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Semaines Sociales November 2012

Men and Women: the new deal

Last November 22 – 25, 2012 the the Semaines Sociales held their annual open university in the Parc Floral, Vincennes.

The participants came from all over France but there were also quite a few foreign delegations from Belarus, several Eastern European countries, Germany, Spain and Ireland. Bishop Noel Treanor of Down & Connor, a keen enthusiast of the event, sent a delegation and issued an invitation to the Irish community in France to join.

Anthropologists, theologians, economists, sociologists, philosophers, historians, well-known personalities, and heads of important associations came together over a three-day period…on the subject of “Men and women : the new deal” or perhaps “the latest facts” would be a more appropriate translation, for, as one speaker said “what’s new? and “where’s the deal”? These were not three days for the faint-hearted! The programme was a very full one and concentration was a must.

There were around 4,000 participants plus a host of volunteers to prepare the coffee, cakes, sandwiches, and to distribute the “kit”, complete with badge, programme, various leaflets, and explanations.

What are the “Semaines Sociales”?

It was founded in France in 1904 by two Catholic laymen, Marius Gonin from Lyon, and Adéodat Boissard from Lille. These men wanted to raise public awareness of the Church’s social teachings and adapt these to the problems of the times, making every possible effort to improve the condition of workers, denounced as inhumane by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (1891).The first session was held in Lyon in 1904: 200 people were expected but, 450 attended. It was much more specialized in the period between the two wars, debating not only social issues but also the major concerns of the time: peace and democracy.

The Semaines Sociales continue to be concerned with economic, political, cultural, scientific and technological issues and the impact of these issues on the social responsibilities of our society. A three-day session, featuring an important social issue, is held annually. It is a sort of open university giving all those interested an opportunity to listen to lectures and debates, and to ask questons. The sessions offer reflection and debate, searching honestly for genuine solutions to the problems in our society, proposing a meeting place for those interested, offering a platform for Christian testimony on the subject under discussion.

Among the topics discussed recently were: bioethics (2001), violence (2002), Europe (2004), social justice (2006), sustainable development (2007), the place of religion in the public sphere (2008), new ideas for solidarity (2009), migrants (2010), democracy (2011), it has been the inspiration for change in the social system in France: unemployment benefits, sick benefits, proportional tax, children’s allowance, social housing and many other issues.

Day 1 began at 8:00 am with coffee, the handouts and a chance to meet the others. A series of no less than four lectures and debates in one day left us all fairly reeling as, the tempo was fast and dense. Speaker followed speaker. After the introductory speech by the President of the Semaines Sociales, Jérôme Vignon, there came the Inspector General of Social Affairs, (no feminine equivalent of Inspector General ) Brigitte Grésy and Claude Martin sociologist and researcher with the CNRS, with facts and statistics galore. Before we could draw breath the Government Minister of Women’s Rights, Mme Najat Vallaud-Belkacem then spoke. She was followed, after a very short break, by the historian, Michelle Perrot together with Georges Vigarello, sociologist and director of research at EHESS.

A well-deserved and much-awaited lunch break at 1:15pm saw us shoot off as fast as possible for a bite to eat and some time for our own discussion on the morning. Then it was back for the afternoon session, just as rich and dense as the morning! More debates and questions with Viviane Reding who is Vice President of the European Commission and commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship. She gave a splendid talk and had no difficulty whatsoever answering questions. Also on the podium was Franck Fregosi, sociologist and Islam specialist here in France. They were joined by the Senegalese doctor and sociologist who also spoke on Muslim affairs.

As with all lectures and debates the quality varied from the awesome to the…much less interesting, but the day ended with people feeling rather bleak given all that we had heard on the growth of male uneasiness and the dissention among women on issues dealing with equality between the sexes. We are far from being home and dry, alas.

The second day was as intense if not even more so, with the renowned philosopher Sylviane Agacinski speaking on the metamorphosis of the difference between men and women: how the ancestral male domination has conditioned not just women’s role and their place in society, but our very way of thinking. You can watch the video (and indeed all the other videos of the session) on the following link: http://www.ssf-fr.org/ssf

The Dominican nun Véronique Margron, professor of moral theology and Jean-Pierre Rosa, philosopher continued the debate from the Christian point of view and filled our morning to overflowing. There was quite an animated discussion over lunch on that day!

The afternoon was given over to workshops and games that were: really well organised! Try getting 4, 000 people into groups of ten for discussions on various topics and ensure that it works! And it did! There followed talks by Maria Voce of the Focalari movement and a lecture from theologian, Alphonse Borras with a second very long day drawing to a close at 7:00pm.

Everyone was eager for day three with a summing up of all that had gone before and a lively debate on the equality of men and women in the workplace. This gave rise to a debate on how very much society has been changed by the arrival of women in the workplace…and indeed some rather humorous yet serious references to “gender-specific” jobs. (Check out the video.) Much less humorous is the fact that there still exists a huge gap in salaries between men and women not to mention the problems related to childbearing and careers. Laurence Laigo, National Secretary for the CFDT trade union and Benoît Roger-Vasselin didn’t manage to debate on this as, much to the latter’s consternation, they agreed on almost everything:; lack of equality and, the feminisation of certain trades.

The tone became a shade lighter with a discussion on marriage and family life and …hopefully the evolution of more role-sharing in the home (Hope springs eternal…) animated by Florence and Marc de Leyritz of Alpha France with the philosopher, Jean-Philippe Pierron. An important question: given our much greater life expectancy, how to envisage long term commitment ?

After lunch it was back to pencil and paper and note-taking as we headed into a talk on education and sexuality. In this world of violence and lack of boundaries how can we help our children to grow to be responsible adults? Françoise Content, who is Director General of the Apprentis d’Auteuil and Marie Derain who is an advocate for children, gave us their findings.

A quick summing-up of the three days and the session ended with Mass celebrated by the Bishop of Créteil Mgr Michel Santier, who said that these sessions contribute to the democratic debate and that the church not only manifests great interest in these debates on society but “shares the joys and hopes, the sorrow and the anguish of all those who suffer”. He ended his homily with these words, ” Let us ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten us as to our Christian responsabilities and to the democratic process in our ever-evolving world.”

The theme for 2013 is “Les métamorphoses du travail” and this session will be held on November 22-24 in three different venues, simultaneously: Paris, Lyon and Strasbourg using a teleconference system.

See you there?