Saturday, March 17, 2018


Statue de Louis Pasteur, cour de la Sorbonne
pendant les événements de mai 1968
Photo: Philippe Gras
Click on any image for a larger version

When I saw the notice in the Alliance Française newsletter for this Oratorical Jousting final (16/3/2018) I made up my mind there and then to go along. It was actually the final round in an interschools debating contest in the French language. More than 30 schools in the Leinster area had participated and the final was between Coláiste Íosagáin and Loreto on the Green. Two girls' schools, as it turned out.

I arrived a little early and decided to have a coffee in the Alliance café, La Cocotte. However the café was just closing when I arrived but they let me look around the current exhibition of photos by the late Philippe Gras. And what did I see among them but the one at the top of this post. The theme is freedom of expression and the photo was taken during the 1968 student uprising in Paris.

So what, you might say? But bear with me. The subject of the night's debate upstairs in the new mediathèque was LA LIBERTÉ D'EXPRESSION N'EST NI POSSIBLE NI SOUHAITABLE - freedom of expression is neither possible nor desirable. How apt, though I don't recall any of the contestants mentioning 1968. Both the French Revolution (1789) and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) got a few airings in the course of the night.

I had gone along with the intention of taking a few photos and doing a blog post if the night proved interesting. However I gathered the organisers were "wary of social media" which was a bit of a surprise, so I just determined to sit and listen and think.

The night did turn out to be very interesting so I decided to write it up anyway. I'm sure there will be plenty of photos on the Alliance site from the official photographer in due course.

I found the format of the debate intriguing.

I had taken part in the Gael Linn interschools debates in Irish in the 1960s. In those debates you only got the subject twenty minutes in advance. This was way before the internet so you had to rely on your wits and what was already in your head. You had three minutes to present your case. The teams as such did not take sides for or against the motion, that was left to the individuals themselves. Individuals' marks were then combined to give a team total.

In the French case, the subject is known well in advance though I'm not sure when sides are allocated. In any event there is plenty of time for preparation, deciding tactics, and deciding which points would be made by which team member. Don't forget that in this case a coherent case has to be made by the team as a whole.

An interesting variation in the French case is that for a specified period within the three minutes the speaker can be challenged by a member of the opposing team and there follows a spontaneous, and lively, debate between the two contestants until the adjudicator feels that that the point has been exhausted or the exchanges have gone on long enough. This is a interesting variation as, given that the main contributions have been prepared and well rehearsed in advance, it allows the contestants' spontaneous mastery of the language to be put to the test. It also tests their resilience under fire.

Handout: teams on the night & best speakers from previous rounds.
Click image for a larger version

My impression was that the teams were very well matched. Well they would be, wouldn't they. having come through a fair few rounds in this knockout competition

I thought Loreto were more at home in their French though I thought they had the harder side of the argument to defend - promoting untrammeled free speech (and yes Charlie Hebdo got a mention). They were sort of caught in a bind as the opposing team in their opening shot had defined free speech as unlimited freedom of expression and had gone on to argue for reasonable restraints. This put Loreto in the position of arguing in favour of being allowed "to shout fire in a cinema" as it were. Assuming I understood correctly what was going on.

Coláiste Íosagáin had, for their part, defined themselves into a defensible middle ground. I also felt that they had marshalled and structured their arguments better as a team.

If I had one general remark to make it would be that the contestants spoke a little too fast. I know, from my own experience, that you tend to do that when you are nervous and the native French do speak at a rate of knots. Nevertheless.

The advice we were given at the time by the adjudicator was: If you don't feel your speaking too slow, then you're speaking too fast. I'm sure many public speakers, at least the more thoughtful among them, would identify with that. Though when you observe this for a while it becomes second nature.

I'd say the jury found it a very close call in the end as the standard was high all round.

French Ambassador Stéphane Crouzat with Team Íosagáin

Coláiste Íosagáin emerged the winner. Bravo.

I don't know the marking system and, unlike in my case, the jury didn't give any analysis of how they arrived at their decision. I must keep an eye out for this contest next year and maybe talk to a few people in advance.

Below is Sadhbh Ní Ghráda from the winning team. Her father was a classmate of mine in the middle of the last century.

Sadhbh Ní Ghráda with parents Cormac & Máire

The debates have their own website where you can link to the rules and other background material.


An Grádach said...

Gura maith agat, a Phóil, ana-spéisiúil.

Póló said...

Fáilte romhat a Chormaic.

Bhaineas an-taithneamh as an oíche agus bhí Sadhbh thar cinn.