A New Year has just started with a message of Hope: vaccination is spreading quickly, and this will firstly allow us to turn this pandemic year into a bad memory albeit one that is hard to forget, and secondly, learn lessons from it, about our health of cause, but also about the kind of society we want to live in.
Controversy will continue to rage: was “too much” or, on the contrary, “too little” done to control the circulation of the virus? Do we have to protect the weakest at the expense of the rest of the population? Do we have to limit liberty to guarantee safety? Must collective need outweigh the needs of the Individual?
This debate is not just needed, it is an intrinsic part of our democratic societies, it is written in the DNA of our culture. However, if this discussion is to be healthy and useful, it needs to remain calm, so we cannot allow it to be hijacked by conspiracy theories, which are spreading at the speed of the Internet, or in other words, very fast indeed…
No two countries have chosen the same strategy, first, to attempt to slow down the epidemic and now, to vaccinate their populations. It is too early to decide which strategy has been the best in protecting the general population, or the worst in maintaining social connections or limiting economic damage.
In France, during the first lockdown, it was decided to restrict the liberty of the most vulnerable elderly by forbidding all visits, even from close family, to old people’s homes. How many people did this drastic measure save? We will never know exactly, but if it prevented the death of even one grand-parent, can we not say that it was justified? On the other hand, what about those other grandparents who were forced to die alone, out of sight of their loved ones?
In France too, students have been severely limited in the access they have to their education for at least nine months; and of course, many stress that the greatest hardship of studying on-line, what many of them emphasize is the lack of socialization. The situation is doubtless very complicated, even difficult, but is it a tragedy? If the interdictions gained by meeting, and by famous student partying, have had to slow down to limit the spread of the virus among the general population, is it not again justified? A 20-year student can hope to enjoy another 60 years; on the other hand, a person of 60 can perhaps hope for another 2 decades: which one should be asked to sacrifice a few months – even a year of their lives? It is not a simple choice, and the answer is not black and white, but this question has to be asked.
A few centuries ago, Science had to fight against Religion, and very often the former was forced into submission at the alter of the latter. Today it seems that “public opinion” is demanding that science submits to it, since, thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, anybody can become an expert in virology and pharmacology. Politicians find themselves as referees in this unfortunate face-off; they have no choice but to apply the recommendations of the science, and to convince an increasingly skeptical public to act in their own best interests.
Perhaps this management of the epidemic shows the limits of “participative democracy”, as opposed to representative democracy. The latter was invented by enlightenment thinkers to avoid two pitfalls: the absolute power of one King or Emperor over everyone else, and the will of a few charismatic or ambitious idiots overriding the wisest sages. From the French revolution until now, the principle we have needed to maintain has been to let experts advise the elected politicians on their decisions which may sometimes be popular, or in the modern context, populist. Naively or not, this is what we expect from our elected political representatives, with the expectation that they forget their allegiance to the Left or to the Right. This is why giving equal weight to the informed advice of experts and to the ignorant opinions of the ill-informed is one of the inevitable risks of populism.
Of course, the general population does participate in local decisions (as in the typical French Hobson’s choice: should the village recycling bin be emptied once or twice a week?), in their regional identity (and as a Breton, I know what that means…) or even in some big issues such as climate change (from which steps the question of when an action is local or becomes global, but that is a question for another time…)
However, when it comes to deciding if wearing masks should be compulsory or if social distance should be imposed, should we not just accept the advice given by experts, or even better, by groups of experts?
There are lessons that we will learn from the sad and life-threatening situation we find ourselves in: we can all agree we need to be better prepared, anticipate more, and act faster; can we agree on more State coercion? Maybe… or maybe not. Can we agree on more empathy and humanity? Definitely.
Although we are living through a time of fear and uncertainty, it is also a time of hope and resilience, as India takes its place in the forefront of the vaccine mobilization that will return the world to us. This being the case, we should resist the urge to concern ourselves only with the bare necessities of life that meet our material needs, as tend to be prioritized by governments and business, rather, we should find happy release in culture and the arts.
It would not only be short-sighted to limit our focus to our baser needs, but it would also testify to a misunderstanding of culture and the value it adds to the daily life of us all. Culture is the civilizing and softening interpretation of our world – it is our defense against the Hobbesian rush of ego that wakens from sleeping once our humanity is reduced to its most basic needs and functions, and that alienates us from each other.
