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Davos no-shows fuel criticism of elite gathering

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Marksman with Swiss police keeps a watchful eye from top of Davos Congress Hotel. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

The global elite is returning to the Alpine resort of Davos in Switzerland this week to discuss the latest global issues. However, the real talk is more about who will not be attending. From Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron, many leaders have cancelled their trips to deal with crises at home.


The American president, who stole the limelight at last year's forum, cancelled his trip earlier this month to respond to the ongoing government shutdown in the US.

For French leader Emmanuel Macron, it was a "busy schedule" triggered by the Yellow Vest protests that kept him away, while British Prime Minister Theresa May cancelled her visit to the small Swiss mountain town at the last minute to hash out a consensus on Brexit.

Their no-shows have reignited debate about the relevance of this annual gabfest, which brings together some 3,000 of the world's richest and most powerful people.

“For us the Davos summit (...) is illegitimate and should not even take place from the start," reckons Maxime Combes, an economist, and president of the anticapitalist group ATTAC.

Only three leaders of the Group of Seven's most industrialized countries: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte are actually attending the forum, whose theme this year is "Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution".

"This is where international monetary policy is decided behind barbed wire and security forces without any input from the public, without democracy," he told RFI.

Breaking the ice, budgets

Since its creation in 1971, the Davos forum has sought to offer a place where bankers, industrialists, economists, politicians and regulators find a "space to think" about the world's problems.

There are plenty of them right now, amid worries of slowing economic growth, damaging trade wars and Brexit.

Yet those left out have often frowned upon these discussions, dinners and informal gatherings.

"Davos has been heavily criticized by non-state actors since its existence. People called it the big fats in the snow," says Sergius Seebohm, a political consultant based in Berlin.

That is not a reason however to get rid of it. "Yes, of course not all the elites of this world should gather together and decide amongst themselves about something, but that's not what's happening," he told RFI.

Seebohm flags up the "cooperative" nature of the Davos forum, which in 1992 hosted a historic meeting between former South African Presidents Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk. A sign that Davos, where the cost of renting a temporary space for a week can run between US$25,000 to as much as $500,000, can be a "symbol of cooperation."

Still, while the forum may succeed in breaking the ice between estranged leaders, and budgets too for that matter, it has not succeeded in discarding its elitist image.

France first

That may be a reason why French President Emmanuel Macron, also suffering from an image problem, decided to stay away.

"The absence of Macron (...) is justified by the fact he is incapable of responding to our country’s deep, social crisis," argues economist Maxime Combes.

"This crisis is the fruit of policies, recommendations and orders from multinational companies, financial and political stakeholders who are present at Davos,” he says.

Instead, Macron hosted his own business forum Monday at the sumptuous Versailles palace in a bid to woo investors rattled by Yellow Vest protests.

Executives from Microsoft to Uber and Snapchat were expected to attend his "Choose France" summit to hear about France's new reforms before jetting off to the Swiss slopes.

"There are more ministers gathering this evening at Versailles to speak with multinational groups, than there have been out meeting with Yellow Vest protesters," comments Combes.

Still, Macron may have a hard time convincing business leaders that France is back in business. Economic growth has already slowed in recent months and is expected to reach just 1.5 percent for 2018 according to the Bank of France.

Furthermore, the irony of hosting at Versailles, on the anniversary of the execution of Louis XVI, another embattled leader, could provide grist to his opponents, who are all too keen to latch onto any rope they can find, to hang Macron.