France and Singapore share a special friendship, their heads of state said last night, as President Tony Tan Keng Yam hosted visiting French President Francois Hollande to a state banquet.
This relationship dates back long before Singapore's independence, and France was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Singapore on independence in 1965.
And at a time of global uncertainty, both leaders said these ties should be built upon to signal a commitment to staying open and connected.
Ties between the two countries today are so close that it is not difficult to spot French influences here, Dr Tan said in his dinner speech.
St Joseph's Institution, which Dr Tan attended and is one of Singapore's oldest schools, was set up by the La Salle brothers and a priest from Brittany in 1852, he noted.
Today, 165 years later, many Singaporeans take Alstom MRT trains to get to work. Some drive Peugeot or Renault cars.
"Not too long from now, they will also be able to participate in an electric car-sharing programme run by French transportation company, Bollore," Dr Tan added.
Mr Hollande, the first sitting French president to make a state visit to Singapore, also highlighted longstanding ties.
"France regards Singapore not just as an economic partner but also a friend. This solid relationship is based on a long history," he said in French. He noted how two French naturalists, Pierre-Medard Diard and Alfred Duvaucel, accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles on his journey to Singapore in 1819. The relationship has since grown from the time founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew met French president Georges Pompidou in 1970, when Mr Lee "said then that he hoped France would be by Singapore's side during the island's development", Mr Hollande said.
"Our relations have since surpassed that initial ambition. Allow me to pay tribute here to the memory of Singapore's founding father, the anniversary of whose demise you just marked a few days ago," he added.
He noted that a number of French companies have contributed towards Singapore's Smart Nation project, and many tertiary institutions like Insead and Sorbonne University have chosen to establish a presence or partnerships here.
Today, there are over 1,800 French enterprises in Singapore, and 15,000 French nationals make Singapore their second home.
Dr Tan said the bilateral relationship had made great strides during the presidency of Mr Hollande, most notably the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership, which both countries signed in 2012.
Since then, the two countries have deepened cooperation, not only in traditional areas but also emerging ones such as space technology, renewable energies and nuclear safety, Dr Tan said.
And as this year marks the fifth anniversary of the Strategic Partnership, Mr Hollande's visit is "a fitting occasion to inject new impetus into our bilateral cooperation in innovation - a priority area of our respective national growth strategies".
Singapore's cooperation with France in defence, security and culture has also strengthened, he said.
"Singapore deeply appreciates France's strong support for the RSAF's fighter pilot training in Cazaux, which will mark its 20th anniversary next year," Dr Tan said, adding that collaboration in areas like counter-terrorism and cyber security has also been stepped up.
France's yearly Voilah! festival has become a key highlight in Singapore's cultural calendar, and Singaporean artists are making their presence felt in France, he added.
Such links must continue amid an uncertain global environment and as many governments are facing pressures to turn inwards, he said.
"Being able to work with reliable friends is more important than ever. France is such a friend of Singapore," Dr Tan added.
He noted the ratification of the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement would reinforce the belief that "free and open trade will bring tangible benefits to our peoples".
"Singapore also looks forward to France's support for the Asean-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement which will strengthen air connections between our two regions, and signal the value both our countries place on having a connected world rather than a fragmented one," he said.
Mr Hollande reiterated France's commitment to openness and the rule of law, and added: "We are also aware that in the region it's necessary to be assured of this equilibrium, this principle of law. Be assured that France will always be by your side to uphold this."
Yesterday, he also visited the Asia-Pacific campus of France's Essec business school where he called for efforts to intensify Asia-Europe ties in the face of resurgent "isolationism", Agence France-Presse reported. He said Europe must tell Asia "we have much to do together, much to defend and much to promote".
Correction note: This story has been updated for clarity.