations, and presenting him with a copy of a rhython from Bulgaria’s Panagyurishte Treasure.
When the Bulgarian Socialist Party government, which had claimed that the French ambassador had not been given the state honour because of a supposed review of criteria for conferring such honours, made way in August 2014 for early elections, one of the first orders of business of the caretaker cabinet was to award the Stara Planina to Autié and Höpfner.
Speaking on October 1, Plevneliev said the honours were acknowledgement of the ambassadors’ personal contributions towards developing bilateral relations with Bulgaria, noting the active political dialogue which Bulgaria has with France and Germany, the active economic ties, and the development of relations in the fields of culture and education.
Plevneliev said that the awards were also recognition of the important role of France and Germany in reinforcing democracy and civil society in Bulgaria.
“If there is something in the past two years that makes me proud, it is not instability, it is not the fact that Bulgaria will have five governments in two years, but it is Bulgaria’s active civil society, which is pro-democratic, pro-European, ready to stand up for its system of values and its understanding of the rule of law, regulations, solidarity and working institutions,” Plevneliev said.
The President thanked Höpfner for his personal contributions to the development of economic relations between Bulgaria and Germany. From 2009 to 2013, bilateral trade grew by 64 per cent and in 2013 exceeded 5.5 billion euro.
Plevneliev said that the contribution by Autié was indisputable, adding that Bulgaria would continue to deepen its co-operation with France bilaterally as well as within the EU and Nato.
In spite of the severe economic crisis, from 2010 to 2013, France had become an important partner for Bulgaria and bilateral trade had grown by 55 per cent to 1.7 billion euro for 2013.
Autié and Höpfner thanked the President for the assessment of their work and said that they shared the same sympathies towards Bulgaria and its vision for the EU.