François Hollande honoured with World Statesman Award
Presentation of the World Statesman Award – Speech by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic, at the Appeal of Conscience Foundation
New York, 19 September 2016
Cher Rabbi Schneier,
I want to begin by thanking you for your invitation. I want to applaud your lifelong commitment to the dialogue between religions, cultures and civilizations – in other words, in support of peace. That’s why it is an honour to join you here today, among friends from all around the globe – from Australia, Mexico, the United States, and France.
Dr Henry Kissinger, ever since I’ve been interested in politics, and that’s a long time, you have stood as an example. As a teenager I followed your initiatives, known as the Paris Accords, to bring peace and a solution to Vietnam. You are well acquainted with my country and you are a friend of France. And this evening, too, you are offering us a free, or virtually free, lesson in international relations. I want to thank you for the depth of your analyses and your overarching vision. Having people of vast experience like you to point the way is an invaluable asset.
I am moved by the presence and the prizes awarded to Carlos Slim and Andrew Liveris, whose own work within their company has gone beyond business to benefit society as a whole – in other words, to benefit the general interest.
Paris terrorist attacks/climate conference
I am therefore very mindful of the tribute you are paying to my work during the more than four years I have been President – the decisions I’ve taken, the ordeals I’ve experienced. If I had to highlight a single one of these decisions and a single one of these challenges, I would no doubt look to last November, when France was hit by terrorist attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis, a few days ahead of the climate conference, which seemed difficult to go ahead with, under the circumstances, and whose positive outcome was far from assured.
Yet the level of international solidarity towards France was such that heads of state and government from the entire planet gathered in Paris for the Climate Conference. Mindful of their responsibility, even though they had failed a few years earlier, they signed a historic climate agreement, and it is now up to us to make sure that all nations ratify it, and even more important, implement it. This brings me to the conclusion I want to draw, here, with you – that even when faced with a problem that seems overwhelming, such as the future of our planet, it is possible for statesmen and women to find a solution.
Nothing is out of the international community’s reach when it shoulders its responsibilities. If, on the other hand, it shirks them, if it turns its back on its duties, if it fails in its responsibilities, then we are once again faced with the threat of war and conflict.
But beyond me personally, in offering me this award you are honouring France. France, a source of inspiration, a country that champions freedom, democracy and human rights around the world. But also a country that suffers, that has been attacked by terrorists because it embodies a way of life, a culture, an idea, an idea that belongs to France and the world: the idea of progress and freedom.
Here in America, this idea is known, it has been shared through our revolutions, and these are the same reasons why the United States has been struck by terrorism in recent days, as you pointed out. But I am thinking in particular of the attacks of 11 September 2001, and I want to once again pay tribute to the victims of those attacks. They took place 15 years ago. On that day, we were all Americans, but today you are all French, because you are aware that the threat is terrorism.
But terrorism strikes so many countries, so many continents. No one is immune to it, and that is why we are so much more than American, so much more than French – we are the world, and we are responsible for the planet. The award you are bestowing upon me also pays tribute to the loftiest aspect of France – the equality of its citizens, regardless of the colour of their skin, their walk of life, their religion and their beliefs. We are all equal; that is what is enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: that men and women are born free and equal in rights.
That is France: a country that, in the aftermath of the horrific murder of a priest in the French commune of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray at the end of July, is capable of bringing together Christians, Muslims and Jews in a church. I was proud of France that day, even though I was saddened and distressed by the murder of the priest. And as you just said, cher Rabbi Schneier, crimes supposedly committed in the name of a religion are crimes against religion. Freedom of conscience is a fundamental freedom, and France guarantees that freedom in the name of a value we call laïcité (1). I know this notion of laïcité sometimes elicits questions beyond France’s borders.
So I want to be clear – laïcité equals the separation of Church and State, with a countervailing neutrality – the respect of all religions. Laïcité means that everyone has the right to personally practise the faith of his or her choice, and it is this freedom that France guarantees.
What brings us here this evening, ladies and gentlemen, beyond the awards that are being handed out, is a call to conscience. Conscience implies both demanding the clear-sightedness we expect of public officials, and the principle of action required of the men and women who run the world’s nations.
Conscience is nurtured by remembrance. Last summer, I was in Auschwitz for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. I met survivors. An attack had just targeted the Jews of France, and I saw in their eyes the fear of a horrific repetition. I remembered, then, the words of the late Elie Wiesel who called anti-Semitism a leprosy that returns insidiously when civilizations believe they have ridden themselves of it forever. Anti-Semitism has returned today, fuelled by the old prejudices of the extreme right, but also by radical Islam. That’s why the French government has taken every possible measure to combat it without respite and without weakness.
Over the past year, the number of anti-Semitic acts has declined, but even just one would be one too many. That’s why France is and will remain totally determined to combat anti-Semitism, like all other forms of hatred towards all religions.
The 20th century taught us that democracies can triumph over every danger, provided they remain true to their values. It is always democracies that win wars. Against Nazism, against totalitarianism, against dictatorships. That law of history will endure in the 21st century.
