In a year dominated by divisive, nationalist politics, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair by emphasizing the importance of books and culture. Speaking at the fair’s opening ceremony, the two leaders spoke of forging a new Europe that is united—not divided—by culture and mulitlingualism.
“There are so many groups trying to spread hatred, fanaticism, and dogmatism, and we have to stand up to that,” Macron said, adding that books and literature—even when the ideas expressed make us uncomfortable—are vital. "This is what holds us together, what prevents us from closing ourselves off, and prevents us from giving way to fear, brutality, and disunity."
In her remarks, Merkel said that books “open doors” and “help us to understand and see what we have in common, and to understand our differences.” She went on to note the importance of literature in the political realm as well. “In literature, we see the reflection of the soul of our society, which is based on freedom, and that freedom of expression goes hand-in-glove with political freedom.”
The appearance of the two leaders comes as France is the Guest of Honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the first time since 1989, Merkel noted, when there was still a wall in Berlin.
The fair offered the two leaders a chance to stand together and outline their vision for a stronger, united Europe bound together by culture in the wake of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of nationalist movements throughout Europe, including in France, and Germany—where the far right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party finished third in recent elections, and will have seats in the new government.
"Without culture," Macron said, "there is no Europe."
In just under an hour, the two leaders touched on not only the power of culture to hold Europe together, but also on some issues within the publishing industry, including copyright and digitization. And both leaders praised the work of translators and urged more works of translation to be made available.
“I cannot really speak in front of you without paying tribute to the translators,” Macron said, “Without translators there wouldn’t be any multilingualism, and that’s why we owe our translators so much.”
Both leaders also stressed the need to protect authors’ intellectual property and the impact of digitization.
The copyright issue actually proved to be a contentious point. In his earlier opening remarks, Heinrich Riethmüller, president of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association, bemoaned the "increasingly drastic cuts to the rights of copyright holders, authors and publishers" and pressed Merkel from the stage to back publishers on copyright issues within the European Union, which prompted Merkel to venture off-script during her remarks to reply to his criticism.
“Copyright in the digital world is in a very, very difficult position at the moment,” Merkel said. While she stressed the need to properly compensate creators for their work, she also suggested there would eventually need to be some kind of compromise.
“We live in a democracy and over the last eight years I have experienced that neither at the European level, or the German level, was it possible to find an answer in terms of what is the role of the copyright in the digital age,” she said. “I have to ask you to join me in fighting for reconciliation between digital access, and respect for cultural value.”
Merkel went on to express frustration that there has been little consensus on meaningful digital copyright legislation, noting that it seems like “those who want to move forward in the digital world and those who want to protect intellectual property will never be able to make progress together.” However, she pledged that she would work with president Macron “to try to find a way forward.”
Editor's note: remarks quoted in this article are translated from German and French.