Why I...think France has given up on culture

March 5, 2004

Bruce Begout - Philosophy lecturer University of Picardie Amiens, France

Is the government of French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin leading a war against culture or intelligence in France, as two organs of the press ( Le Monde and the magazine Les Inrockuptibles ) have recently stated? This is a legitimate question. Since last spring's revolt by teachers, which was followed by similar rebellions by artists, researchers, psychoanalysts and architects, it seems that this government is having a bit of trouble talking to the world of thinkers that it is progressively stripping of financial resources. It seems to want entire tranches of research and culture to be privatised to reduce the budget and pass, to Brussels' satisfaction, under the 3 per cent public deficit barrier for 2005. It's all about the money; money, seemingly, is the only problem, and a man of the right such as Raffarin begins to ponder when it becomes a question of balancing the figures. His cultural ambitions are reduced to the question: "How much does that cost?"

These tensions between the government in power and the intellectual and artistic world have a historical precedent. Since the times of Andre Malraux, the right in France has had no cultural policy and has been content whenever it can to reduce the subsidies given to the world of culture that permit its preservation in a globalised market industry of cultural goods. Seeing nothing in culture but international kudos, the right gives credit only to those artists who are already known, who are in some sense profitable in terms of their international recognition. In short, when a man on the French right hears the word "culture", he doesn't take out his pistol, he takes out his calculator to see if it might not be possible to reduce the cost of its maintenance, since he considers secretly that artists and intellectuals are "idlers" who produce nothing and are a heavy burden on society.

The rightwinger is always distrustful of artists and intellectuals, whom he suspects of bad faith. In fact, he has no understanding of what they do. He considers that work is an activity carried out between 9am and 6pm, five days a week, and that serves to produce goods or services; he cannot comprehend what artists and intellectuals are doing when they pass whole days modifying one word in a sentence or deciding where an article should go on a page. In his narrow view of the world, where the nine-to-six worker remains the model to aspire to, artistic or intellectual activity looks like a very expensive paid hobby. He doesn't understand why the nation should have to preserve such elitist and hardly viable distractions in a generalised market economy. He sincerely believes, in his primary Darwinism, that if the world of art and culture came under the laws of the market, only the fittest artists and thinkers would survive (he would describe these as the best), not noticing or not wanting to notice that authentic, profound and difficult work would immediately be annihilated by mass culture and conveyor-belt pap.

For all these reasons, culture is not a national priority in France, whatever its official representatives say. However, if we look at the impact it has internationally (the myth of French culture that the world has), the place France occupies in the world is due as much or more to its artists and intellectuals as to its heads of industry and diplomats. French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin himself understands this, being both a diplomat and a man of letters.

In France, all self-respecting politicians owe it to themselves to be writers as well. De Gaulle was a writer, Mitterrand sought to be one, but Chirac gave up writing anything of any worth a long time ago. In France, culture is becoming diminished as a salaried activity, yet it is praised as a form of social gratification. If that makes any sense at all...

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