Jean-François Le Roch: "Bosnia without nationalism would be the absolute dream"

Jean-François Le Roch left Paris and came to Sarajevo in 1994 on a 100-day mission with UNPROFOR. It became a much longer mission, as he never left. He has since created the Franco-Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, founded Interex in the Balkans, and is now the director of the International French School (CIFS) in Sarajevo

18. Oct 2013. | 13:57 | Emel Gušić Handžić

Jean-François Le Roch was born in 1956 and grew up in Paris. He followed in his family’s footsteps and established a career in retail, working in supermarket franchising. He also spent six years in the U.S. where he operated a supermarket near Seattle and a clothing store in Los Angeles. In late 1992, he came back to France. Two years later, he came to wartime B&H as a reserve officer for UNPROFOR.

How did you come to B&H during the war?

I got a call from the French army at the beginning of ’94 saying: “We are looking for a reserve officer willing to go volunteer now in Sarajevo, because since the grenade fell on Markale, there will be a peace agreement soon.” That was the deal and I came here in March ‘94. Next year it will be 20 years since I arrived. As we all know, it was not at all a peace agreement. I was here for a mission of a 100 days and I never left, basically. (laughs)

You were living in France and the U.S. before that. What made you say “yes” to coming here?

A year and a half before, I arrived back to France from about six years in the U.S. They were very intensive years; making a living and making a business in the U.S. is anything but holidays. I was in France doing nothing great, and in quite bad shape financially, I would even say morally. It’s never lots of fun to admit that you have failed in your business.

When that call came I had no idea where Sarajevo was, and what was going on, I just knew there was a war because it was on TV every day. What the reason was for that war, I had no idea. It’s very strange, I remember the phone call. I knew before the guy finished making his proposal that I wanted to come here. It’s hard to explain why. It was to be a reserve officer who speaks English, to volunteer, to be available next week and to have a specialty. My specialty was food logistics, it was what I always did. It was a very important point at that time. I came here for one reason and I stayed for completely different reasons.

What was your experience of the war?

It was my first time in a warzone. I often say that my first six months I had the syndrome of the “hidden camera”. At least once or twice a day I was in situations where I thought at one point the whole crew would say: “Ha ha (claps) it was a hidden camera!” What I was witnessing was so far from whatever you can think of as normal life (I was in the U.S. just before). At one point you start to think it’s not once or twice a day, but twenty times. My first six months here were very strange. I still cannot explain today why. There was such a feeling of despair, awfulness, of catastrophe and at the same time there was this incredible energy. I’ve talked a lot since to people who were here, they also cannot explain the very strange feeling.

The people from Sarajevo could not leave. We could always leave, local people could not. It meant a big, big difference in how you feel those years. And also the syndrome of what is tolerable in normal life, the relationship with people, it’s like a very quick explosion if you’re on a boat. It’s well known that if you go on a boat for a long trip with somebody that you just don’t like in normal life, after one week you really hate them and the war had that effect. What is insignificant in normal life, in the war becomes relevant. You wake up and your main problem in the morning is where you will find water, heat and eventually some food. When that becomes your main thing in the morning, then of course your whole outlook on life is different.

How do you think you were perceived by people here?

During the war, there were no commodities, no TV or radio, which meant that the people had some kind of sixth sense, and I was in uniform. The people could somehow sense you, understand beyond your uniform, to say “this one is a bad one” or “this one is a good one”. That was the “war theater”, that understanding without words. I had great relationships and friendships even though I was in uniform working for UNPROFOR. UNPROFOR was mostly hated. People were able to say: “I hate UNPROFOR, but not you.” It’s very important that people were not stupid to say “you are all bad”, no, it was more like: “We hate what the UNPROFOR is doing, we hate why you are here, but you are a good guy.” This duality was everywhere, not only with smart people.

What did you do after the war?

I stayed with the military force for two years. Then I created the Franco-Bosnian Chamber of Commerce by the end of ’95. It was quite a challenge, because there was nothing here at the time. I was the director of that for three years. Then in ’99, one of our clients was a French supermarket firm, which was “my thing”, and I proposed to them that they open a cash and carry supermarket. They said “yes, as long as you become the chief of project”, so I moved out of the Chamber of Commerce and went with this.

That was the birth of Interex. I conceptualized, created, and constructed Interex here. The first one was at Stup, next to the airport. It went very well because we opened not only 26 stores in Bosnia, but also in Serbia, Romania, and Kosovo. In 2006, a change of the leadership of the headquarters in France brought a new team that had a totally different vision of what the international development should be and we were at the very least at a clear disagreement, so I went my own way then. From 2006, I traveled a little bit, enjoyed life, and finally started a totally new career by taking over the French school in Sarajevo.

