In front of packed lecture halls adorned with blue and yellow flags, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky conversed for more than an hour on Wednesday 11 May 2022 with several hundred students from Sciences Po, the Institut National du Service Public, Ecole Polytechnique, Inalco, Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Université de Paris II Panthéon Assas, the IEP of Lille, Sorbonne University, Université de Haute-Alsace, the Ecole du Louvre, Université de Lyon and Sorbonne Paris Nord. All over France, dozens of auditoriums were opened, and tens of thousands of people were able to follow, in person or online, this unprecedented exchange.
"Today is the seventy-seventh day of the large-scale war against Russia, which began in the seventy-seventh year after the end of the largest war in Europe," began President Zelensky, live from Kyiv. Rather than a prepared speech, he wished to ask questions to the students “to have a real dialogue”. "Why does our common European home still have separations, between those who are on the inside and those behind the door who, like Ukraine, are fighting to defend the fundamental values of the European Union?" he raised, listing the war crimes committed by Russia during the 77-day invasion.
Why has the security architecture founded since the end of the Second World War "not even started to work?" Why could one person, Vladimir Putin, decide to start this war - and are you in France really protected from a similar fate? Why the terrible and inhuman violence committed by Russian soldiers? How will justice be served? These were all questions raised by President Zelensky, ending with a deeply personal query, addressed to all the young people in the audience: "Would you want your father to be president of a country that is fighting, defending itself for its right to live?"
"You question us about international law, the law of war, the rules built for the international community. You ask us about the lack of humanity that you suffer every day, about your wish to be able to live in peace and security. Sciences Po is the temple of knowledge, which we access through questioning. As such, thank you for these questions that affect us collectively. We will strive to answer you," said Arancha González, Dean of the Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA).
Nine students from various universities and nationalities were able to ask questions to the Ukrainian president and try to answer his own. At the heart of the dialogue was a certainty hammered home by Volodymyr Zelensky: the youth of the Ukrainian State, of its president and of its people who are resisting "with immense faith in the future and immeasurable energy" will bring its victory. "Our most intrepid youth are at war today, our students are lining up endlessly to fight and defend our independence," he stressed: "Energy is a great force and the youth have this energy.”
Beyond a geopolitical speech, the Ukrainian president was eager to inspire the audience to maintain their support for Ukraine and to push the political actors to more action. "I would like you to be able to convey this: that our people are holding on, resisting, and really defending the values shared by all," he implored: "Today we are fighting a war for freedom and for independence."
Volodymyr Zelensky also expressed his gratitude to the French academic world which has welcomed many Ukrainian researchers and students, encouraging the latter to continue their studies in order to one day "decide the future of France, Ukraine and the world". Faced with a question from Zoriana Haniak, a student at INALCO and president of the Association of Ukrainian students in France, Volodymyr Zelensky assured her that he was “proud of the way you represent our country in France: I ask you to be the best student you can be.”
The exchange took a more personal turn when Élodie Papin, a student at Sciences Po's School of International Affairs (PSIA), asked the president a basic question: "And you, how are you?". "I give everything I have: my work, my life, my time, my brain, my desire to live, so that our children and grandchildren, but also my wife, my friends, can live," he replied. And further on, insisting on the horror of the crimes committed in Ukraine: "Whatever evil I have seen, I would like to remain human, a human being who thinks.”
At the end of an hour of exchange and dialogue, the students gathered in the auditorium came away visibly moved. "For me, it is clear that young people, French students, are deeply in the question of the war in Ukraine," explained Maryna Dyndo, a Ukrainian exchange student at Sciences Po: "These young people are changemakers in France and, in my opinion, they can have a huge impact on the government and on its policy."
In this dialogue, most heard a young president's call for the mobilisation of European youth:
“We heard a clarion call from President Zelensky on the power that we, as students in France and at French Universities, have to influence the events on the ground and the outcome of the war,” concludes Eli Scher-Zagier, International Security student at PSIA and co-founder of the Sciences Po Ukraine Support Group: “He spoke very emotionally about the youth in Ukraine, people the same age as us, who are lining up to take up arms to defend their country from invaders… He spoke about how he has a greater tenacity to act because he is a younger leader, and I think the same is true for us students: we have more of a willingness, but we have to be courageous and be willing to push the boundaries of action and hold our universities, our institutions and representatives to account.”
Article written with the contribution of Hannah Pedone, a student at the Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA).