Original French interviews and photo by Kim Jaeguen, Song Daye, Hong Yohan, and Yoo Wonchul
Under the guidance of and translation by Laureline Claeys
March 8 was International Women’s Day, a worldwide event to commemorate the movement for women’s rights and celebrate their achievements. For this occasion, Monsieur Fabien Penone, the French Ambassador to South Korea, visited Gwangju for the first time since his appointment in 2015. On the morning of that special day, he met with some of the top influential women in the “City of Light” at the Alliance Française Gwangju. Among the attendees were Madame Choi, manager of the Alliance Française; Madame Yang, head of the Association of Gwangju French Teachers; numerous female journalists and editors of local media outlets; the manager of the YWCA; and Madame An Sang-lae, a retired nurse who is a symbol of the democratic movement of Gwangju.
During this meeting, the conversation among the participants focused on several noteworthy topics, including the Korean educational system, the recent increase in academic collaborations between French and South Korean universities, and international affairs regarding South Korea and nearby overseas nations. They also discussed the city of Gwangju, the significance of the Asia Culture Center and its potential for becoming an attractive, world-renowned artistic/cultural hub, and their planned visit to some memorial monuments within Gwangju.
Madame An asked the Ambassador about his perspective on the May 18, 1980 Democratic Uprising, and on whether France would consider returning Korean national treasures to South Korea, an act widely considered to be a positive step towards building stronger diplomatic relationships between the two countries. Unfortunately, the embassy team could not delve deeper into this sensitive subject. Eventually, the issue of women’s rights was discussed, especially in connection with the current low birth rate in South Korea. The Ambassador graciously shared his viewpoints on this societal problem. In particular, he advocated for the government and for the general public to better ensure women’s access to the workforce, women’s freedom of choice, and gender equality when it comes to housework.
As students of the Department of French Language and Literature at Chonnam University, we were very grateful and honored to be given the opportunity to meet the French Ambassador and other members of the French embassy. Moreover, as Korean citizens and Gwangju residents, we were deeply moved by Madame An’s contributions to the lively discussion. One point of criticism that was raised is that Monsieur Penone was given just several minutes at each historical site and cultural attraction around Gwangju. The organizers of his visit might have mistakenly thought that the city is smaller than it actually is. We hope that the lack of time did not impede Monsieur Penone from truly appreciating our many attractive sites, from gaining novel insights, or from formulating answers to some arduous questions.
We sincerely look forward to the Embassy’s next visit to Gwangju, and thereby further strengthening our partnerships between the cultural and administrative bodies within our city.
Laureline Claeys is a professor of French conversation at Chonnam National University.