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Although the relations between France and the Western Balkans (WB) have a long history, the intensity of French engagement in this region has varied over time and today there is arguably space for improvement. In fact, after two decades of modest interest in the region, France has recently signalled its intention to intensify its engagement in the Western Balkans.
Over the last several years, France has actively supported the creation and development of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), extended the mandate of the French Development Agency to the countries of the region, and adopted the National Strategy for the Western Balkans. Considering that France holds the presidency over the Council of the EU in the first half of 2022, at a time when there is an apparent enlargement impasse, France has an excellent opportunity to increase French, but also the EU’s, level of impact in this region in the upcoming period. For this reason, how and to what extent France will engage with the Western Balkans is expected to become a matter of increasing importance in the eyes of governments, experts, think-tanks, and other civil society organisations.
Bearing in mind the favourable circumstances for taking decisive action, this paper will identify the potential for boosting societal cooperation between France and the Western Balkans. As this aspect of cooperation is often neglected in the general analyses, this paper will examine where these relations currently stand and what is their potential for development. It will be structured around three main areas, namely covering civil-society organisations (CSOs), youth and education, and cultural ties in the context of strengthening public diplomacy. By providing detailed yet succinct analysis in each of these sub-areas, the paper will provide recommendations on how boosting societal ties can become the basis for deepening economic and political cooperation and thus for greater French influence in the region.