Higgins delivers major Paris speech

France's president Francois Hollande (left) welcomes President Michael D. Higgins at the Elysee Palace in Paris, today. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

France's president Francois Hollande (left) welcomes President Michael D. Higgins at the Elysee Palace in Paris, today. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Mon, Feb 18, 2013, 00:00

Europe cannot address its problems unless it stops thinking of these are purely economic challenges that call for technocratic responses, President Michael D Higgins has said.

In a wide-ranging lecture at the Sorbonne today, Mr Higgins called for a broader conception of European society as one bound not by economics but by culture, morality and history.

"Our existence, we must remind ourselves, is as social beings, not as commodified consumers without a history, incapable of envisioning an alternative future," he said.

The lecture, 'Defining Europe in the Year of the European Citizen', was given before an audience of more than 900 people on the first day of Mr Higgins's official visit to Paris.

Picking up one of his signature themes, Mr Higgins pointed to youth unemployment as the biggest problem facing Europe. But for intergenerational justice to be achieved, for example, the continent needed a new discourse based on the recognition that "our global problems, in an ever more interdependent world, are neither amenable to any type of previous tested and failed technocratic response, nor are our challenges merely economic. They are social, political and cultural."

Mr Higgins held a 45-minute with French president François Hollande at the Élysée Palace and received military honours at the Arc de Triomphe, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Speaking after his meeting at the Élysée, Mr Higgins praised his French counterpart for stressing "the need for a European Union that values cohesion and solidarity, as well as economic growth."

On a visit where Franco-Irish economic and cultural ties are in focus, this evening's agenda was dominated by Eileen Gray, the Irish designer and architect whose work will be celebrated with a major exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, opening later this week.

After viewing the retrospective with French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, Mr Higgins said Gray belonged to a venerable tradition of European artists who found sanctuary in Paris. "She uncovered and manifested her genius gradually, emerging into it over time. Her spirit of independence, of difference and above all of integrity shines through the story of her life and her artistic journey," he said.

Ms Filippetti said Gray was "a great artist" whose work was ahead of its time. "When you look at the pieces she created, it was in the 1920s and 1930s, but they look like they were created yesterday," she said. "We owe her a lot."

Bringing together Gray's paintings, furniture and architecture, the exhibition traces the artist's life from her influences and early lacquerwork to models and plans for her masterpiece, the E1027 villa on the Côte d'Azur. "In France, she is, with Le Corbusier, the major reference point for modernism. She is an essential figure," said Cloé Pitiot, chief curator of the retrospective.

Mr Higgins's visit will continue today, when he is due to speak at the headquarters of Unesco, the UN's culture and education agency, and attend a business lunch at the Irish embassy.