Mexico and France struggle to mend relations

Beaucoup de tsuris
Beaucoup de tsuris

French President François Hollande has had a lot of aggravation on his hands lately.  First he gets outed for cheating on his girlfriend and in the kerfuffle he throws her out of the Élysée Palace, sending her into a wiggy tailspin and she ends up in the hospital.  Then, the president’s Socialist party gets flogged like the family mule in municipal elections held March 23 and 30, in which not only the center-right UMP but the dread far-right National Front make big gains.  Someone throw this guy a bone!  So with newly-designated Prime Minister Manuel Valls hogging the flashbulbs recently, Mr. Hollande was probably relieved to be sneaking off for what turned out to be a fairly low profile state visit to Mexico last week.

France and Mexico maintain a healthy economic relationship, but in recent times relations between the two countries have been dominated to near exclusion of other topics by the dispute over Florence Cassez, a young French woman jailed in Mexico from 2005 to 2013 for alleged participation in a kidnapping gang run by her Mexican boyfriend.  Guilty or not, Cassez stewed in a Mexican pokey for eight years before being released on a technicality and whisked back to France as a celebrity.  The “Affaire Cassez,” however, soured France-Mexico relations to an extreme degree and even spoiled the “Year of Mexico in France” in 2011, wasting an enormous amount of effort and money invested in the cultural promotion.

Fast forward to the arrival of François Hollande in Mexico City on April 9, 2014.  The release of Florence Cassez has salved French indignation. French corporations are salivating over opportunities in the Mexican energy and aerospace industries.  Good to go, right?  Wrong.  It turns out another French gal is pursuing a high profile beef with her dodgy Mexican ex, in this case former State of Mexico Governor and presidential crony Arturo Montiel.  Apparently Montiel failed to return the couple’s three young children to his ex-wife in France following a vacation in Mexico, and the two are now embroiled in a custody dispute while Montiel retains the children under sketchy legal circumstances.  Maude Versini, the kids’ mother, is beseeching the French government to intercede on her behalf, and media coverage of the dispute ballooned on both sides of the Atlantic during Hollande’s visit to Mexico.  The “Affaire Versini,” it would seem, has now arrived to pick up where the Affaire Cassez left off.

For the moment, though, it appears that the two administrations are not taking the bait.  In press interviews prior to Hollande’s arrival in Mexico, French Ambassador Elisabeth Beton Delègue dismissed attempts to revive the Cassez dispute, saying “the case is closed” and focusing firmly on the relaunch of a solid, economically rewarding relationship.  In his speech to the Franco-Mexican Economic Forum held during Hollande’s visit, Mexican President Peña Nieto avoided even passing allusions to past differences, instead waxing ebulliently about the brilliant future ahead for French-Mexican relations.  When Hollande took the microphone following Peña´s comments, he doubled down on the happy talk, delivering what nearly became a firebrand speech on how super-duper things are going between the two countries, lauding Mexico as an emerging economic power and even mentioning how swell he and Peña get along personally.  It may be that between France’s desire to cash in on business opportunities in Mexico and Mexico’s need for investment and technology transfer, the two leaders have tacitly agreed to throw Maude Versini under the bus for the sake of mutual economic benefit.  Likewise, a replay of the warfare over Florence Cassez is way too bitter a pill for either head of state to bear at a time when both urgently need a success story.  In either case, judging from recent official statements, France and Mexico look like they’re going to try to tough this one out for the sake of their respective economies.

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