Is French culture dead? Mais non!


When 'Time' magazine declared that French culture is dying, the home of Cocteau, Proust and Monet reacted with a mix of fury and self-examination. But could it be true?

France has been flaunting its culture abroad for over 200 years, since Diderot travelled across Europe to explain the Enlightenment to Russia. "It's a public choice, a State decision," explains Olivier Poivre d'Arvor, the director of Cultures France, the cultural wing of the French foreign ministry that runs the Alliance française network and a host of French cultural centres in 150 countries.

Much of France's magnificent architectural heritage is the result of State subsidies. Its cinema industry, which continues to produce about 200 films a year in a market dominated by US blockbusters, is another example.

French film masterpieces by Jean Cocteau, Alain Resnais and others will be screened at the 19th Cork French Film Festival, which ends on March 7th. Poivre d'Arvor will deliver a lecture on cultural diversity at the French department of University College Cork at 11am on the final day, and will introduce the festival's closing film, Caramel, by the Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, that evening.

Cultural diversity and promoting European cultural awareness are themes of the festival, which will show films in Spanish, Flemish, Russian and Arabic, as well as French classics.

Poivre d'Arvor epitomises French culture. After studying philosophy and theatre, he was an advisor to two of France's leading publishers before running French cultural centres in Alexandria, Prague and London. Along the way, he found time to write 15 books, and co-authored as many others with his brother Patrick, who is France's best-known television presenter.

Poivre d'Arvor says there are three aspects to cultural diversity: recognising the immigrant cultures that have enriched your own country; giving foreign cultures exposure in your country, and exporting your culture abroad. On all three counts, he believes France compares favourably to its cultural nemesis, the US."America doesn't realise that today its culture fascinates people, but also irritates them," Poivre d'Arvor says. The US is not sufficiently proud of its fine writers, who are often better known in France than America. And, unlike Paris, Washington makes little or no official effort to promote its culture abroad. Art is bought and sold as a commodity in the US.

"In France there is a very strong taboo on the relation between culture and the market," Poivre d'Arvor observes. "You cannot describe the strength of a culture by its financial value at a given moment."

Last December, the European edition of Timemagazine published a cover story on "The Death of French Culture", to the fury of many a cultivated Frenchman. "Americans need to apply cultural diversity to themselves," complains Poivre d'Arvor. "Let them spare us this type of magazine cover. It's horrible to announce the death of someone's culture, and it isn't true. It's unfair."

Timepublished Poivre d'Arvor's spirited rejoinder as a "Letter to our American Friends". The Alliance française distributed 100,000 reprints of his defence of French culture. One of Time'snastier comments was "Quick: name a French pop star who isn't Johnny Hallyday". So Poivre d'Arvor's worldwide network conducted a survey to draw up an "address book" of 300 French cultural figures who were named spontaneously in 20 or more countries around the world.

The confrontation between Timeand Poivre d'Arvor could have turned into a pissing match about numbers of cinema tickets sold and the positive or ill effects of subsidies. But though there is no question of France abandoning official patronage of the arts, the Timecover prompted French intellectuals and politicians to re-examine the status of their beloved culture. "It is clear that there are today two (cultural) planets that mix very little," Poivre d'Arvor explains. "The Anglo-Saxon planet overflows the frontiers of its countries of origin, Britain and North America, and is creating an exciting global culture with Anglophone Africa, India and Asia. It is a very diverse culture that expresses itself through the English language.

"Then there is another planet that lives a little in nostalgia for lost empire, and sometimes I'm alarmed to see that we're on this second planet, and that we're doing nothing to make contact with the main planet."

One antidote, Poivre d'Arvor says, is for the upcoming French EU presidency to foster a European cultural policy. He wants the country which holds the rotating EU presidency to be required to host cultural events from all 26 other members. "Europe must realise that the continent is the biggest consumer and producer of culture, probably bigger than the US and the rest of the world," Poivre d'Arvor says. But unless Europeans watch each other's films and read each other's poetry, European culture will not exist.

So was Time'sdiagnosis of a decline in French culture correct? "Decline is far too strong a word. There is a lack of recognition of what French culture still represents in the world today among our political elite," he admits. He would like to give leaders who continue to deliver speeches about France enlightening the world a lesson in humility. "I say, watch out. We exist less outside than we used to. We're not dead; far from that. But we must stop believing that everyone speaks French in Vietnam, Algeria and Africa. It's not true."

French culture may not be on the decline, but the use of French is, with the language of Molière now ranked 12th in numbers of speakers in the world. French architecture, fashion, cuisine and dance continue to thrive. Because there is a sufficient Francophone audience to support cinema, theatre and literature, these arts tend to live in what Poivre d'Arvor calls "a form of autarchy".

"Everything that speaks or expresses thought in words has a hard time circulating in English-speaking countries," he says. Poivre d'Arvor admits that over-generous subsidies can make artists "sleepy". He would like to see the French take on more challenging themes. "Today, the ambient, civilised, comfortable culture in France says little about the violence of the world," he remarks. "There's a lack of recognition of important, global subjects in our cinematography and literature. The Iraq war is a good example. We're proud we opposed it, but we don't say anything about it."

The French literary world got a shock in the autumn of 2006, when foreigners won most of the country's main literary prizes. The American Jonathan Littel won the coveted Goncourt. Other awards went to Nancy Huston, who is Canadian, the Congolese Alain Mabanckou and Leonora Miano from Cameroon.

France has always been a beacon for artistic talent from around the world. Were it not for French subsidies, the American William Christie might not have founded his Arts Florissants baroque ensemble, notes Poivre d'Arvor. The British theatre director Peter Brook has long worked in Paris. These shining examples are part of what Poivre d'Arvor means by cultural diversity.

If France is to maintain her position as a cultural leader, Poivre d'Arvor concludes, "She must open up to the world, and bring to life all that is foreign on her own territory, and everything that comes to her from abroad. If she speaks to the world about the lives of bourgeois French people in the 1960s, she'll speak to no one. Creative French people must find a universal language, a language of signs that can be understood in India, Bolivia, America, South Africa . . ."