22 May 2019

Opening Plenary Paris 2019 – Liberté

’Are you a free man?’’ asked Laurence de Nervaux, the moderator of the Opening Plenary, to Plantu, the French cartoonist who had arrived at the conference with a bodyguard, a vestige of the Charlie Hebdo attacks four years previous, and a somewhat ironic occurrence during a discussion on “liberté”. The question, while posed to Plantu, was more a question to the whole room than to the talented cartoonist. Plantu spoke of needing to build a new Europe based upon fraternité, he spoke of a need for understanding, an understanding that the history of Europe was not built upon peace but war, and to understand the Europe of today, you must understand the Europe of the past. By promoting understanding, and discourse, you promote fraternité and freedom.

‘’Freedom is not however a given, we have to take it’’ sparked the discussion onwards with Plantu’s colleagues on the stage, Bassma Kodmani, the co-founder of the Arab Reform Initiative, and Ivan Krastev, the Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Studies. The trio discussed not just the threats to freedom and liberté but also the solutions, a topic which saw Plantu turn his words into cartoon form for the crowd to witness live on screens behind the speakers. These recommendations came as both ideals; such as hope and love, and more tangible ideas, such as supporting journalism and discourse, or the arts and culture, but with one important caveat that ‘’we should not jump on one recommendation, this is too simplistic’’. This does not mean that these recommendations should not be tried, hope should not be fostered, but that often local problems require local solutions. For instance there are no blanket solutions that will work to combat xenophobia in Bulgaria, and then work again in Germany.

A recurring theme throughout the discussion was hope, with Krastev stating that the ‘’biggest challenge for philanthropy however is how to build this hope’’, how to transform a Europe that is terrified of the future, into a Europe in love with its future, and a Europe capable of taking control of it. He pointed out that many people used to fear the past, and all its misgivings, but many now look at it fondly with nostalgia and instead look towards the future with fear, a fear that needs to be replaced with hope. Hope was what many in the Middle East had invested in Europe, ‘’refugees rose against dictatorships because of the values of what Europe represents’’ Kodmani told us, and while this hope was unrealistic at the time, it does not necessarily mean it was misplaced. Through these values, such as hope, east and west can be joined together, civilisations can connect, and through mediums such as the arts and culture, we can take on the extreme right and authoritarianism.