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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 05:47 GMT
French culture under fire
By Hugh Schofield

Edith Piaf in 1948
The Time correspondent lamented the absence of a new Piaf

France's arts establishment has been stung into an angry response by the accusation made in an American magazine article that French culture is all but dead.

Writing in last week's Time, veteran correspondent Don Morrison lamented how parochial French cinema, books, painting and music have become - despite the vast state subsidies deployed in defence of the country's "cultural exception".

"Once admired for the dominating excellence of its writers, artists and musicians, France today is a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace," Mr Morrison wrote.

Red rag

He described most French films as "amiable low-budget trifles for the domestic market", observed how "only a handful" of new novels find a publisher outside France, said Paris had long been supplanted as a visual arts centre by London and New York, and - mourning the absence of a new Debussy, Piaf or Charles Trenet - urged readers to "name a French pop star who is not Johnny Hallyday".

De Gaulle + Sartre + the baguette + Sophie Marceau's breasts = French culture
Commentator Didier Jacob on the American view of French culture

No redder rag could have been waved before the grand old man of French letters, 89-year-old novelist and French Academy member Maurice Druon, who in a blistering retort accused Mr Morrison of confusing "culture and entertainment."

"Culture is not determined by this week's box-office returns. Culture takes place over the duration," said Mr Druon, who noted that it was the "fourth or fifth" occasion on which he's taken up arms over the years to disprove an alleged "Death of French Civilisation".


A similar counterblast came from Teresa Cremisi, head of the Flammarion publishing house, who deplored the "mercantilist" view that sees culture solely in terms of immediate returns.

"But back in the 1920s Proust was not exactly a best-seller in the United States: you have to wait a good 20 years before you can judge whether a work is great," she wrote.

In the left-wing magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, commentator Didier Jacob said the American view of France could be reduced to a simple formula: "De Gaulle + Sartre + the baguette + Sophie Marceau's breasts = French culture. Whereas - as we all know - it is infinitely more rich."

Jean Nouvel presents a model of his project for a new philharmonic concert hall in Paris, 12 April 2007
Le Figaro cited architect Jean Nouvel in defence

And the right-wing Le Figaro took up the cause with a long list of recent French successes, including the biopic La Môme about Edith Piaf, electronic pop group Daft Punk, architect Jean Nouvel and the creator of the Zingaro "equine theatre" Bartabas.

The debate over France's cultural contribution to the world is of course an old one, and can be boiled down to a simple proposition: "Just because a work of art finds no takers, does it mean it is worthless?"


For the French, the notion that popularity (read money) is the only criterion for valuing creativity is deeply noxious.

As art-dealer Anne Faggionato put it in a withering attack on Mr Morrison's article, "these pseudo-analyses are based purely on graphs and numbers.

But you can't measure art like that: these econometrics are absurd, and the future will prove it."

But for France's critics, the difficulty with discarding popularity as a benchmark is that there is nothing left to replace it - except the often self-serving arguments of a state-subsidised artistic "elite".

And that - the argument goes - is very much the problem of France today.

Even Liberation - normally the house journal of intellos and literati - conceded that all is not well : "Our country has indeed descended into a certain navel-gazing at a time when the rest of the world is changing fast. We find it hard to produce popular culture."

Your Comments

The problem with French culture is precisely the state subsidies and cultural bureaucracy which promotes an official culture at the expense of that of the French people. Change that, and we all will be reading French books, listening to French music and admiring the works of French painters once again.
James Brennan, Riverside, USA

I agree totally with the argument "of a state-subsidised artistic "elite"". Just recently I was sitting in the metro and was looking at the posters of middle class white people laughing. I looked around the station and saw mostly people of ethnic backgrounds and wondered to myself if French Cinema represents France today. Maybe the artists in France should look around them and see France today and reflect that in their work. Maybe it is the French "elite" who think that ""De Gaulle + Sartre + the baguette + Sophie Marceau's breasts = French culture" not the Americans.
N King, Norway

No french culture is far from death it has just become a counterculture
Emilio de los Rios, Merida Yuc. Mexico

Having lived in the US for nearly 10 years, I have witnessed the degeneration of American culture and specifically its "pop" component. American radio stations, owned by corporations, play the same old songs over and over again, interrupted by commercials. It is such a relief to listen to foreign stations over the internet and hear innovative music! Don Morrison should take a critical look at the state of American culture first and leave France to its own devices.
Brian Petrov, Varna, Bulgaria, now living in New York

I would have to agree that France did lose its identity, partly due to multi-culturalism but mostly due to the invasion of American and English music and movies. The French singers don't have a chance to compete against America and the UK. This has always been the case... and it applies to every country in the world. I also think that it was the English world loss to dismiss Johnny Hallyday. Anyone who saw his concerts of 1993 Park des Princes and 1998 Stade de France would have to conclude that he was amongst the top five entertainers in the world. I would say "the best"... but I don't want to upset anyone.
Patrick, Mudgee - Australia

Viva la Liberation! How deliciously candid is their observation, "Our country has indeed descended into a certain navel-gazing at a time when the rest of the world is changing fast." That said, I still drink French wines, watch French films, choose frites over freedom fries, and peruse copies of 'Match' at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant.
Average American, Southern Piedmont, USA

I'm looking to retire to France as soon as possible and the reason is the French Way of doing things, which to me = culture. If it's popularity you judge culture on then the US would be the most cultured country in the world. To me the French live life their way and that can be unpopular to short sited outsiders but everyday life breathes culture and class.
Mike Kavanagh, Wicklow, Ireland

I think that when the Americans and even certain Brits refer to 'flourishing culture' they mean money in the box office. But we forget many best-seller books, many successful films; is that culture? In the end who can give a universally acceptable for the term culture?
Nicholas, London

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