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Will Macron’s culture pass have much impact?

24 September 2018

A pilot scheme to give every 18 year old in France €500 to spend on culture will be rolled out across the country next year. What is the initiative trying to achieve, how is it defining ‘culture’ – and will it work?

Andrew Hussey
Professor of cultural history at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

On the face of it there doesn’t seem much to dislike about Emmanuel Macron’s new culture pass which, as promised during his presidential campaign, aims to make culture more accessible to young people. The scheme is basically an app for the arts. A picture appears on the screen of your phone letting you know about what’s happening in your neighbourhood – from opera to hip-hop sessions. You swipe left if you’re not interested; swiping right brings up details of timings, tickets, and so on. The biggest deal of all is Macron’s promise – again made during the election – to give each young French person a bonus of €500 on their 18th birthday, to be spent exclusively on ‘the arts’. The government’s aim, in its own words, is ‘to encourage cultural discovery and diversification’. The French minister for culture, Françoise Nyssen, has insisted that there will be no ‘cultural snobbery’; there will be no divisions between ‘high’ and ‘low culture’. More than most countries, France has prided itself not only on its cultural heritage, but on the future and present significance of that heritage as a marker of the nation’s identity. It’s hard to argue, you would think, against government taking the arts so seriously.

It is in this regard, however, that the scheme has started to look a little tricky. More to the point, some figures in public arts administration are claiming that they are going to be crowded out by young people spending their ‘free money’ where they want – on Stars Wars rather than at the Louvre – and that it is the public sphere, which is in the greatest need of government money, which will lose out. This is what happened in Italy in 2016 when a similar scheme ran into trouble as youngsters swapped their passes for laptops, tablets and US-based streaming sites.

The debate over where the money is coming from is even more intense. The government’s intention is to fund it with sponsorship from Google, Apple and other private sources. To many in the arts, this is no more than a con trick, allowing the government to cut real spending while promoting a gimmick that looks like public investment in culture, but is really nothing of the sort.       

This is all true, but it isn’t the whole story. Macron is passionate about the arts and always has been since his schooldays as a would-be writer and actor. He also sees culture as a form of ‘soft power’, which might draw those young people who feel marginalised in French society back into the mainstream and away from the dangerous edges where they could drift into various forms of radicalism. French culture, the argument runs, is where French identity begins and, like fluent and correct use of the language, it is ultimately what makes you French.

One of the areas where the scheme is being trialled is Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb to the north of Paris with a large immigrant population and a reputation for producing Islamist radicals and terrorists. The scheme is not universally popular here as its critics suspect a form of cultural and social engineering, perhaps remembering the scenes in the film La Haine (1995) in which giant murals of Baudelaire and Rimbaud dominate a suburb similar to Seine-Saint-Denis, to the general indifference of the people who live there.

The government’s response to criticisms that the scheme is a top-down initiative is that the app will always highlight local activities first. The opposition is no longer between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, but between the centralised official version of art, and what is happening down your street. This is indeed genuinely a new way of thinking about the arts in France, foregrounding the local and particular rather than the official grand narratives of French cultural history. If the scheme works – and it is a big ‘if’ – it may be the real beginning of success for Emmanuel Macron’s long-stated ambition to bring French culture, guarded as it is by exclusivity and privilege, out of the dusty temples of the past and properly into the 21st century. 

Agnès C. Poirier
Journalist, broadcaster and author of Left Bank, Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris: 1940–50 (Bloomsbury)

Emmanuel Macron sees himself as an innovative president, or perhaps more pointedly, as ‘President Innovation’. Since his election in May 2017, he has championed digital entrepreneurship and start-ups; he has met and wooed the world’s big tech companies, and is now planning to make France a hub of artificial-intelligence research with a €2billion programme of public investment over the next four years. This tech-savvy mindset is at the heart of Emmanuel Macron’s ‘Pass Culture’ initiative, which is currently being tested in five French regions, before it is launched nationally in spring 2019.

The idea is straightforward, generous and potentially groundbreaking: on their 18th birthday, every French citizen will be given a cultural pass worth €500, to be spent on cultural activities, such as exhibitions, concerts, books, theatre, opera, but also dance or music lessons, artistic workshops or archaeological trips. The aim is manifold: to give French 18 year olds the chance to widen their cultural horizons and to make the arts on offer as diverse as possible. The hope is that unprivileged youths who have never, or seldom, had the occasion to enter a theatre, a museum or set foot in an opera house will seize this chance to experience what they may have thought is reserved for others.

In France, arts and culture are often considered a tool for emancipation. The French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, summarised the general feeling when he declared last year: ‘If jihadis hate drawings, books, music and concerts, it is precisely because they know very well that they are an inexhaustible source of freedom and happiness.’

If this all sounds good on paper, Macron’s many detractors on the left started criticising the consumerist aspect of the culture pass. Jack Lang, who served as culture minister in the governments of François Mitterrand, warned that this would be a disaster, as it was in Italy. When Matteo Renzi was prime minister he introduced a similar scheme in 2016, only to see youngsters spending their €500 on university books, or on tablets and ipads (with the complicity of shopkeepers invoicing the State for ‘books’), or reselling their passes on the black market.

To avoid the Italian fiasco, the French government seems to have been thinking very carefully about how to make its culture pass work. A governmental start-up has been developing the app that will manage the pass. The geolocalised app will serve as a cultural agenda with all national and local arts and culture offers, as an electronic purse, and also as a social network. A limit of €200 has been set for purchases on Amazon, Spotify and Netflix, while a maximum of €100 can be used for buying CDs, DVDs and books. This is to encourage youngsters to see live performances, visit museums and go on cultural trips. The culture ministry has also formed partnerships with the opera festival in Aix, the theatre festival in Avignon and the photographic festival in Arles, which will all have special offers for the culture-pass holders.

As with most things, Emmanuel Macron has insisted on extensive trials to fine-tune his policy. After a period of testing the app by itself to see if it works, it is being launched this autumn in parts of Alsace, Brittany, the south, a suburb to the north of Paris, and French Guiana, where 10,000 youngsters, each credited with €250, will be asked to use the app for a few months. With a total public/private investment of more than €400m, the French government doesn’t want the scheme to fail.

Only time will tell if the scheme will be a success or not, but if it works it will have a huge impact on young citizens at a critical time in their lives. If the culture pass provides even a degree of personal fulfilment, some moments of happiness, or a small contribution to the emancipation of the young, it will have been more than worthwhile.

From the October 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here