» Interview with Jean-Marc Ayrault: 'The Nantes Forum is not just another conference.'
30.09.2006 - SHSviews 13

Interview with Jean-Marc Ayrault: 'The Nantes Forum is not just another conference.'

in SHSviews 13

During the preparations for the 2nd World Forum on Human Rights, SHS Views interviewed Jean-Marc Ayrault, Mayor of Nantes, Député of the Assemblée nationale and President of Greater Nantes.

After hosting the 1st World Forum on Human Rights in 2004, the City of Nantes is organizing the 2nd Forum which will be held from 10 to 13 July 2006. Why do you think Nantes is so committed to this initiative?

Let me say straight away that Nantes not only hosted the 1st World Forum on Human Rights in 2004, but with UNESCO’s help, we also organized it. The Nantes Forum was primarily the idea of UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences – to give Pierre Sané his due. Why did we say “yes” to his proposal? Simply because the whole idea seemed to be consistent with what our own policy in this city has been since 1989, both in terms of local action as well as internationally.

How does this Forum compare with other international conferences on human rights that are regularly organized all over the world?

I think it is very important for the Nantes Forum to stand out and not be just another conference. Even more important than an arena for debate, I want it first and foremost to be a meeting place. A meeting place where everyone involved in human rights can interact on an equal footing. That is the prime condition as far as I am concerned. I do not want people coming to Nantes just to listen to a few speeches; I want everyone who comes here – irrespective of their role in life – to take an active part in this Forum and make their contribution to the human rights construct. Nor do I want the Nantes Forum to be a place for political confrontation, but rather a space for dialogue, reflection and action all dovetailing to promote human rights; a place where all those involved – whether politicians or civil society actors – can meet, argue if need be, but wherever possible, move ahead together.

Would you say that creating this space for international dialogue is an effective way of furthering respect for human rights? And do you think this dialogue will really have a positive effect?

We hope this gathering and the discussions that will take place will have a ripple effect and add to existing international networks as well as help build new ones so that all action taken in defence of human rights becomes even more effective. Wherever human rights are at issue – particularly at local government and local community level – what I see as being the main focus of the Nantes Forum is the connection between those communities and civil society, associations and NGOs, etc. They all have the same thing in common: their work is hands-on, where infringements of human rights are an everyday occurrence. We need to find solutions to those problems even when there is a discouraging national or international context, which is why we particularly wanted to emphasize the local dimension for this second session of the World Forum on Human Rights, and so have opted for Global concepts for local action as subtitle for the Forum. One of our main aims will be to analyse the role of local communities and lay out structured plans of action for local level: in fighting against discrimination and racism with, for instance, the International Coalition of Cities against Racism which UNESCO is setting up, and also basic human rights such as the right to food and clean drinking water, etc.

How would you rate the outcome of the 2004 Forum?

Looking back, I am sure the 2004 Forum turned out to be what the various human rights actors needed, but I am equally sure that we need to adapt the structure of this year’s Forum with better geographical representation and participants from all levels of society so that our dialogue really is egalitarian, and involves all those attending – speakers and “ordinary” participants alike.

This is not as easy to arrange as it might at first appear, because helping participants travel to Nantes from some extremely poor countries involves a substantial outlay in financial terms. That is one of the problems we need to solve: additional means to facilitate participation in the Nantes Forum. What is already really encouraging for this 2006 Forum is the number of proposals we have received for round tables. Every entity taking part in the Forum – whatever its status – may suggest topics for reflection and action. I think the Nantes Forum has found the right track: it leads to increased participation of the various actors, including the most unassuming who invariably turn out to be the most interesting.

As President of a party group in the French Assemblée nationale, do you think perhaps that without legislation, the globalization of respect for human rights runs the risk of just being wishful thinking?

Yes, of course. Obviously, there has to be legislation first. But unfortunately it has become quite clear, particularly with international law, that legislation is simply not enough. It has to be applied. And that is where civil society comes in: without strong involvement on the part of civil society, particularly against the negative effects of globalization of the economy, nothing will be possible. It is simply not enough to chant: “Bring back politics, bring back politics!” for politics to overtake the economy again. Democracy both at local level and at international level means first and foremost discussion. And for there to be any discussion there have to be certain forces. We all know about market forces – that is, we have all seen what it means. But now it is time for us to react to those forces with the full backing of international law – not just minor bilateral concessions between States.

Do you think respect for cultural diversity and respect for human rights are actually compatible?

If one respects cultural diversity that does not mean that one has to accept absolutely everything. A nation’s culture is not immutable; it is not carved in stone. If it holds certain values that run counter to respect for 21st century women’s and men’s rights, then that culture must evolve.

The 2nd World Forum will be emphasizing the role that cities can play in the effective application of human rights. But what can local communities do to counter government policy when that policy is limiting human rights?

First of all, cities are bound to respect human rights where those rights are incorporated into national legislation. But when that is not the case, and when human rights are ignored by a government’s undemocratic decisions, then urban communities – what the United States and the United Kingdom refer to as “local government” – have the authority to oppose such decisions, as does civil society (if possible, local government opposition together with civil society), and even in some cases local government has a duty to disobey. Let me go back to what I was saying about globalization and the balance of power. As far as I am concerned, it is absolutely clear that cities around the world must participate in promoting human rights. In this day and age, cities are actors in their own right in the democracy debate, and the major trend towards decentralization which seems to be happening worldwide will go even further to strengthening their position. They must be taken into account and decisions made together with them. I firmly believe in an alliance of local governments when they follow the principles of universal rights and democracy, and when civil society, non-governmental organizations and the goodwill of parties involved in the economy, etc. are working alongside them.

Interview by Cathy Bruno-Capvert


Jean-Marc Ayrault
, a graduate of the Arts Faculty of Nantes, has led a “double life” for some time, concurrently holding political office and continuing to teach German until he was elected to the Assemblée nationale. He was born on 25 January 1950 in Maulévrier, in the west of France. After barely three years teaching in secondary schools in the Nantes suburbs, he was elected to the political office of councillor for the Département at the age of 26. A year later, he made history in French politics by becoming the youngest mayor of a town with over 30,000 inhabitants. He was mayor of Saint-Herbain until 1989 when he became mayor of Nantes and from that point on he gradually built up the project of the Urban Community of Nantes, renamed Nantes Métropole. When serving as mayor, he was elected deputy for Nantes in 1986, and in 1992 President of the National Federation of Socialist and Republican Deputies, before becoming leader of the Association of Mayors of the Cities of France. He was the only socialist candidate to be reelected at the first ballot in the 2002 general elections. Since 1997 he has chaired the Socialist Group in the Assemblée nationale.




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