Interview with Philippe Platel, Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in Australia

La Nuit des Idées with Dr Thierry Hoquet, Olivia Rosenthal, Fabrice de Rotrou, Dr Bronwyn Bancroft, Damon Gameau, and Kate McDowell at the Byron Theatre on Friday.

La Nuit des Idées

Byron Theatre, Community Centre  |  Friday 6–8.30pm  |  $30/35

Philippe Platel is the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in Australia. This Friday he joins with Byron Writers Festival Director Edwina Johnson to present La Nuit des Idées. The legendary French Ideas Festival will be conducted salon-style, with all proceeds of the event donated to the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Appeal. Philippe spoke with The Echo about the first Night of Ideas to happen in Australia.

Tell me a little about what happens at La Nuit des Idées?

La Nuit des idées is an initiative of the Institut Français in Paris. The first ‘Nights’ started five years ago and aimed at gathering a wide audience, during a full night, around a theme, and speakers from different fields. Then the Nuit des idées infused around the world, and this year we are organising the first Nuit des Idées in Australia. Since the beginning of the Nights, five years ago, the formats have been adapted in each country. The events in Australia; Sydney and Byron Bay, will be more soirées (evenings) than whole nights, but who knows, maybe the next editions will become full nights if the audience seems responsive to that format.

What is the salon-style of presentation? What is the French tradition of salons?

The salons were called Salons littéraires and started under the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century. These private events gathered people – from high society and the nobles, writers, philosophers, artists, and scientists – around a theme. Most of the time the host was a hostess, and the rule was to have very polite and respectful conversations. The aim was to show a good education. This tradition continued, before collapsing in the second half of the 20th century, with the emergence of new activities (TV mainly). During the 18th century, it’s in the salons that the Lumière philosophy emerged, and it is said that these salons influenced the people who would lead the French revolution. There was an assumed will to contribute to a better well-being of human beings. During the 19th and 20th centuries, very famous writers frequented the salons, from Proust to Cocteau. It was also a safe place for gay writers and artists while homosexuality was still considered as a perversion and a crime outside the salons. The Night of Ideas has kept this sense of openness and contribution to a better understanding of the world, but in a much more inclusive way. The Night of Ideas aims at being international and open to all kinds of people, all generations, all backgrounds.

How do ideas play out through creativity and culture? Do we relegate too much discussion to scientists, and forget our creatives?

We are living in challenging times when creatives need to have conversations with other practitioners more than ever, especially scientists and philosophers. The answer to climate change for instance needs a powerful dialogue between artists and scientists.

The line between art and science has always been very thin, probably because the creative and the scientific processes are based on a very similar method – research.

But it is true that we can observe a quite concerning general mind-drought. Which is paradoxical, because we are fed with a massive load of information, but rarely are we exposed to ideas, if we don’t actively look for them. Opinion, judgement, dry images, certainly – elaborated ideas, inspiring comments, only more rarely. The goal of the Night of Ideas is to expose the audience to untapped ideas and connect them with the currency.

Why is it important to argue? The French seem comfortable with it – but Australians don’t seem to like it.

Indeed, when I go back to France, twice a year, I can measure this appetite for debate among French people. I can see that much more now that I’m living in Australia where, as you said, debating doesn’t make people comfortable. When you have a discussion in a dinner, very often, it’s closer to a set of small exposés than a real debate on a topic. In France, it’s better to be used-to debate, or you can be traumatised. We like our volcanic discussions. And paradoxically, I found that Australians do love marketed public talks. People can pay sometimes quite a high price to attend talks. In France, talks are often relegated to a second row in the hierarchy of cultural activities. Maybe our lust for ideas is satisfied by the enlivened cafe discussions?

What are the ideas and arguments that have caught your attention with the work you’ve been doing lately?

Of course the ideas around climate change. Australia is at the core of a global crisis. The world is looking at us, with fear, and a need for guidance, from thinkers, scientists, artists. We had chosen the theme of this Nuit des Idées – Being Alive, Staying Alive – a few months ago. We couldn’t imagine that it would sadly resonate so much with the Australian context. It will be fascinating to listen to philosopher Thierry Hoquet, who is a specialist of species and Darwinism. How would Darwin comment on the death of a billion animals because of the bush fires?

Tell me about the panel? What do you find intriguing about them?

Like in the salons, the panel will be a mix of writers, performers, scientists and artists, and the pretext for a stimulating French-Australian encounter. I think Olivia Rosenthal and Eryck Abecassis’ performance will astonish the audience. Olivia is a very famous writer who has worked a lot on animals, our relationship to them and survival. This performance shows another aspect of her talent, in collaboration with musician composer Eryck Abecassis. It’s another way of expressing ideas, through performance. And they have a surprise for the Australian audience… I’m sure Thierry Hoquet’s exposés will also resonate a lot with Damon Gameau’s area. It will be very interesting to listen to Bronwyn Bancroft, and have the perspective of an Aboriginal artist on the recent tragedy.

What should we expect for the Byron salon?

That the audience will think with sand in their shoes! Slip Slop Slap – and think!

La Nuit des Idées with Dr Thierry Hoquet, Olivia Rosenthal, Fabrice de Rotrou, Dr Bronwyn Bancroft, Damon Gameau, and Kate McDowell at the Byron Theatre on Friday. Tickets $30/35 from

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