That is not to say that culture should be reduced to mere entertainment, the panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, that do no more than act as a distraction to whatever blight may have befallen us, and this is particularly true in dark days like these. More than ever, we need to remember the beauty of artistic creation; the joy and mental engagement it inspires help to make us human, whether it be film, song, performance, or painting. Above all, we need to support the artists who so enrich our experience of life, but who have been unable to perform, exhibit, meet their public, or support themselves during this time.
Along with many other Cultural Centres, the Alliance française has had little option than to cancel exhibitions, films, book clubs, and performances, but although our building has been reduced to a ghost town of hollowed-out classrooms and corridors that seem haunted by our missing students, we, the governing body and executive directorship, have remained committed to the artists, as we have been to you, their potential audience, in spite of the technical and financial difficulties we face.
For this reason, we have invested in the Net and have tried to make our presence effective there and to compensate for our inexperience on this media, by offering even more. Are we offering online cinema? Yes, but there is more – let’s invite the Director for an open discussion with the viewers. Are we broadcasting a live concert? Of course, but let’s go further – let’s meet the performers and ask them the questions we would never normally have the opportunity to ask. Are we organizing a book club online? Naturally, but let’s have the writer themselves to talk about their books and to chat with the readers – not just ten readers round a table in our library, but dozens of them, all sitting comfortably at home, with a little more confidence that environment allows them, to ask more probing questions…
Naturally, it is essential to pay the artists communicating with us through these new channels the same amount as they would earn if present in the flesh: the cost of living, the preparation they have done, and most importantly, the talent they are sharing, have not changed.
In December, to celebrate the end of this annus horribilis (no need for translation here I imagine…), the Alliance française de Delhi has decided to offer you many events online, and I would like to particularly promote three of them: a concert and an interview with the French musician Christophe Panzani, an InChorus performance by French and Indian artists who have been in residence at the Alliance française, and a unique concert performed by some of the best Opera singers in Delhi, organized at the Lotus Temple in collaboration with the Neemrana Foundation.
This Opera performance will be the last event of the year, and I want to dedicate it to all of you who find comfort in sharing in a collective experience of sacred music, written by composers down the centuries and across continents, who were inspired to make shared visions of hope and peace beautiful in song, whatever their Faith.
Wishing you all the best for the Season, and for a happier new year.
A new lockdown has been announced in France and it started a few days ago. Thanks to the knowledge acquired during the preceding lockdown in the spring, and after having taken the advice of the scientific and health authorities, the French government has chosen to keep all schools, primary and secondary, open this time. This sometimes controversial decision, and not forgetting the economic cost, takes this essential fact into account: a few months without school has clearly reinforced educational inequalities: children and adolescents are far from equal in terms of what they know.
Social and economic inequalities have always existed; even though tools such as the carte scolaire, which made it compulsory for children to attend the school closest to their home address in order to avoid parents choosing schools with better reputations at greater distances, and the creation of Zones Prioritaires d’Education which allow some more disadvantaged neighborhoods to receive special grants for their schools, …, have tried in vain to correct or amend the situation. Unfortunately, to a large extent, these inequalities are embedded in the roots of all our modern societies.
The general lockdown of last April, and the sometimes very difficult return to school for many pupils and students, mainly because of the drastic health and safety conditions imposed (half classes, alternative weeks, demotivation because of cancellation of all exams, etc.) has revealed that digital teaching, far from bridging social and educational divides, has reinforced it for the most disadvantaged part of the population. This digital divide is usually used to illustrate the difficulties the uneducated adult population has with these (not so) new technologies, or those who do not possess equipment or Internet connection, and so cannot access online information.
A common pre-conceived idea is that children are computer literate, in an almost organic way, but firstly it should not be forgotten that playing online or watching a YouTube video does not mean that you have all the keys needed to use the equipment as a source of information, and secondly, one has to keep in mind that in 2020, almost 10 % of French children do not have a computer at home. And of course, beyond the equipment, there is the question of how able a parent is to accompany their sons and daughters into the Hi-Tech world. The result is a double-whammy for these children, not to mention the demotivation that cannot be made up for by particular attention of teachers or through the solidarity that can found amongst peers.
Without knowing the details of the Indian context, I can easily imagine that the uncomfortable situation of the most disadvantaged is at least the same, or certainly worse, given the vast rural population here.
The Alliance Française de Delhi, which teaches a subject that is non-essential for most of the population, does not face this digital divide: our students, teachers and administrators, all have the skills, devices, and access to the web, and if very rarely they do not, our institution is able to lend basic equipment.
