The Association du Souvenir de Ferdinand de Lesseps et du Canal de Suez was founded in 1978 on the initiative of Jacques Georges-Picot, the last General Manager of Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez and subsequently Chairman of Compagnie Financière de Suez.
Mr Georges-Picot was of the opinion that it was not the task of Compagnie Financière de Suez to perpetuate the memory of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal.
If left alone, this memory would have become an increasingly distant myth, growing ever fainter until one day it would vanish. Hence the need to create an organisation to handle the material and intellectual legacy of history of Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez and its founder.
First there was the material legacy: The Association is the de facto and de jure owner of the archives of Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, which were accumulated over a period of 100 years from its founding up to 1956.
In 1998, these archives were included in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.
The archives are supplemented by a large collection of paintings, statues and models, documents, letters and souvenirs.
There is also the intellectual legacy: The Association's core mission is clearly to keep the memory of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal alive. If the day comes when the high points of their history and the major accomplishments of their genius are no longer present in the human consciousness, then the material evidence they left behind will be forgotten.
The Association's activities have gone through a series of complementary phases in keeping with the original plan of its founder.
The first phase was an organisational one, with steps taken to ensure that the heritage was preserved and made accessible to researchers, historians and to everyone interested in the work of Ferdinand de Lesseps and Compagnie Universelle.
Accordingly, the National Archives (Archives Nationales) provided a home for the archives in Fontainebleau and later Roubaix at the Centre National du Monde du Travail(National Centre for Labour Archives).
The Association then signed an agreement with Fondation de France giving the latter legal ownership of the heritage, although the Association will continue to hold the heritage as long as it fulfils its mission.
However, it was clear that the work of Ferdinand de Lesseps was not a thing of the past, the domain of historians, but that the Canal was still in operation in Egypt and, as its founder had wished, was still welcoming ships from around the world day in and day out.
The Canal itself is the best souvenir of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal, which is still very much in operation. Far better than any archive document or engraving, the Canal is alive and bustling and is the best physical reminder of the major project undertaken in the Isthmus of Suez.
It also became clear that the structure was above all a Franco-Egyptian project and that consequently, apart from any remote disputes which no longer seem important, the Canal formed a tangible link between two countries. It was under these conditions that close relations were established with the Suez Canal Authority. Every year, the Association holds a meeting of its Board of Directors in Ismailia, it visits the Résidence, and is involved in a project to construct a Canal museum at Ismailia.
In Paris too, ongoing collaboration forms a bond between the Association and the Egyptian Ambassador and his Cultural Office.
For several years now, a programme has been in place to digitalise the Association's archives to make them accessible in Egypt too. The prestigious Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) forms a sort of "Suez Collection". With the Association's backing, a librarian from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina travels to France every year to spend time at the Archives de France (French National Archives)in Roubaix. In 2000, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina organised a colloquium entitled From the Inauguration of the Suez Canal to the Inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which, under the auspices of the Suez Canal Authority and the Association, brought together experts from several countries, including Egypt and France.
The Association is responsible for keeping the memory of the Canal alive, but it is also responsible for keeping the memory of Ferdinand de Lesseps alive - and Ferdinand de Lesseps also has links to Panama.
Of course, the Panama story is far less glorious and in France evocative of a scandal with which Lesseps is invariably associated, even though he was not personally responsible for it.
At least that is the case in France, while in Panama Lesseps is still affectionately known as 'the Great Frenchman', to whom Panama owes its canal. The Association is duty-bound to maintain a presence in Panama and to make sure that French people are aware of the esteem in which Lesseps is held.
Panama's rightful recognition of Lesseps' undertaking is undoubtedly a powerful antidote to the low opinion that the French have of his work in Central America.