The President of Malta

Speech by His Excellency President George Vella at the Malta-France Cultural Symposium

Malta-France Cultural Symposium

Malta’s geographical position could not but lead to it being wanted as a prized strategic possession by any nation that had, or aspired to have, power in the Mediterranean.

The Order of the Knights of St. John’s reluctant relocation to Malta in 1530, brought to Malta its first real, protracted contacts with French nobility, language, customs and traditions.

This happened after the Order spent 7 years kicking their heels in the Vatican, with Clement VII – who was more concerned with what was happening in the North of Europe with Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and the threat of armies invading Papal States, than what to do with a hapless military order which had somehow lost its original ‘crusading’ and ‘hospitalier’ functions.

Following the direct intervention by Emperor Charles V, the Order ended up in Malta, establishing thus the first real protracted contacts of the Maltese with French nobility, language, customs and traditions.

The Grand Master himself at that point was French – Jean Villiers de L’Isle Adam.

I am sure that during this symposium there will be ample coverage of the political and cultural influence of French Knights of the Order, grouped in three langues, amongst whom I cannot but single out Antoine De Paule, later to become Grandmaster, and whose country residence is now the Presidency Palace where I am addressing you from.

This Symposium intends to bring to the fore connections, contacts and influences that have been mostly latent over these intervening, almost 600, years.

These were nevertheless active and formative as reflected in our language, customs, heritage etc, and as evidenced in these studies presented by an array of eminent scholars dealing with various aspects of this relationship.

During this Symposium, these Franco-Maltese relations are going to be presented through history, through the arts, sciences and culture as well as through human exchanges.

The 270-year presence of the Order of the Knights of St. John in Malta, with its marked predominance of French Knights during its stay in Malta is the most evident part of this relationship, to be topped by the short, but eventful two-year period of occupation by Bonaparte’s troops in 1798.

It is therefore historically correct to say that Franco-Maltese cultural relations go beyond the few months of the presence of Republican France in Malta.

The interesting contributions in this Symposium, go beyond the evident influence that such episodes of direct or indirect domination, did have on the Maltese population, and trace the lingering contacts even during the British Colonial period.

This interestingly also applied to present-day France, where mostly descendants of the Maltese diaspora of the early 20th century, who eventually moved on to France after the Wars of Independence in Algeria and Tunisia, actually settled and remain recognisable as being of Maltese descent through surnames like Fenech, Darmanin, Pisani etc.

This is the first in a series of symposia planned to highlight the important part played throughout our nation’s history by the impact that cross-fertilisation has had on the moulding of our Maltese identity today.

Other symposia will deal with relations with countries that came and occupied, with countries to which Maltese people emigrated in search of a better quality of life, with countries which provided good trading opportunities, and with countries whose citizens at different moments in their history, sought and found refuge on our shores, integrating with Maltese society and contributing to our cosmopolitan social fabric.

I wish to thank all those who were involved in the organisation of this Symposium starting off with Her Excellency Ambassador Brigette Curmi and her team at the Embassy of the French Republic in Malta, as well as officials at the Office of the President.

This is an excellent opportunity to expand and enlarge the sources upon which participants in this Symposium have relied on to produce their papers – history, documents and correspondence, diplomatic exchanges and printed books, besides ‘loan words’ introduced in our language, and architecture.

In this Symposium we plan to put the short but tumultuous French period in Malta under the microscope and analyse it with the benefit of hindsight, to out it in the right perspective.

Shared histories contribute to our present as much as they contributed to our past.

We have come to acknowledge culture as the cornerstone of sound and meaningful diplomatic relationships that also serve the purpose of promoting peace and dialogue amongst nations.

This is the spirit with which we launch this series of Symposia as we seek to bring up to speed the historic and cultural ties that inform our diplomatic relations with countries and nations with which we share so much. Through this series, the Presidency aims to reposition and consolidate historic and cultural ties at the centre of the country’s diplomatic relationships.

It also aspires to promote dialogue and conversations amongst researchers and scholars working on shared histories and thus foster greater dialogue and mutual understanding.

I wish you all successful deliberations. Thank you.

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