It is a fascinating, and, for the rest of Europe, deeply crucial time in France. A Presidential election takes place very soon. It is the first time the two left wing candidates have focused so explicitly on sustainability options, and one of them, Mélenchon, is putting on a late surge in the polls. The other, Hamon, whose campaign has faltered, is, thus far, refusing to step aside, endorse Mélenchon and unite an alternative to the more right wing candidates, in particular Marine Le Pen. France suffers from many of the challenges faced elsewhere in Europe, unemployment, a widespread discontent with the results of neo-liberal economics. While some assume it will respond with a lurch to the right, there is also a dazzling array of projects, movements, people and places that are showing a different approach, one rooted in connection and resilience.
I popped over last week for a whirlwind few days, so I’d like to share here some observations and tell the story of the trip. My host was Lionel Astruc, who wrote the book Le pouvoir d’agir ensemble, ici et maintenant, based on interviews with me, which has done really well in France. It is shortly to appear in English which will be great as I will finally get to read it!
Our first day started with a trip to the studios of France Culture, the kind of BBC Radio 4 of France, for a show that specialises in issues around sustainability hosted by Aurélie Luneau. We prerecorded it, an interspersing of clips from the film ‘Demain’, me talking, one song I chose (it was ‘A Town Called Malice’ by The Jam) and other bits and bobs. Just as we were leaving, Pierre Rabhi arrived, who I had wanted to meet for some time, so we met briefly before we headed off. Here is the podcast so you can listen to it:
Next stop was to meet a reporter from Le Monde to talk about food, and the best dish I ever ate (it was handmade tortellini in Italy, in case you’re interested). Then we went to the Mayor of Paris’ offices, an amazing old palais in the centre of Paris, where later that day they would be launching the first part of the Carbon Neutrality Plan for Paris. I had been invited, but couldn’t make it, so was there to pre-record my contribution, which turned out to be the first time I ever used an autocue (it had to be translated and the event was only a few hours later). I’ll let you be the judge of how well I mastered it…
Then after lunch with Celia Bauel, Deputy Mayor at Paris Council, Lionel and I headed to Gare de Lyon to get the train to Arles in Provence. I had long wanted to visit Arles, being (as you may have noticed) a bit of a Van Gogh geek. We arrived at about 6pm to do a talk at Le Méjan, and incredible 14th century building, built on the site of a Roman temple. Lots of people had come out, and we had a great evening, helped by my brilliant translator Xavier Combe (best I ever worked with). Good questions, good discussion, a lovely evening altogether.
My hosts in Arles were Jean Paul Capitani and Françoise Nyssen, who run the publishing house Actes Sud. They are incredibly prolific, running all kinds of things, and their house is gorgeous. They were the perfect hosts. The next morning I went off to immerse myself in the Van Gogh history of the town. My first stop was to visit Place Lamartine, where the man himself had lived, in a house that no longer exists. It was a visit that inspired me to write a blog about it, which you will find here.
I walked past the point where he painted the famous Starry Night painting, and other places he made famous. I headed back to Actes Sud to meet with some people from Pays d’Arles en Transition. The group founded in 2011, but found that the release of ‘Demain’ was the real catalyst for them, and interest in what they are doing grew sharply. They are working in several areas. They have projects around food growing, education, community energy, a local currency, called ‘Le Roue’ (the wheel) due to be launched soon. They are also working on zero waste projects, and on mobility and transport. They have put on a number of films followed by debates, and on 23rd September, in case you happen to be around, they will be holding ‘Transition Day’. We talked about ideas, strategies and learnings from elsewhere.
Then I went with Jean Paul to go and see Domaine du Possible (“the realm of the possible”), a new school started by he and Françoise inspired by their son, for whom school was a real struggle, which has now started just outside Arles. Supported through a foundation set up by Jean Paul and Françoise, it is a school for 105 students (it will grow to around 300) from kindergarten to 18 which is based on good teaching, creativity, ecology and learning how to be a good citizen in 2017.
The place was a hive of activity, everyone getting ready for an inauguration this weekend. The school is set in the middle of a 120 hectare farm, which is itself undergoing a transition, being planted with almond trees, olive trees, vegetables and rice, as well as bees, sheep and chickens, as a showcase of agroecology and agroforestry. The intention is to create a University Domaine Du Possible, to showcase broadscale permaculture and agroforestry as a training centre for those farming on a larger scale. It was amazing to see the whole set up.
