Michel Herbillon, selling Europe

Article published on Nov. 26, 2005
Article published on Nov. 26, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

How can Europe be better explained? In a report submitted to the French Prime Minister in June last year, MP Michel Herbillon proposed 40 ideas to remedy French ignorance of the EU. Here’s a little lesson in public relations with regard to the 25.

Paris, the National Assembly, one cold November morning. Metal detector, Republican Guards, compulsory badge… “It’s Fort Knox; the MPs are in a plenary session to consider the budget” whispers Michel Herbillon, dragging me along through the panelled maze of this temple of democracy. 54-years-old with steel-blue eyes, the mayor and MP of Maisons-Alfort in the Parisian suburbs, and member of the governing centre-right UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), he takes me on the “landlord’s tour”.

Isn’t France wonderful…

The man is a lover of all things beautiful. A member of the board of directors of the Georges Pompidou National Centre of Art and Culture, for many years he directed Artcurial, a centre for artistic production which aims to “make art accessible to the majority”. We glide along, our footsteps swallowed up by the plush carpet lining the parliamentary corridors. During this muffled escape, Herbillon indicates with a smile the MP’s hairdressers before finally showing me the Assembly’s library, a haven of silence where the old gilt-edged works doze nestled within the velvety panelling. “Delacroix painted the ceilings”, mutters my companion. Back to the MP’s “refreshment room”: frescoes in Sèvres pottery, statues and a garden overlooking the Seine. “I love culture,” he professes, “Italian opera, German literature… Europe has plenty of its own cultures, writers, composers, painters… We can quite happily be friendly with the Americans without accepting the hegemony of their customs.”

As we start on the plat du jour washed down with a glass of Château Chasse-Spleen (Dispel the Blues), my guest of honour evokes his childhood, moving between France, Algeria and Germany at his military father’s whim. Germanophile at heart, he studied at one of the prestigious schools of science and politics, and went on to do law before embarking on a managing career with Christian Dior, McKinsey and Vivendi. At 38, it hit him: politics. Nothing else. “I realised that I was missing something - for a long time I had been wanting to look after others, in the interest of all”, he explained. “After an extended period of maturing, I felt ready to accept the risks and the vagaries of the political profession.” Twice mayor of Maisons-Alfort, Michel Herbillon entered the parliamentary arena in 1997. If he is conscious of the turbulent relationship between the French and their MPs, and of the general crisis with regard to the ruling elite, he prefers to put it in context: “ If the people have a negative opinion regarding politicians, the duty of a mayor is a community mandate, and we can easily judge what is achieved there.” He maintains, “as far as matters of Europe are concerned, citizens are keen to find out more but feel lost.”

Ignorance = rejection

Last June, Herbillon presented a report to French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin which analyses one of the reasons for the French No vote in the referendum on the European Constitution: the lack of effective communication in the European ‘machine’, as General de Gaulle might have called the Community institutions. In this document, entitled The European Split, Herbillon gives a clear and damning report: currently no education about Europe exists. “It’s becoming urgent that we leave the daunting, institutional Europe behind and involve the people in a more accessible Europe,” stresses the author. Another criticism concerned the ‘Made in Brussels’ terminology. “Why insist on using EU jargon which gives rise to the public’s lack of understanding? Who knows what the Lisbon Strategy is?”

“The relationship between Europe and public opinion has been nothing but a string of unkept appointments,” he carries on. Even if the eastward expansion of the EU or the efforts of the Convention which drew up the Constitution have only moderately interested the French, the introduction of the euro actually went down quite well, thanks to an unprecedented mobilisation of all society. However, for Michel Herbillon, “we can not make up for 50 years of silence on the subject of Europe with a 3 month campaign. At present, all of the system’s players fall short of the mark: for MPs, Europe is a scapegoat; the media cry out that what is going on now is not good for its image; national education systems reject any training on the theme of the Community, which is likened to propaganda,” he points out. “The time for incantations has come to an end; it is the moment to act in order to ensure that the population gets involved in the European project again.”

Euro-festival or ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’

Herbillon uses the EU’s general weakness as a source for 40 concrete proposals to better inform the French. And other Europeans. “This ignorance of European matters does not exclusively concern the French,” he insists. “It’s enough to look at the growing level of abstentions in European elections.” Among the cheap and simple measures he proposes are restructuring the role of the Minister for European Affairs and the ‘Europeanisation’ of ministerial cabinets with, positions allocated for the promotion of Europe through fiction or amusement. “Why not create a Who wants to be a millionaire with questions on Europe?” he suggests. “The success of a film like L’Auberge Espagnole did more for the Erasmus scheme than any PR campaign,” he reminds us. Or how about “encouraging ‘e-twinning’ between schools in Europe and setting up European pen pals. And it would be interesting to emphasise European symbols,” says this astute strategist. “Making sure there are two flags on public buildings, creating a European stamp or making May 9 a day for the people and not a formal occasion by creating a European festival of cultural and artistic events about Europe.” So that the EU is in the limelight.