As I stepped off the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord, I mused to myself that it was 40 years since I first visited France as a 14 year old on a family exchange.
I was reflecting on how, at that moment, I had been initiated into the sacred mysteries of gendarmes, tomates farcies and Paris Match, when, I looked up and I saw at the end of the platform a sign: Starbucks.
I didn’t know then, but it turned out that l’apocalypse was to be the theme of my visit.
The Guilde des Plumes conference was held in the borderland that is Porte de Clignancourt, an area that marks the edge of the city surrounded by the Boulevard Périphérique, the Parisian ring road.
We went to a glass and steel structure called the Maison de la Conversation – a curious innovation, that I liked very much.
A place dedicated to the ’live’ exchange of ideas, with a café and inexpensive conference rooms for hire. (I met the founder later in the day and I learnt to my relief that it was not a project sponsored by the French state.)
After a café and a croissant, we got going.
Speechwriters are brilliant at delivering intense content prepared over many weeks. The difference between The European Speechwriter Network and the Guilde des Plumes is that the ESN does not believe in unscripted utterance.
The French have panels – where speakers can be unprepared or just digress.
But I reserved my judgement.
Immediately I picked up the collective anxiety of these well-educated people. They fear that the next President of France is going to be Marine Le Pen.
An actress turned political activist, Magali Payen, gave her views on the climate crisis. At one point she announced that the only successful political strategy is sobriety. As someone familiar with the vocabulary of addiction recovery, my ears pricked up at this point.
Magali reminded us of the implications of the climate crisis and she certainly wanted to get busy given the coming apocalypse predicted by the scientists.
This seemed to me to contradict the principle of sobriety.
In recovery, sobriety is defined by accepting one’s powerlessness over a situation, and one’s readiness to accept reality as it is.
One of the best things about these events is that speechwriters are low status people. They will fulfil their obligations and they have time to hang around. They can make statements and then the audience can challenge their ideas later over coffee.
The problem with getting high status ‘political’ people to speak, is that they will show up to deliver their ideas, and then rush off to their next pressing engagement.
They don’t hang around to find out what people really think about what they’ve said. Sadly Magali disappeared as soon as she had finished speaking.
Hélėne Faure, a Prime Ministerial speechwriter turned screenwriter, was a little more grounded. She explained how drama had to have turning points, so it has to put the other side.
She mentioned that in her research into how the police worked she was shocked to discover that many officers were cynical about rape. Seeing less of a division between victims and perpetrators. Moral complexity? Who knew?
Then came Raphaël Llorca, a French political scientist.
He was gloomy about Le Pen, too. He made the comment that everyone has their own apocalypse – and I thought that was insightful.
2024, in particular, will offer one big one, if Trump wins the White House.
Raphaël is an expert in branding, and he was very good on how products are material symbols of our cherished ideas. After the Second World War, America grew in power through consumerism. The melting pot works because to be American is to buy things.
Raphaël pointed out that we’ve now reached a juncture where we have to ask: what are we going to do together?
This seemed to me very pertinent. Most of the West just wants to get a job, find somewhere to live, and watch Netflix.
Who wants to go out to church halls, pubs and town squares and do politics?
If you’re a politician, it’s very hard to find an organising principle.
Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders and Georgia Meloni seem to have identified we can all agree on one thing: we don’t want the people who are running things at the moment.
After Raphaël, we walked 500 metres under the Boulevard Périphérique to a restaurant.
On offer was not one course, not two courses, but three courses and an amuse-bouche.
I sat opposite a woman who worked as an assistant to an MEP in Brussels.
I told her what a disaster Ursula von der Leyen had been, but she disagreed, at least Ursula had a high profile, unlike previous Presidents of the Commission.
I kept my British outsider perspective to myself: maybe the best chance of survival for the European Union is if nobody knows who the leader is, or what they said…
She recommended that I read a recent French bestseller called Le Piège Nordstream, which outlines how Vladimir Putin bamboozled the West into becoming dependent on cheap Russian energy.
I bought a copy: I look forward to reading how Vladimir Putin became the most complete Bond villain since Blofeld.
I couldn’t finish my medium steak, but I did finish my tiramisu.
After lunch we listened to two writers for the series Parlement a kind of Yes Minister for the European Parliament.
They are bureaucrats working in the Parliament, not writers, but they clubbed together to write a novel. Which has become a TV comedy running over several series (it’s available online).
They explained how they used the model of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose – a young man introduced into a world that makes no sense. And the the story is how he works it out.
I did one more session on how to get CEOs to pay you to write their Linkedin articles before my medium rare steak got the better of me. I had to sleep for a session.
They ended the day with an open-mic, which was good because it was unpredictable. Antoine Momot sent up the TED talk, which was very funny.
As always, I loved every minute of the conference, because it offers a snapshot of what everyone is thinking.
I had two days in Paris, so I went to the cult musical Starmania which was recommended by Raphaël. It was a rock opera – a mixture of Grease and Blade Runner.
Of course, it depicts an apocalypse resulting from the election of a corrupt tycoon to the presidency of Monopolis.
After a couple of hours my Anglo-Saxon instincts were longing for the final upbeat singing and dancing number that would round it all off.
But no, it ended with a solitary female singing she wanted to roll over on the asphalt and die.
Frenchies, there’s something constructive you can do before that – outlaw Starbucks from France!
The next European Speechwriter Network conference will be at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge from 17-19 April 2024.