Fresh from his speech at UNESCO, our poetic president was received this afternoon at the Elysée Palace by the President of the French Republic François Hollande.
According to a press release from the Elysée, the meeting between the two heads of state was an opportunity to underline the dynamism of Franco-Irish relations in the political, economic and cultural domains.
Ireland holds the current rotating presidency of the European Union and President Holland saluted the active engagement of President Higgins at European level and of his commitment to “the construction of a social Europe that gives priority to the struggle against youth unemployment and to those citizens of Europe who are most exposed to and at risk from the current financial crisis.”
The meeting followed a morning speech at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, at which President Higgins evoked these themes and was given a rapturous standing ovation from the circa 200 delegates present.
The two men also discussed the role of the European Union in the defence of democracy and human rights in the world. President Hollande emphasized the “courageous positions” that President Higgins has taken in this regard.
Meanwhile, yesterday President Higgins addressed the Sorbonne University, where, according to the Irish Times, Mr Higgins weaved Ireland’s rich intellectual legacy and cross-fertilisation of ideas from France into recurring personal themes of his presidency, most notably, the responsibility of the public intellectual and the malign pervasiveness of a quietist philosophy of “inevitability”, particularly in economics. “Scholarship is at its best when it is emancipatory, ” he argued.
Paying tribute to the influence of thinkers from Diderot to Delors, Kant, Habermas and our own Cantillon, and to Paris as a laboratory for ideas for such as the Fenians, Mr Higgins used his address, “Defining Europe in the Year of the European Citizen”, as an opportunity to redefine republicanism and citizenship. His critique of the proponents of the “limited state”, or its neo- or ordo-liberal versions, had something of Barack Obama’s inauguration reminder “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action”.
“Our existence we must remind ourselves is as social beings,” he said, “not as commodified consumers without a history, incapable of envisioning an alternative future.”
It was also a defence of the postwar consensus on a social Europe now under threat, and a call for a new collective European “narrative” to empower citizens. He quoted Montesquieu: “the tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”
Such ideas, expressed in a very French way, and not least the idea of a kinship of ideas, are likely to find an echo in France, and particularly with a socialist government which has already shown a desire to warm the froideur perceived by many in recent years in Franco-Irish relations. France remains one of the EU states most suspicious of the downside on the economy and culture of globalisation, and most amenable to such appeals. How close Mr Higgins’s radical analysis is to our own Government’s is, however, another matter.