In the Atlantic Coast city of Rennes last weekend, an impressive line up of French luminaries gathered for what the organiser, Libération newspaper, described as “a laboratory of the imagination, of a collective happiness, where the economy is not the holy compass.”
Over 100 French thinkers, policy-makers, economists, industry leaders, artists and master chefs were all there to brainstorm.
Leading the free public debates were figures from all sides of the political and professional spectrum: Henri Guiano, special adviser to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Christophe de Margerie CEO of Total oil company, economist Nicolas Baverez, fashion designer Nathalie Rykiel, Euro MP José Bové and psychoanalyst and historian Elisabeth Roudinesco.
That such a motley bunch share concern for finding happiness is curious in itself. As was the decision to hold the event not in Paris but in the convivial Brittany capital.
France has weathered the global downturn better than many other large European economies. But unemployment is nevertheless at 10 per cent.
And the crisis has clearly led many to reassess their basic values. The overwhelming feeling among the forum participants was that economic woes have been eating up the French quality of life and it’s time to act.
The aim was not to dream up in two days a simplistic and universal panacea for happiness. It was to form ideas for ways people can be more positive from now on.
They included all sorts of things from laughing more often to making better choices about the contents of your shopping trolley. Brittany chef Olivier Roellinger divulged his simple recipe for collective happiness – sharing “fusion flavours” with the greatest number of people. Alongside him was theoretical computer scientist Henryk Woźniakowski.
One of the most gripping debates, “Performance – Will it have Our Hide?” pitted dairy giant Danone’s director Emmanuel Faber against sociologist Alain Ehrenberg.
Economic performance cannot be ignored said Faber, but it is time to think of “the human reality beyond financial results”.
The packed auditoriums in Rennes and huge online response to the debates indicate the forum was in tune with the public mood.
But was all this ultimately just a cosy weekend of beard stroking about an ideal world?
Anticipating this charge, the organisers riposte was: “These meetings are necessary … they are an opportunity to try and see our way to another kind of democracy, to analyse important issues and to explore the future in a cultural melting pot where intellectuals, politicians, journalists, decision-makers, artists, entrepreneurs and citizens are face to face.”