So, how, in our small way, can we help to reduce this digital divide? In the coming years, and in light of the experiences of the past and the painful present experience of epidemic, our great and successful association will have to try to offer some small response: it is our social and moral responsibility.
The COIVD-19 epidemic is obviously terrible on many levels: people are getting sick, people are dying, some have lost loved ones, some have lost their jobs; for too many, there has been really suffering. Rich or poor, powerful or humble, no one is safe.
The pandemic has also had a heavy toll on mental health, not only because of the stress that almost everyone feels, or the loneliness that too have endured during the lockdown, but also because of the uncertainty that everybody must endure: what does the future hold for us? What will life be like in tomorrow’s world? In these circumstances, it is difficult to make plans, to focus on goals, to keep following the trajectory we had mapped out when the World was “normal”.
Why is this? It is because we have a natural tendency to become conservative when we want to protect our loved ones, and when we want to preserve our time, our money, and our energy for the Future, especially when we don’t have any idea what form this Future will take. This is normal because it is human and natural. But we should also take this opportunity to reflect on the Past, the Present, and indeed on the Future; this health crisis will not last forever, and we need to be ready to show resilience, and we need to be prepared.
Education is the universal key to a better future, perhaps even more so in India. It is the ultimate, and sometimes painful, investment in tomorrow. The lockdown saw the closure of all schools and universities, and has forced students to adopt a new way of studying, sometimes unsupported, because along with everyone else, parents, teachers, and administrators were not ready.
For those who have chosen to study French and particularly for those who are planning to go to France to pursue higher education, this is perhaps the moment to act. The Alliance, in common with every other institution, has had to adapt very quickly because the responsibility was huge: we had earned the trust of so many people in teaching them the French language, and we could not let them down.
The governing body, the executive team, the administrative team, and especially all the teachers have risen to the challenge and have labored hard to ensure that classes continue. And the results are in: thousands of students have continued to learn French with us, because you trusted us, and we have continued to provide courses online because we trust you.
We don’t know when we will be able to reopen classes on our premises in Delhi and in Gurgaon, but the time will come, and we know that while some of you will continue to join us online, some will find their way back to our Library, our café, and our auditorium, not today, not even this month, but soon: because we are human, and humans are social animals.
While we wait for the time when we social animals can be together again, I would like to conclude this message by wishing our Hindu friends happiness on the occasion of the festival of Navratras this month: have a joyous celebration of the Goddess Durga, and all her avatars, and her message of hope and rebirth. For our Muslim friends, I wish you joy on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday, and in celebration of his message of peace.
One last word: if I may reformulate the great slogan Keep Calm and Carry On, Stay Safe and Keep Busy… until we meet again.
September in France is traditionally marked by a few recurring events: French schoolchildren and students find their way back to their desks, political parties organize their ‘universities’ and some Alliance françaises all around the world get a new Director.
Delhi is no exception: Jean-François Ramon, the previous Director, has left the Indian capital (in his case, to embrace a new life of leisure and personal journeys: he has officially retired), and here I am, Stephane Amalir, the new Director, happy and grateful, even lucky, to be starting this New Adventure with you all.
New Adventure indeed as can be seen by the superlatives: the Alliance française de Delhi is the third biggest among the 800 other Alliances all over the world, in terms of the number of students and teaching hours, from a country that is soon to have the largest population in the world.
But the Alliance française de Delhi is yours before all else: it is the place where you come to learn French for a multitude of reasons, ranging from the desire to be able to order a “baguette de pain avec du fromage, s’il vous plait” to the aim of studying at a “grande école”; it is the place where you can come to browse through tens of thousands of documents in the French language on a huge variety of subjects; it is a place where you can come and listen to a live piano concert, admire an exhibition that you cannot see anywhere else, to watch a classic francophone movie or the latest film from a famous French director.
And when I say “a place”, you understand of course that I mean both a physical address and a virtual space: the Alliance has truly reached universality and is present on earth as well as in the cloud.
The COVID-19 pandemic is here as it is everywhere, and we need to protect ourselves and our loved ones, but we also need to continue to work, to entertain, to live, and the Alliance française de Delhi is full of Life. I can only repeat that I feel honored that the executive Direction has been offered to me, and I am certain that with the help of the Governing Body, the administrative staff, and the teachers, we will be able not only to maintain its excellence and its position, but to go further, and to offer more.