“We are at war.” It’s a phrase the French President, Emmanuel Macron, repeated 8 times during a primetime speech at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. Along the same lines, the French Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, explained that the country would face a terrible economic war in the aftermath of this crisis.

Dominique Steiler, Head of the Economic Peace, Mindfulness and Well-Being at Work Chair, analyses the language used to characterize the crisis and how it reflects our dominant economic and social model.

Why do you believe the French President’s strong ‘warrior’ language was implemented at the start of the lockdown?

When you look at the context surrounding the speech, the French population did not seem to be aware at the time of the risks presented by this crisis. By “going to war”, the President used his authority, rather than trust, in order to awaken public awareness as to the growing threat of the COVID-1 crisis. But this vision of going to war is completely beyond understanding: we need a model of trust and cooperation, not a warrior model that is already omnipresent throughout our economic model and offers no alternative to war. At least, when a soldier heads off to war, he or she does so in hope of a peaceful future!

You highlight the French President’s “Jupiterian” vision. What are the consequences of this approach?

I’m not contesting the risk, but rather the method used to address it. Through the use of fear, our President has taken on the particularly French characteristic of becoming the population’s savior, a leader behind which to hide! He also reinforces the idea that we must be 24/7 warriors always striving to win! In this model, being number one is not an option, it’s the only option. It reflects our current economic model: create fear in order to promote war and ensure victory. But this also means someone loses. Fear closes down our spirits, it makes us narrow-minded. If one wants to advance, the other must die… These are dangerous messages and they belittle us.

As such, is this language incompatible with a vision for responsibility and solidarity between various actors at individual and collective levels?

Let’s compare France and Germany during this crisis. France is a centralized country where power rests in the hands of one man: the President. Germany is a federalized country where the need for dialogue dominates. “We are not at war. This is a test of our humanity.” said the German President, F.W. Steinmeier. That’s a significantly different vision. In order to move forward, the German Chancellor has to consult with the Länder presidents. In terms of sharing the decision-making process, Germany offers a model for collective intelligence. This idea is further promoted by the fact the German President highlighted that the country would only come out of this crisis strong and healthy if its neighbors were also strong and healthy. In other words, this underlines the fact that we do not exist independently of one another. Global cooperation enables us to grow. The use of war language is the exact opposite of this vision.

In an article in Les Echos, you concluded: “Until now, the economy has been considered to be a place of war. It’s time for it to become a place of peace.”

More than ever, it is our responsibility as a business school to think about this global model for education that creates future warriors. The Finnish education model was deeply transformed in the 60s and 70s. It’s now based on one ambition: to enable children to become flourishing individuals that will grow into responsible adults who support the common good. This model has proven its worth in the fight against social injustice and in terms of its benefits for the economy and society.

And what is our national project? It focuses on transforming our children into competitive adults guided by a select elite. It’s for this reason that the major challenge in France is to implement a long-term overhaul of our educational system: to work on emotions, to open up to the arts and philosophy, which are essential to develop analytical ability (and not just during one’s senior year in high school!), and to foster values such as collaboration and benevolence. The goal is to counter all of the warmongering messages that reinforce a tendency towards aggressivity and instead re-orient the project towards the common good. Solidarity is at the heart of human survival. We are naturally collaborative and only competitive by potentiality: both are important but we should not reverse their respective importance.

The Peace Ambassadors project that we have launched aims to help youth develop the foundation of an education that supports peace and co-existence. It creates a positive environment to support sharing and relationship building. It helps growing youth develop their own aspirations and not make choices simply by default in response to pressure from the economic system. A system that they perceive as first and foremost being a source of suffering!

What types of action should be promoted to support us during the expected economic recession in France and worldwide?

The ability to anticipate is essential. Many researchers have been highlighting the risks of a major crisis for many years. But our country has little trust in scientists. Without anticipation and prevention, we go blind. And this blindness is the result of the hyper-competitive environment we live in. If you look at prevention, companies that have chosen to work towards economic peace for the past several years now demonstrate stronger cohesion within their workforce.
A crisis underlines our need to survive! To survive AND to prepare the aftermath of the crisis. We need resilience and discernment in order to make difficult decisions that can sometimes cause suffering but that are in line with an ethical code that will foster a shared, positive future. This is where mindfulness comes in as promoted by the chair. The crisis must not defile values set out by a company. It is possible to implement a plan for economic survival that includes letting go of certain employees all the while respecting human dignity instead of taking them by surprise, humiliating them… It is possible to explain difficult choices. But this logic of being guided solely by financial factors must not be allowed to remain in charge! It is possible to make reasonable and well-thought-out decisions in a business all the while supporting humanity. Three engagements for economic peace can help guide such a process:

  • Respecting all forms of life.
  • Respecting human dignity, reducing inequality and poverty, and promoting the fulfillment of each individual.
  • Financial results are not the end-goal of a company. The end-goal is to become a part of the ecosystem by helping to build social ties and support the common good.

If a company’s benefits are to be determined by how beneficial the company is, then this also requires reducing a company’s negative impediments that degrade individuals, society or nature. It’s time we open our minds to a vision of life that goes beyond fighting and competitiveness.

By Dominique Steiler, Director of the Mindfulness, Wellbeing at work and Economic Peace Chair at Grenoble Ecole de Management.

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