It is true that the world has changed considerably, and that those who predicted the end of history when the Berlin Wall fell were badly mistaken. They predicted a globalized world whose sole destiny would be the expansion of trade, the circulation of information and the production of wealth. They believed that eternal peace had come to our planet. It was an illusion.
The Cold War was followed by ferocious conflicts, borders collapsed under the pressure of nationalism, entire regions were destabilized. Of course, dictatorships fell, but gave way to indescribable chaos. Religious extremism re-emerged, Islamist terrorism spread, notably in Africa and the Middle East.
We are seeing things; we are seeing some terrible things again. Chemical weapons being used in Syria, millions of refugees fleeing war, religious minorities being murdered, World Heritage sites destroyed.
And now, on top of these threats, these fears, these crimes, these horrors, this barbarism, populism is re-emerging.
I was born in the mid-1950s. I come from a generation for whom democracy was the surest thing, something we took completely for granted. I thought that the principles of collective security that emerged from the Second World War were irrevocable. I thought that European integration was a model and a benchmark for the whole world that could never be called into question; that it was destined to expand not to shrink.
That’s what I thought throughout the decades that followed the mid-1950s. What I thought was indestructible has become a topic of debate. Yes, even democracy.
Terrorism puts democracies to the test. Evil has taken hold at the very heart of our societies. Terrorism seeks to destroy our cohesion. It seeks to divide us. That’s why we have to be absolutely determined, but without ever sacrificing our souls.
In the midst of disorder, we need a compass if we are to take action. Henry Kissinger wrote that an analyst, an expert can choose the problem that he wants to study or resolve, while reality dictates what world leaders must resolve; they can’t choose the problems, but they must resolve them.
I felt this obligation to make a decision before it was too late when France intervened in Mali in January 2013 to preserve the sovereignty and integrity of this friendly country and prevent the fundamentalists from occupying a territory and destabilizing the whole of West Africa.
It was also because of this need for urgent action that France intervened in the Central African Republic in order to prevent massacres.
In Syria, I note that the international community’s shameful failure to take action has led to a disaster: 400,000 people have died. When France realized that chemical weapons had been used, it decided to assume its responsibilities. And again today at the UN, I will call for renewed efforts to establish the conditions for a truce, to ensure humanitarian access and to implement a political transition.
One day, we will be accused of not doing enough in Syria, of not stopping the Aleppo tragedy. Aleppo is a symbolic city, a martyred city, like other cities have been, in Bosnia and elsewhere.
In the face of other crises, we must take action. That’s what we did in Iran in order to reach a nuclear deal. France imposed conditions on Iran to the extent that we were able to, without ever giving up.
By the same token, I am not resigned to the idea that we cannot find a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Here too, a path to peace is possible. It was Shimon Peres, who is in my thoughts at the moment, who told me he always had this hope.
The worst thing is to give up, to believe there are always worse crises elsewhere, that now is not the time to act.
But if we don’t solve problems today, they come back to haunt us tomorrow, in even more difficult and intractable forms.
This is also why Chancellor Merkel and I wanted to find a way to make sure that Ukraine is protected from attack and can determine its own destiny. On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy format made it possible for us to sign the Minsk agreements. We’ll continue all our efforts to ensure that those agreements are implemented.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what I came to tell you today. The world, in the 21st century, is threatened by wars, conflicts, terrorism, climate disruption, poverty, migration and refugees. This is the state of our world, although many areas are experiencing a level of prosperity, thanks to globalization, of which they could previously only dream. That is the contrast between a world of imbalances and a world of growth.
Given these realities, the single most important thing for the international community is for continents and nations to stand united.
If we give in to our divisions and our fears, that is when we risk confrontation. That risk is there. It will be a choice for all societies to make – to decide how they want to live, whether it’s possible to be together, whether we can accept the contributions of everyone in order to form a nation, a continent, a world.
You have assumed your responsibilities in a different way; you are seeking unity in another manner. Your foundation is interfaith in nature; it promotes dialogue among all religions and you are highly committed to it. You yourself, cher Arthur Schneier, extended an invitation to the Pope. I went to see him. You brought the Pope to pray in your synagogue. He prayed for France when it was the victim of a barbarous crime in a church, and he also called for interfaith dialogue.
A few days ago, the King of Morocco also called on Muslims, Jews, and Christians to form a common front against fanaticism and self-absorption. France, as I said, is a secular country, but we believe that religions have their place and can play a role, as long as they don’t get involved in government decisions.
Our victory over hate will be political and military, but it will also be moral and spiritual. That is why I myself am so committed to the dialogue between cultures and civilizations – not to erase their differences but to unite them, to engage in the battle for human progress. If you are wondering what it is that constitutes a statesman or woman, it is the ability, in the end, to take decisions that are beneficial to his or her country and to the planet.
If one day I am to be judged – and I will most certainly be judged – beyond us here and even beyond our time, the important thing will be whether I made decisions that were beneficial to my country and to the world, i.e. that not only helped preserve the present but also helped prepare us for the future.
Thank you for your award./.
(1) laïcité goes beyond the concept of secularism, embracing the strict neutrality of the state.