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Un voyage en vaut la peine*: SYLA does France

18 May 15

SYLA's intrepid delegate at the European Young Bar Association Spring Conference describes the action in Aix-en-Provence.

by Sean Dorian

Welcome night

Late on the Thursday evening, “Les 2 Garçons” (a traditional brewery and bar) was filled a swarm of travel-weary young lawyers. There were welcome speeches – accompanied by welcome drinks – given by the past President of the Aix-en-Provence Bar Association, President of the Young Lawyers Association of Aix-en-Provence, President of the EYBA and of course a welcome from our host Olivier Quesneau.

After the speeches the informal mingling began. It became apparent that many of the attendees were veterans of such events. Old friendships were rekindled and warm words exchanged between friends separated in their day-to-day lives by geography.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the free welcome drink turned into an evening of free drinks – definitely a warm welcome from our hosts and, unbeknownst to the guests at the time, a tone-setter for the event as a whole.

Welcome to Aix

I thought Aix was beautiful and its history interesting, so I am going to take a liberty and perhaps bore you with some detail.

Aix (short for the Latin Aquae Sextiae) was founded in 123 BC by the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus, who gave his name to the many springs in the area – hence “Water of Sextius”.

Mainly known as a medieval town in historic terms, Aix is laden with wonderful architecture and a mixture of all styles from the 5th to the 17th centuries. Quiet streets feed into a main drag known as the Cours Marabeau, a wide thoroughfare, planted with double rows of trees, bordered by fine houses and decorated by four of the many fountains that can be found within the small area occupied by Aix – it is known as the city of a thousand fountains; however I only counted 32 in my limited time within the city.

On the Saturday, outwith the City limits, a particular highlight for me was our trip to the Chateau Lacoste vineyard. We received a guided tour from “Ben”, the very French wine expert. Hearing how the wine is made, how the flavours are manipulated and the scale of the operation in general was very interesting to me. We did of course get a chance to put theory into practice, in a sense, as we were treated to wine tasting. Again Ben talked us through the wines, the technique, and what to expect. We sampled a variety and each contrasted magnificently with the other. I have come to realise that perhaps my wine palate is not as sensitive as it should be, but that didn’t stop me from purchasing a few bottles of my favourite from the tasting session.

Returning from the vineyard, there was time for a visit to the Confiserie Leonard Parli (Calissons factory), which makes a particular sweet famous in the region. Though not to everyone’s taste, it seems I for one am now a fan of Calissons, which is impressive given I am not one for sweets in general. The factory produced a whole range of confectionary delights and there were more than a few bellies filled – come to think of it, it was quite Wonka-like at times.

Again, moving past the outer limits of the city, there was hiking on the Montagne Sainte-Victoire to be had on the Sunday morning. Alas, I could not partake as I had a flight to catch in Marseille. I can say with certainty however that I am sorry I missed the trek. From what I have seen (from my new friends on social media) the views, and the weather, were spectacular.

Focus on freedom

There were 76 attendees in total, spread from Lithuania, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Norway, Russia, Spain, Tunisia, USA, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy and one delegate from each of Luxembourg and Scotland (me!).

The focus of the conference was understandably on freedom of expression, not only in Europe but in Africa also.

Admittedly the Charlie Hebdo illustrations that made up part of the presentations were controversial and could quite easily be taken as provocative. This set up nicely the argument of “right to offend”, and brought about a healthy discussion on “how far is too far?” Interestingly, French law protects the right to offend so long as it is not racist, anti-semitic or xenophobic, including Holocaust denial. There is no mention of religion under the statutes.

Our French and Danish delegates discussed at length the social impact of the recent terror attacks suffered in their homelands. The idea that normal people are effectively deterred from engaging in debates on religion for fear of attack was widely accepted as being the current norm in both societies. To that end, sadly, it was concluded that the perpetrators of the terror attacks had, to some degree, succeeded in their goal.

