In recent years, we have witnessed a proliferation of forums on politics, the economy and society, including the G8, G20, G20 YES, Davos and the Women’s Forum, among others. These events afford an opportunity to bring experts together and compare sometimes contradictory points of view.
The growing number of summit events is indicative of the success of this approach with organisers, speakers and participants. It also prompts us to consider the influence of these forums and their ability to impact or steer public debate.
Aude de Thuin, a founder of several forums, in particular the famous Women’s Forum, agreed to answer our questions.
What is the added value contributed by forums compared to other political, economic or societal events?
Forums are the tools of tomorrow because they are the result of collaborative thinking!
I always approach the subject of forums with other people. For example, in the case of the Salon sur l’Art du Jardin, I set up a working group comprising personalities from the gardening world including an historian, a landscape architect, an urban developer, a designer and also a psychologist and a sociologist to serve as a think tank for the global garden issue. I am inspired, directed and challenged by these extrinsic viewpoints.
I also established a board for the Marketing Direct Trade Fair in 1981 because I realised that I couldn’t get anything accomplished if I worked alone!
What are the concrete objectives behind a forum?
I can’t speak for other organisers, but I like nothing better than to analyse society as the sociologist I would have loved to be. I’ve always designed my forums to consider a specific societal phenomenon. I create forums only to move issues forward and prompt changes in society. I believe I succeeded with the Women’s Forum.
The matter at hand isn’t just one of image for a given sector. Were that the case, I don’t think the forum would last very long.
What are the media ramifications from these events?
The media impact is not a forum’s primary mainspring, except for its partners. For example, it can be useful to make ideas far more widespread in society.
I recall launching the Women’s Forum and saying to our press office that we should talk little about the forum and only about the substantive issues in discussions. It turned out that we were overtaken by the media interest in the subject. The buzz can probably be attributed to the fact that the Women’s forum met the needs of the time. I believe that having press articles after a forum is a good tool for making information available to the general public. It’s all the more important when we’re talking about an issue like the role of women in society and the economy.
What’s more, the Internet is also a major information channel for the general public to understand the forum, as conferences are increasingly broadcast live.
Why did you create the Women’s Forum?
In 2000, I was very happy running “Art du Jardin” and “Créations et Savoir-Faire” when I had the preposterous idea of wanting to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. I sent a letter requesting accreditation and never received a reply. I shared this with some women friends who were attending (I should point out that these friends at Davos were all running very large corporates or holding important positions in them) and I realised that my profile offered little interest to the Davos organisers. Firstly, I was a woman – at the time Davos had only 4%-5% of women participants – and secondly I ran a small business, which was of little interest to Davos. That bothered me, so I began thinking about setting up a forum for women, but not restricted to just women: the Women’s Forum.
What concrete changes has the Women’s Forum ensured for women?
Many things have changed for women since the Women’s Forum was set up. Although the French government under Lionel Jospin enacted a parity law in 2000, it was the forum that prompted men to think concretely about the issue of women in politics. Furthermore, I believe I can assert that the Women’s Forum was, and still is what has caused awareness-building and the creation of dedicated structures for women in many companies, has helped promote more and more women into high-ranking positions, and has also led to the vote on the law ensuring parity in company boards.
To summarise the concrete developments resulting from the Women’s Forum, all you have to do is analyse the progress in the situation facing women in the last seven years to see the societal shift the forum has triggered.
What are your ambitions for the French Forum?
My aim for the French Forum is once again to get things moving. In words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”.
In my many trips for the Women’s Forum I have been struck by people’s disbelief at the negative view we French have about our country, but also by the fact that the whole world envies us for being French, with our living conditions, the beauty of our country, among the highest productivity in the world, an effective social system, the incredible number of creative people, a network of international schools, etc. And yet, despite all these assets, we cling to a pessimistic view of our future…
I hope that the French Forum can help us change how the French see themselves, but also turn this forum into something that creates value for France, in particular through the quality of the participants.
The forum will apply an original format since it takes place simultaneously on three different levels: in the town of Versailles where the forum will be hosted; live on the Internet and finally in a cinema theatre in Versailles for the general public. This is a new forum format which has never been applied in France and for its first year in March 2012 will invite four flagship countries (China, Germany, India and the US) along with six French regions.
Interview by Emilie Humann and Servane Marion