What amazing place to go to school. I can’t wait to revisit in a few years when it’s finished, when the planned greenhouses are installed, the trees are established. It’s going be a great example that education needn’t look and feel like being sent to prison, rather it can be very much the opposite, a liberating experience on many levels.
Back in Arles I got to visit the Van Gogh Museum, with its exhibition of 8 original works by the man himself, including a rarely-seen painting of olive trees.
Then I had some time to wander, so I visited the town’s Roman amphitheatre and Roman circus, before heading to a public park in which Van Gogh often painted, and sat and drew for a while.
Here’s what I produced (unfinished):
The evening included a Baroque concert back in Le Méjan. Not really my cup of tea musically, but fascinating to see, especially in such a setting. Then I wandered to try and find the cafe immortalised in the painting ‘The Night Cafe’, which I did, but it was closed. The highlight of the trip then made an appearance back at Jean Paul and Françoise’s house, a sheep’s cheese containing truffles. Oh my God. Really.
Next day I headed by train to Annonay, the venue for the second talk. The context was the annual festival, ‘La Bio Dans Les Etoiles’ (“organic among the stars” or something like that). The festival is funded by Fondation Ekibio. Ekibio is one of France’s largest producers of wholefoods, including gluten free breads, and have done a lot to grow the organic food sector in France and beyond. The festival takes place over 2 days and this was its 9th year. The event features talks, debates, film screenings, an organic market in the square in Annonay and much more.
I was speaking in the evening as part of an event, in Théâtre d’Annonay with Olivier Roellinger, a very well-known chef who runs an amazing restaurant in Brittany, does a huge amount to promote good food, and also travels the world seeking unusual spices. After an introduction by Didier Perréol, the founder of Ekibio, Olivier and I, hosted by Anne-Sophie Novel, talked to over 400 people, about food, local economies, craft beer, and much more. After the talk the evening was not over… lots of people wanted to talk, and the discussions and connecting went on well into the night in the Square of Annonay.
Next morning with Lionel and his wife Nina we drove to Lyon, and from there by train to Paris. The event here was an amazing day organised by the Colibris movement called Le Chant des Colibris (“the Song of the Hummingbird”). The venue was La Villette, a huge conference centre in the middle of Paris. The session I was part of, called “Let’s reinvent a new model of society”, had sold out, and featured me, Cyril Dion and Nicolas Hulot, who runs a foundation that supports issues around social solidarity.
Over 1,000 people came, and we had great discussions and debates, questions from the audience and it was all very enjoyable. Then we did a book signing, and then had some down time before the evening’s climax, a concert, in the same room, called, again, Le Chant des Colibris. It featured lots of different well-known French artists, and Cyril Dion, who read some of his poetry accompanied by the musicians. It was amazing, lasting over 3 hours, with many different performers and musical styles. Great stuff.
Next day Lionel, Nina and I travelled back to Lyon for the last talk, at the Musee de Confluences, a museum that only opened a couple of years ago, and which has become the 12th most popular museum in France. Housed in a modernist building that frankly wasn’t really my cup architectural of tea, it has permanent exhibitions exploring how life on Earth evolved, how human society and culture evolved. Fascinating place, well worth a visit if you’ve ever in the city.
Our session followed a screening earlier that day of Demain, and about 300 came, and another 3,800 followed on Facebook Live, on a hot Sunday afternoon. It was mostly shaped by the audience’s questions, and again, was followed by a booksigning. And that was that. The evening wrapped up with something to eat and drink at Ninkasi, a great craft beer bar/venue/food venue. A couple of thrashy hardcore bands played, some very nice beers were tried, and a lot of fun was had with Lionel and Nina’s kids.
Whatever happens as a result of the Presidential elections, something fascinating is building in France. Something based on celebrating a new story, something that speaks to care, to human values, to solidarity. Something that seems to be popping up all over the place, and particularly speaking to young people, but bringing a creativity and imagination to a culture where those in charge seem to have run out of both. Watch this space…
If you want to see film of any of the presentations described above, apart from the Arles one, they were all broadcast on Facebook Live. Due to Facebook’s proprietorial take on such things, I can’t embed them here, but if you go to my Facebook page, you will find them there.
My thanks to Lionel and Nina and their beautiful children, Cyril and Fanny, everyone at Actes Sud especially Francoise, Jean Paul and Sylvie, the brilliant Xavier Comte, Musée des Confluences, Mouvement Colibris, Franck Oddoux for some of the photos above, Fondation Groupe Ekibio, France Culture, and everyone I met, especially the woman at La Villette who bought me a beer during the book signing, which was most needed, and much appreciated!