What I learned in France (& the importance of joining civil society groups)

by | Oct 28, 2021

If you want to meet new people, grow, and learn — join a civil society group. By that I mean any group that tries to make a positive contribution to your community. It can be a Rotary club or the local YMCA. When you’re in communion with others, you’ll inevitably learn and stretch your imagination. Joining may even bring you good energy.

I forgot about this good energy. I had to be reminded.

I recently spent several days in France as a “Young Leader.” Each year the French-American Foundation, an amazingly generous organization, selects ~20 Young Leaders (half from the US and half from France) to take part in 2 week seminar over 2 years. The locations for the seminars alternate each year between the US and France. In 2019, I spent a week in Chicago with other Young Leaders. And this year I was in Paris & Normandy (2020 was a virtual year).

Because of the pandemic, I had forgotten the joy, the exhilaration of being with other interesting, curious people. The purpose of this particular program is to build bridges between French and US leaders. After all, France and the US are the oldest of allies.

We all live busy lives: jobs, families, obligations. Imagine taking one week of the year to meet new people, learn about new places. Yes, not everyone is as fortunate and has the time or resources for such an excursion. But that’s why I started this missive with community organizations that one can join. Start where you are. Learn from those around you. And if you’re looking for some fresh perspective, join a group with new people.

Here is some of what we did in France, and what I learned.

  • French President
    We went to The Élysée Palace, where we met President Emmanuel Macron. The conversation turned to the arts, and I told him that I created an opera on Angela Merkel. I followed with “You’re next.” I’m not sure if he was honored or threatened, but he smiled and took it in stride. What’s more, we spoke about the need for the US-France relationship to be more than one based solely on NATO.


  • Normandy
    We visited the American Cemetery in Normandy and Omaha Beach, and we took part in a wreath-laying ceremony. It was a moving and memorable experience. The geography was vivid, and I was able to better appreciate the cliffs that the allied troops had to scale during World War II. Years ago, I served as a special assistant to Senator Max Cleland, who later was the head of the American Battle Monuments Commission. I remember him speaking with pride about these august lands of Normandy, so I was thinking of him during my trip.


  • Notre Dame
    The Commander of the Paris Fire Brigade spoke in harrowing detail about how firefighters extinguished the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral. It took leadership, resolve, grittiness, technology, and rapid communications — to avert total disaster and collapse. The renovations are coming along, and the cathedral may reopen in 2024.


  • French culture
    We had vibrant conversations regarding multiculturalism, universalism, secularism, and laïcité with Roger Cohen, the New York Times Paris bureau chief. The takeaway here is that issues of identity and belonging aren’t unique to the US. We all struggle with these topics.


  • Walks and Lobbies
    It’s during the down periods when you strike up the most fascinating conversations. Not always during the formal programs and talks. I had so many enriching dialogues about French politics, history, and societal issues with my peers during walks or on the bus. For example, I learned about the nuances of French house music and about the startup ecosystem in Paris.