The selfie was taken by me on February 15 at the Elysée palace. I was in France at the invitation of the Institut Français (French equivalent of the British Council or the Goethe Institute), which was conducting a large consultation regarding the French government’s policy on the French language and cultural diplomacy. The invitation came from the fact that I write regularly on the topic in Montreal daily Le Devoir, which is itself a result of our (Julie and I’s) book on the topic and of my fellowship on France. We were about 500 people at the event organized by the Institut Français, but the organizers asked me if they could put my name on the short list of 14 people who would meet President Macron for a work session on the topic. The stake for him was that he wanted to make up his mind on the policy statement he was planning to make on March 20th (Francophonie Day).
So, on the Thursday 15th, the group of 14 got together. There was me, the only Canadian, there were four Senegalese intellectuals, one Ivorian blogger, the president of the International Federation of Teachers of French, the president of Paribas Bank. Quite a varied group. The meeting with President Macron took place in the Salon de Murat, where the Cabinet meets. We were the 14, plus a dozen councillors, the Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen and the president’s special advisor on Francophonie, Leila Slimani.
It started in pure French fashion with the president shaking hands with all the guests. To be frank, I was not hoping much. I feared mostly a PR show. All the more so since the meeting started half an hour late and we only were supposed to have one hour. In the end, he spent an hour and a half with us. Emmanuel Macron was seated right across me, two seats down. He began by explaining his point of view on Francophonie: he had had a bad experience in Ouagadougou and did not want to repeat it. He also demanded a frank and open discussion. In the end, the meeting lasted an hour and a half and every one spoke for three to five minutes in no particular order. What stunned me the most was the quality of his listening. He took his own notes, about six pages of them, and often exchanged looks with his Advisor and the Minister. He is not a poker face at all, quite the contrary: he doesn’t overdo it, but he is very expressive. I can boast to having been the one who contradicted him openly on a point he made, and he seemed to appreciate.
What most impressed me, however, was what followed. As you know, he made a major policy announcement on March 20th at the French academy in the presence of the cabinet and about 300 representatives of civil society (mostly the Who’s Who of French cultural diplomacy). Actually, many points of what was said at the meeting were quoted almost verbatim by the president as some of his 30-odd proposals. One of mine was amongst them, the one about the fact that the French academy should work in conjunction with a group of other academies, much like the model of the 23 academies of the Spanish language, which work on their national standard for the language as well as the international standard of Spanish. But more importantly, the gist of what Macron said is a very important reorientation of French cultural diplomacy, which is one of the most active in the world, in favor of a more decentralized approach and understanding of the French language and culture.
I was quite honoured and proud of having been a part of this process, and there is no doubt in my mind that this a direct result of my fellowship.
—Jean-Benoit Nadeau, March 26, 2018