Paris Peace Forum 2019 an Unrealized Dream

The 2019 version of the Paris Peace Forum does not bode well for its future. The idea for this supposedly annual event started with a bang in 2018. On that occasion, it showed up rather suddenly (for an outsider) in conjunction with the Armistice Day centenary events that drew the likes of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and other heads of state to the impressive Arc de Triomph ceremony hosted by President Emmanuel Macron on 11 November. Over 60 heads of state (but not Trump) then joined the Paris Peace Forum, a new Macron-inspired initiative to promote global governance in general and multilateralism in particular, that was held nearby at the Grande Halle de Villette. But the second supposedly annual Forum was a disappointment. 

Background and Hopes for a New Multilaterlism

I came across an announcement of this 2018 Forum well after I had committed to participate in a different event, the 10th annual Internet Governance Forum, which happened to overlap with the Forum’s dates and which happened, coincidentally, also to be scheduled in Paris – at UNESCO as opposed to the Grande Halle de Villette. Nonetheless, I did belatedly sign up for it in hopes that I would be able to combine the two forums, but alas, this proved impossible. It was interesting, though, that both forums featured the promulgation of the newly minted Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace. (See my 2018 commentary on this here.)

This year, I made sure to set aside time on my calendar for the second version of this Paris Peace Forum. The eleventh Internet Governance Forum, in any case, was scheduled for a later date – and in Berlin, not Paris. So no conflict there. Regrettably, though, it turned out to conflict with a number of other appealing events that I gave up on. But this time I chose to focus on not wanting to miss out on the second rendition of what I had seen as an impressive effort by President Macron to bring Paris into the center of inclusive multilateralism. And also regrettably, I found this event to be a disappointment in many respects. In retrospect, I should have known better.

An Unrealized Dream

A number of these disappointments are personal, but I start with a more objective disappointment. The event lacked a clarity of purpose, focus and outcome. The warning signs were there even as I signed up to attend. The programme was slow in coming, finally appeared but in a format that made it difficult to decipher the nature of the event. And as it turned out, the 2019 Forum had a weak opening – no major political figures other than Macron and, stretching it a bit, Ursula van der Leyden, a scattered and even inaccurate programme of panels, workshops and projects without any clear pattern, and a closing ceremony that said nothing about any of the Forum’s events. Instead, it featured the announcement of ten awardees of financial support as “Start-Ups” drawn from the 120 or so projects that had been given space in the main hall to promote their activities. What? No summation of issues or initiatives? Just a bunch of mostly youth-oriented projects – impressive ones, to be sure – but this was it?

What a revelation! Lots of themes this year – environment, new technologies, peace and security, development, inclusive economy, culture and education – but no effort to tie it all together, even within each of the themes, to say nothing of overall. One can only conclude that the organizers felt obliged to include everything but the kitchen sink even though they seemed to have no clear idea of what the Forum’s inclusiveness message should look like. Perhaps it was also a matter of being obliged to accommodate the major sponsors who had committed not only to underwriting this event but also to financing and nurturing these ten Start-Up projects for the coming year.

Then there are the more personal disappointments. I start this point by describing a chance encounter I had during the opening ceremony. I was standing outside the closed but visible circle for the invitation-only opening ceremony looking into the circle from a cordoned off barrier when a woman standing next to me asked me if I knew were to find a particular meeting room. I shrugged my shoulders but decided to introduce myself to her and ask her why she was standing there in the same spot as I was, looking into a closed, invitation-only ceremony. It turned out that her outsider-ness was worse than mine! She had traveled to France from Australia specifically to attend this forum. She, like me, had arrived the day before, but in her case she even had an invitation from the French Embassy I Australia for the closed event that had been held the night. The guards had blocked her from entering because the invitation from the French Embassy was not the equivalent of the specifically additional invitation to this event by the Forum’s organizers!  She, like me, had assumed that the three-day forum, as announced in the promotional and registration materials, really meant all three days for those of us who did receive clearance to be “participants” in the Forum.

Inclusiveness Betrayed

Wow, I said. That really takes the cake! Like her, I had registered for the three-day forum, only to discover at too late a date to change my travel plans, that I was only invited to the second and third day of the forum BUT NOT THE FIRST DAY. Why? Because the first day was only for “members of the Paris Peace Forum community”! When I wrote to the organizers to ask why “participants” were not “members” of this community, they wrote back that “only project leaders” were invited to the first day. Well, at the time that I learned this, it was way too late to “cook up” a project, although I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to meet the “laugh test” for a credible project. But I certainly have discovered since then that there were plenty of others besides “project leaders” at this first event. I also discovered, from the internal broadcasting of the event on the monitors on display at the Forum, and that it was a whole lot more than an opening reception for the “project leaders”. In fact, it was a major event with participation from the UN Secretary-General (who was not in attendance on either the second or third days) and lord-knows whoever else. I keep looking for information on the Forum’s website on how to become a “member” of the Paris Peace Forum, other than signing up as a “project leader” (whose deadline has expired in any case). There is no such listing.

Not only was I deeply offended by this opaque and hierarchical ranking of who gets to be what level of participant, I also saw it first-hand. Standing outside the closed circle for the opening ceremony, I recognized many of the people entering the closed circle whom I knew personally. Although they were clearly part of some privileged category of ticket-holders for this opening ceremony (i.e. those “members of the Paris Peace Forum community”), the ones I knew personally were clearly not “project leaders”.  And I, of course, along with my new Australian friend, missed the whole first day of the Forum for not being part of this elite category.

I emphatically do not want to be associated with an organization that alleges to be promoting inclusive multilateralism and then operates with a hierarchical ordering of who is to be included at what level. It was even obvious to me that logistically, the space could have been opened up for a far more inclusive experience for us all – even for this “opening ceremony” on the second day of the Forum but presumably for that first day of events, too. What’s more, the Grande Halle de Villette had other closed-off sections that even included what was apparently a full-food dining area – one could smell the food even past the closed doors and screens. The “participants” who were not “members” had ONE counter service of cold sandwiches and salads, for which there were usually long lines.

All this means that I will probably not be back for the third event. I suppose I could find a way to become recognized as a “member”, but I personally disapprove of that kind of hierarchy. It is such a direct contradiction to the mission of an inclusive multilateralism and reeks of the “Davos” mentality. Of course, it could well be that there won’t even be a third event. This one was such a let-down from the hoopla of the first one. And one does hear other jurisdictional jealousies from the likes of Geneva or even Brussels in Europe and other locales around the world. Maybe Paris is a little bit too Macron-driven these days to offer a genuine alternative for advancing an inclusive multilateral agenda.

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