Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hollande’s visit

The French president, like other Western leaders, rightly understands that it’s not only officials who influence national life, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Two important aspects of French President François Hollande’s recent visit to Egypt caught my attention, and I hope others devote some attention to them too. The first pertains to the composition of his delegation; the second to the nature of the meetings he arranged in addition to his formal talks with Egyptian officials.

Alongside political officials, the French delegation included cultural officials and representatives of French civil society organisations. Chief among them were Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay, a French citizen of Moroccan origin who is the daughter of an advisor to King Mohamed VI and King Hassan before him; the president’s cultural affairs advisor, a young woman of Tunisian origin; and the official responsible for humanitarian affairs, who explained that the agenda for the president’s tour, including Lebanon and Jordan as well as Egypt, included the question of refugees and a visit to a refugee camp.

I was also pleased to find among the delegation the president of the Arab World Institute, my old friend Jack Lang, who is also a former culture minister and one of France’s most important cultural figures. In addition, there was Gilbert Sinoué, a well-known French novelist of Egyptian origin.

I was impressed by Hollande’s determination to fit in meetings with public figures in addition to his meetings with political officials, even though his visit to Egypt lasted only 48 hours. I received a personal invitation from President Hollande to meet with him for lunch at one of Cairo’s major hotels.

Five other Egyptian intellectuals received similar invitations: the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Ismail Serageldin, novelist Alaa Al-Aswani, film producer Marianne Khouri, the young filmmaker Ahmed Al-Haddad and a professional dancer whose name I did not catch.

A few hours after the luncheon, the French president met with six other influential figures, including the journalist Abdullah Al-Sinawi, opposition activist and lawyer Khaled Ali and political activist Gamila Ismail.

What does this all signify? Why would the French president include writers and intellectuals in his official delegation? Why would the head of state of a major European nation use part of his time, during one of the most important French presidential visits to Egypt and, indeed, the most important visit since the 25 January 2011 Revolution, to meet with individuals with no official capacity, no decision-making powers and no authority to sign economic agreements?

Why spend about two hours in conversations with six intellectuals who were invited to lunch and another two hours in conversations with political activists and persons of opinion?

To me this epitomises how developed Western nations view societies and the ways to interact with their diverse influential components. Like other Western governments, France does not see Egypt or any other country solely through the lens of officialdom. Ministers, governors and other public office holders do not hold a monopoly on the factors and processes that shape societies.

Writers, intellectuals and the shapers of public opinion have no less an influence than that of those who take political or economic decisions.

Hollande believes that to develop a clear understanding of what is happening in Egypt, and to grasp the factors that are currently shaping Egyptian society, his meetings should also include those who have an impact on people’s ideas and attitudes.

The luncheon started later than scheduled because following Hollande’s visit to parliament, MPs pressed him to have their pictures taken with him.

After welcoming his guests and thanking them for accepting his invitation, the French president opened the conversation by stressing the long history of cultural relations between France and Egypt.

As though to reassure himself that cultural exchange between the two countries was still progressing well, he solicited his guests’ assessments on the state of these relations, each according to his or her particular field of expertise. “What about books? Ideas and literature?” he asked me when my turn came.

I replied that cultural communication between Egypt and France has been cut off for years, as a result of which Egyptians are not aware of what is being published in France, just as the French are unaware of Egyptian literary production.

“If you were to ask an Egyptian writer about French authors, he would probably mention Sartre or Camus, who were succeeded by many generations of writers who do not receive the amount of attention they merit in Egypt,” I said.

I continued, “The only way to remedy this deficiency on both sides is though a joint initiative by both countries, such as a major project that would aim to translate 100 of the most important works from each country since the beginning of the century into the language of the other country.”

I hope that such a project will be one of the fruits of this visit and lead to the necessary budgetary allocations. Such a project is no less important than the economic and military deals that were signed during the visit.

The conversation then turned to a topic that I had anticipated would arise: the relationship between intellectuals and government authorities. He said that this is a relationship that France has sought to promote since the time of Charles de Gaulle, known for his close friendship with the writer André Malraux. Hollande has sustained this tradition with his friendship with Jack Lang.

The guests around the table voiced a diversity of views and opinions that I cannot rightfully transmit here. However, the French president asked, “Is there a crisis of confidence between the two sides?”

I replied that the matter has less to do with confidence than with the nature of the current phase through which Egypt is passing. “Egypt has been forced into a ferocious battle with the blight of terrorism which has recently struck you in France as well. However, here terrorism seeks to overthrow the state itself, as is obvious from what we see happening in other countries of this region such as Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Syria,” I said, adding, “To complicate matters further, this war is taking place at a time when the country is in the middle of a very delicate transitional phase in which the old is doing battle with the new.”

I pointed out that just as we, in Egypt, cannot afford to be lax in the fight against that danger that threatens our very existence, we cannot allow this fateful confrontation to come at the expense of human rights and freedoms. I then added: “It is not so much a crisis of confidence as it is a question of the fate and historic responsibility of intellectuals to defend the cause of freedom constantly and under all circumstances, including times of war.”

After expressing his appreciation for the views expressed, President Hollande concluded the conversation by emphasising his country’s commitment to the defence of the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights. He simultaneously stressed France’s support for Egypt in its war against terrorism as it realises that Egypt is, indeed, being targeted.

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