There was brief discussion as to how safe we would be discussing such topics in the south of France, near Marseille, which has a large Muslim population. This exchange was short lived, but the mere fact that it occurred was in some way proof that these attacks had entered the psyche of society as a whole.

The focus of the conference turned from Europe to Africa, where a wholly different threat to freedom of expression exists. Here our speakers outlined state controlled censorship regimes, prosecution of journalists for reporting on government corruption, and individuals disappearing for being politically active.

The situation in parts of Africa is a truly tragic, and wholly different, issue to that which we face within Europe, yet one that is not too far off the reality in Russia, Turkey and Belarus. Europe’s doorstep very much has this real threat to consider.

It truly was humbling to see just how much we take freedom of expression for granted in the UK.

Free-flowing hospitality

The evening element of the conference was spectacular.

On the Thursday we had the aforementioned “all-you-can-drink” welcome evening – a chance for everyone to settle back into the social groove of these EYBA events.

On Friday there was an informal dinner, followed by yet another “all-you-can-drink” event at a local champagne bar rented for the evening. It transpired that our host had also graciously arranged for VIP access to a local nightclub, where the free-flowing champagne continued into the early hours. The company, music, and “Euro-dancing” (Europeans dance far more energetically than us Scots, I have noticed – especially the Dutch!) made for an excellent evening and a wonderful way to top off an interesting and genuinely thought-provoking day at the conference.

The Saturday evening was the black tie extravaganza. A masterfully-cooked three course meal accompanied by fine wine proved the ideal event to reflect on what had gone before – a civilised wind-down in preparation for the long journey home on Sunday. Or at least that was our host’s intended plan, I am sure. Once again the insatiable natures of young lawyers led individuals out on another expedition into the nightclub scene of Aix.

For what seems to be a quiet provincial city I must say that the after dark element was somewhat surprising, and could easily rival Edinburgh or Glasgow for intensity – just with smaller venues and numbers.

Reflections

Given the terrorist acts that have blighted Europe over recent months, there has never been a greater focus on freedom of expression, nor has there been a greater threat to it. This threat does not come from the terrorist acts themselves but in how governments, and citizens, react to said acts. The European public has made its initial reaction to these acts very clear in that they will not be tolerated, nor shall the acts succeed in silencing those who wish to express opinions (without comment on the merit thereof). Governments however may well choose to react by acting against those who, by default, are associated with such acts of terror – followers of the Islamic faith. This point was discussed at length during the conference, without any clear consensus being drawn.

This becomes more pertinent in the UK given it is an election year and political parties may look to capitalise on “the fears of the nation” – several of which focus on immigration and Islamic-related terrorist threats.

On reflection, and having taken in the thoughts and opinions of those from France, Denmark, Spain, Belgium, England, and Northern Ireland (only some of the countries troubled by terrorist acts in recent memory), I feel that as the SYLA represents young lawyers in Scotland it is paramount that we are aware of the topics covered at the conference and champion these with merit. I am an advocate of human rights and freedom of expression, as well as being politically minded – much like many of you – and I think it is imperative that we do not lose sight of what true freedom of expression is.

On to Copenhagen

It was heartwarming to note how well regarded the SYLA is within the EYBA and American Bar Association Young Division. Our colleagues from Europe and the United States made a point of inviting a SYLA delegate to their next events to help further develop our existing relationships.

Given the strength of numbers that attended the Spring Conference from Northern Ireland, Holland and England, I for one would be extremely pleased to see a higher proportion of SYLA members at the EYBA annual general meeting in Copenhagen later this year.

I will be attending and I strongly urge my fellow SYLA members to join me. The EYBA is a growing organisation and the SYLA can have a role to play in promoting and developing that organisation going forward.

If you would be interested in attending the EYBA AGM, please contact the SYLA for details, cost, and the proposed programme.

Sean Dorian is a trainee solicitor at DWF LLP and a member of the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association.
Further information on the activity and work of the SYLA is available at www.syla.co.uk, and you can follow the SYLA on Twitter at @oSYLAo
* Title can be translated “A journey worth the effort”

 

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