France’s energetic, peripatetic new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has not abandoned work during his much-publicized family vacation in Wolfeboro, N.H. Conferring with Justice Minister Rachida Dati during speedboat rides on Lake Winnipesaukee, Mr. Sarkozy — who is scheduled to lunch today with President Bush at Kennebunkport, Maine — also found time to address the question: Whither French culture?
On Aug. 1, Mr. Sarkozy sent a letter to Culture Minister Christine Albanel outlining his plans to “democratize” culture, which include abolishing entry fees to museums. He further asserted that close cooperation between the ministries of culture and education will be needed to achieve his goals. As a former minister in the Cabinet of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, Mr. Sarkozy is well aware that the very notion of interministerial cooperation is an innovation in France.
This kind of realpolitik, instead of major earthquakes in cultural policy, is what Mr. Sarkozy is seeking. His letter to Miss Albanel demands more “substantial, creative, and bold” cultural fare on TV and reasonable unemployment benefits for French actors and technicians, an issue that in past years has led to embarrassingly high-profile protests at the Cannes Film Festival and other venues.
Some of Mr. Sarkozy’s proposals seem purposefully to contradict the precedent set by the Chirac administration. The new president vows to encourage private charitable donations in France, whereas under Mr. Chirac’s watch, a new museum that the French billionaire Francois Pinault planned to build outside Paris was allowed to relocate to Venice (where its director is Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a longtime Chirac crony and French culture minister from 2002 to 2004).
Earlier this year, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, another of Mr. Chirac’s culture ministers, rented the Louvre’s name, along with a promise of major art loans from French museums, to the Persian Gulf city of Abu Dhabi in exchange for $1.3 billion despite loud criticism from movers and shakers in the French art world that the deal amounted to “selling” the Louvre.
Perhaps most controversially, Mr. Chirac allowed the beloved anthropological collection at Musee de l’Homme to be dismantled last year, transferring its artifacts to the new Musee du Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower. The new museum’s display of art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas has been criticized as tasteless and old-fashioned, with native art littered amid jungle plants as if visitors were lost in a Tarzan movie.
Most pathetic of all were Mr. Chirac’s underfunded France 24 cable news station (debuted last year), meant to compete with CNN on one-tenth of that network’s budget, and Quaero, a French-German computer search engine announced by Mr. Chirac in 2005, intended to compete with Google.
Possibly with these grandiose flops in mind, Mr. Sarkozy is attacking the culture problem with less overt concern about cultural protectionism than his predecessor and even a bit of un-Gallic modesty.
Last year at a Paris meeting of his political party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire(UMP), Mr. Sarkozy pointed out that France’s artistic heritage has been great for centuries not because of its culture czars, from Louis XIV to Andre Malraux, but “primarily because of its supremely great artists.” Among these, Mr. Sarkozy listed “Chagall, Picasso, Kandinsky and Miro,” none of whom was French-born, notably enough.
Among Mr. Sarkozy’s pragmatic aims is to increase the amount of French-language materials in the public domain available online, whether “literary, visual or audiovisual.” Improved study of foreign languages, “especially, if paradoxically, English,” is needed to further spread French culture worldwide. Mr. Sarkozy himself admitted to some journalists in Wolfeboro recently: “My English is so bad.”
If aware of his own shortcomings, Mr. Sarkozy also readily points to those of his predecessors, calling the failure to democratize culture one of the chief failures of the past 50 years of French government. Last summer at a seminar for young UMP volunteers in Marseilles, Mr. Sarkozy defined “democratisation de la culture” as providing the means for the largest number of people to understand and appreciate Sophocles, Shakespeare and Racine. He added that the purpose of education is to “teach you how to tell the difference between ‘Madame Bovary’ and a police blotter, or between ‘Antigone’ and ‘Harry Potter.’ Later, you can read what you like.”
To help realize these ambitions, Mr. Sarkozy suggests building “creative centers” to complement the local cultural centers that were established throughout France by Mr. Malraux in the 1960s when he was culture minister for President Charles De Gaulle. The creative centers would be multidisciplinary educational spaces for French youth, but surely not intended to ape the trendy graffiti studios set up in violent suburbs during the 1980s by Socialist Culture Minister Jack Lang.
Mr. Sarkozy has often repeated that he opposes the “heritage of May 1968,” France’s year of student and labor rebellion, with its implied “refusal of all authority.” Instead, he asserts, the “only choice is excellence,” because the “refusal to be resigned” is the very essence of culture. Let’s hope his compatriots follow his example of conviction and pep.
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