French president seeks conversation with students at upcoming town hall

Media Credit: Photo used under the Creative Commons Liscence from Flickr user EU2017EE

Experts said French President Emmanuel Macron's upcoming townhall is indicative of his efforts to connect with and elevate the voices of young people.

Updated: April 23, 2018 at 11:30 a.m.

The French president – like world leaders before him – is extending a global hand to college students.

The University announced last week that Emmanuel Macron will host a town hall with students Wednesday in the Smith Center. International affairs experts said the town hall is indicative of Macron’s efforts to connect with and elevate the voices of young people, who will be the future of global politics.

University President Thomas LeBlanc said Macron specifically asked to interact with students, and GW students will be the only ones permitted to ask questions at the event. One thousand students will be selected via a lottery system and some student organizations, like the French Club, were allotted some tickets for members.

Because this is Macron’s only public appearance outside of Congress, LeBlanc said the town hall is a unique opportunity for students to interact with a foreign leader – an opportunity that doesn’t appear every day.

“It’s going to be all about this dynamic, young president of France who is really in some ways the next voice of European politicians coming to GW to talk to our students,” LeBlanc said in an interview last week. “We knew our students would turn out to see it.”

Erwan Lagadec, a research professor of international affairs, said he approached the French embassy in January with the idea to bring Macron to GW, since he heard the president wanted to connect with young people. Lagadec said he helped GW compete with other D.C. universities to host the event.

Macron wanted to engage with students because he was interested in interacting with average citizens, and the team from the French embassy liked the size of the Smith Center, he said.

Lagadec said Macron often seeks the opinions of young people to be more accessible to the public that elected him. Elected at just 39 years old, Macron is the youngest president in French history.

“I think that’s just Macron – the fact that he is not showing up to give us a two-hour speech,” Lagadec said. “I don’t think he’s going to give any speeches, he’s going to jump in and take student questions seriously.”

Macron will make a speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday before his visit to GW, becoming the first French president to do so since 2007, according to a March press release.

The president of Georgia came to campus in 2016 and the Russian president visited in 2010. After he met with former President Barack Obama, the South Korean president stopped by the Jack Morton Auditorium in 2009.

Other world leaders have spoken at universities around the world to spread their messages.
The prince of Saudi Arabia visited MIT and Harvard University in an attempt to rebrand the country in March, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

During the Obama years, the former president hosted a town hall at a university in India and gave speeches at colleges in several countries including Malaysia and South Africa.

Lagadec said Elliott School leaders wanted to take advantage of Macron’s visit to focus on France and other French-speaking countries with a series of lectures and talks – led by the Institute of African Studies – on issues like climate change leading up to the event.

Liberata Mulamula, the acting director of the Institute for African Studies, said Macron will be able to tell the next generation of leaders how France under his leadership will be different from the one they have known.

“His message will resonate with the young students,” he said. “Macron will also be talking more about the university education and the emphasis on the social world.”

Scheherazade Rehman, a professor of international business and finance and international affairs, said Macron was a symbol of hope, as the left-leaning presidential candidate “picked up the political mantle” in Europe when many state leaders were turning toward the conservative political spectrum.

She said the visit cements what makes GW stand out from other universities nationally and in D.C. The University’s location a block from the White House and the World Bank provides a unique opportunity to hear from foreign dignitaries and other important leaders, she said.

“These are the intangibles that other universities cannot replicate,” she said.

Jeff Lightfoot, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank, said Macron’s visit is unique because state visits are typically more focused on protocol and meetings with leaders.

Lightfoot said Macron’s town hall with students will help build GW’s brand as an international affairs hub. The former president of Pakistan discussed foreign policy with students last April, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other top U.S. officials spoke with the vice premier of China in the fall at the Jack Morton Auditorium.

“GW has not been a stranger to senior people when they are in town,” Lightfoot said.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
A previous version of this article said the president of Vietnam visited campus in 2009. The South Korean president came to campus that year. We regret this error.

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