What made you decide to do something so different from your previous work?

My daughter is maybe the main reason why I started that school, because it was a French school before me, but it was only going up to age 10. When my daughter was seven or eight, I thought “What will happen later?” I had extensive talks with the (French) ambassador at the time (in 2009) and everybody said: “There is no potential in Sarajevo. The community of expatriates is going down. We don’t see any future for that school, so we are not willing to invest.” I said: “Ok, I absolutely do not share your analysis, I strongly believe that there is place for that school and please let me do it. I will use my money and I will make that school, so let me do it.” It took 18 months for them to say “yes, please do”, so I took over the school in 2010.

My theory has been validated. We went from 68 kids to now 195. We are quite happy. Therefore, my old “demon” took over and I decided that if it’s working in Sarajevo, it should be working elsewhere, so I opened a second one last September in Ukraine in the city of Odessa and it’s now “my baby”. (laughs)

What makes the French school different from other schools?

We have 195 kids, about 100 are Bosnian, about 30 are from French families (which is a minority) and everybody else, about 60-65 are everything else, 23 nationalities. We’re like a secular, non-religious school, which means we strictly enforce that there’s no violence, insults or name calling on that basis. I think that’s the main reason why local parents put their kids in our school.

We’re a private school, which means money, so as soon as parents have a little bit of money (not lots), their priority is the education of their kids and we come into the game. There are not so many alternatives and price-wise I think we are the most affordable.

What do you think of people in B&H in general?

To me it’s very interesting, the cohabitation of real civilization and the existence of pure papci (uncultured people). It’s very strange, specifically in Sarajevo, you have brilliance, civilization, politeness, deeply cultured people for generations (not 10 years) that are living with and within people that are just ruthless bandits coming from the deepest village. It’s a daily reality. That’s evident at all levels, from newspapers, media, to administration etc. I don’t know if I like it, but it’s Sarajevo reality.

What do you dislike here?

It’s so banal, but I dislike this ethnonationalism and at the same time I know that for most people it’s just survival to be this or that and to hate all the others, but if only they could go beyond that…I think Bosnia without nationalism would be the absolute dream. It would be some incredible place.

This census, for example, is – you ask people “How many of you are there?” and “What are you?” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and you have all major parties saying: “Don’t say you are Bosnian!” in 2013, in the middle of Europe.

I think France is lucky to have evacuated those ethnic stories a few hundred years ago. It doesn’t have a stone in its garden where nothing can grow before it gets rid of that stone, and that’s exactly what Bosnia has to do.

Did you ever think about going back to France?

No, because even though everybody here is not happy, to me France is managing the problems and stresses of a rich country, which very much enervates me. Here, unfortunately, life is hard, there is no money, the crisis is permanent, everybody has to fight to live, but that means you go with the essentials, you don’t lose time with stupid things.

There are other problems that are very enervating here, but if I’m in France for more than 10 days I start to (fiddles with hands). I feel everybody there has a narrow mind. Half of their subject matter of very strong conflict is beyond belief. For example, now in France the Ministry of Education made a reform that school should not be on four days like before, but on four and a half days, that the maximum should not be six hours per day, but five hours per day. You should see the national debate, the people on the streets, ready to kill each other for what appears to be, you know (laughs)…the main thing is to go to school, if you can bring kids to school. This, day after day, these people in rich countries, they have no conscience of what hardship means and that enervates me a little bit.

When you weren’t doing business, what else was/is your passion in life?

Racecar driving was my first, my only passion. I started to race on a motorcycle at 16 and then at 18, as soon as I could get my license, I started to race in France. When I turned 20, my father said “It’s a nice hobby, but way too expensive, so if you want to continue you pay for it”, so I had to finish with that. I thought the “virus” was under control, but in ’98 there was the first formation of BIHAMK and I knew some of those guys, and there was the first organized race, the Brčko-Banovići rally. I was at the Chamber of Commerce at that time, I had a Renault Mégane, it was a company car and of course I put myself in that race. That was the beginning. The next year they created a real championship, Brdska trka (hill race), which I won in ’99. I also won in the Championship of Bosnia in 2000, 2001 and I think in 2003.

Bosnia was my rebirth to the outdoor sport and after that I started to race in France, in Europe… I ended up racing the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2006 and it was the absolute dream for me, my childhood dream, and I was able to fulfil it. My life was “before Le Mans” and “after Le Mans”. Now, everything I do is extra. (laughs)

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