REMARKS AT LUNCH WELCOMING PRESIDENT HOLLANDE
NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA
WEDNESDAY, 19 NOVEMBER 2014
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I pay my respects to their elders both past and present.
Monsieur President, I bid you welcome to our capital and to our National Gallery.
Four years ago, these rooms contained a hundred and twenty esteemed French paintings, and nearly 500,000 Australians marvelled at works by Cezanne, Gaugin and many others, viewed gloriously up close for the first time.
Eventually we had to return your precious wonders – the Musee D’Orsay was quite insistent on that point.
But in the final week of this great intercultural revelation, the gallery stayed open for thirty-two consecutive hours to allow entranced Australians a final glimpse.
And the kinship of our two countries, and the mutual magnetic embrace of yours and ours, was again affirmed.
In art, music, fashion, cinema, philosophy, cuisine, wine and cultural commune, France nourishes our soul and enriches our humanity.
And ours was a bonding sealed in blood, and in awful shared suffering, in the First World War.
So many of ours - and yours - were consumed by that most brutal conflict.
Australians often reflect on our Diggers’ role in that faraway war in foreign fields - but we should never forget the bravery of the Poilu.
Every city and town in France lost a generation of fathers, husbands, brothers and sons on the barbed wire and in the mud – 1.3 million war dead.
When peace finally came, and it was time for our soldiers to go home, their pleasure was intermingled with sadness.
They would miss their comrades and new friends in France, the people who had shown them such kindness, and such hospitality.
As one of our soldier-poets wrote:
Adieu, fair France, we leave you now
For tropic, sunny skies
Remembering the kindly smile
That lit your saddened eyes...
That connection, forged in the worst of war, stands unbroken by distance, and a century of life.
Within months of the Armistice, my home town Melbourne began a great fundraising campaign to rebuild Villers-Bretonneux.
‘By diggers defended, by Victorians mended’ was the rallying cry.
Schoolchildren gave a penny each, and the RSLs and CWAs, the churches and the local businesses gave more, and built from the rubble of that heroic smashed town the Ecole Victoria – a school on which was emblazoned the heartfelt commandment:
“N’oublions jamais l’Australie’’
“Never forget the Australians.”
Ninety years later, the children of that school branded the same slogan on the tins they rattled when seeking funds to rebuild the Strathewen Primary School in northern Victoria - after it was destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires.
As the then Parliamentary Secretary for Bushfire Reconstruction, I witnessed what French generosity meant to the people of Victoria – and I thank you for it.
France did not forget us, and we will always remember France.
Mr President, if La Perouse and his men had reached Botany Bay a week earlier 226 years ago, you might have arrived yesterday in a francophone nation…most likely a Republic –the Code Napoleonic, the tricolore in the corner of our flag and singing songs about ‘Waltzing Matilde’ and ‘Le Pub avec no beer’
Imagine it, more than two centuries of history rewritten by a fairer wind and calmer seas.
Hypotheticals aside, there is much we share.
We must both reach out to our radicalised youth.
We must both strive for inclusive, tolerant societies that embrace diversity.
And we are both nations engaged in the Pacific.
I look forward to France and Australia deepening our engagement to meet the challenges of this region:
- Disaster response
- Health initiatives, particularly HIV
- Illegal fishing
- And defence industry and security co-operation
Finally, Mr President, we wish you well for next year’s Paris Conference on Climate Change – a bringing-together of world leaders to address one of the defining economic, environmental and security issues of our age.
It simply must succeed.
Mr President, we thank you for your visit and wish you a very pleasant stay in Australia.
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