Two major policy strands dominated the French election. The first was the economy and the Euro crisis. The President-elect, François Hollande faces a difficult chat next week with Chancellor Merkel about austerity and the Eurozone. And then there was immigration, an issue led by the far right and Marine Le Pen who took 17.9% of the vote in the first round, forcing the incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy further to the right. Both of these issues go to the heart of not only French politics but also the politics across Europe. Politicians and commentators, right and left across the region are keenly watching the impact of Hollande’s election.
But what about the arts? Did they play any role in this election? We tend to believe that the French take les arts et la culture very seriously and indeed they do. Between the first and second rounds of the election, 362 intellectuals including artists (along with academics of all disciplines, commentators and journalists) penned a long group letter explaining why they were supporting Hollande. Acknowledging they did not all agree with everything in the manifesto of the Partie Socialiste candidate, they said France would not be France if it if it refused to open itself up to others. In rhetoric familiar to those who campaign in the UK, they complain that the last five years a ‘managerial ideology’ has been imposed on schools, universities, cultural institutions and research laboratories and that the State has moved from its social and education role and has been replaced by the ‘entrepreneurial State’. Cuts in budgets, deregulation and the reduction of the Ministry of Culture to ‘ a shadow of its former self’ are accusations laid at the door of Sarkozy.
While it is not possible to know if this intervention had any influence on the vote, it does imply that the next President is expected to deliver something new in the arts and cultural sphere. Hollande’s ‘big idea’, welcomed by the letter-writers, is a commitment to a national plan for arts education and is being spun as his ‘grand projet’ like the Beaubourg modern art museum for Pompidou, the Musée d’Orsay for Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the National Library for Mitterrand and the Musée du Quai Branly for Chirac.
Hollande has not pledged more money but he has promised to protect the budget in these difficult times. In fact, there was a slight increase in funding for the arts in 2012 under Sarkozy. He has also indicated he wants to create greater accessibility – another theme familiar to UK arts policy makers. Hollande has stated he will repeal the Hadopi law which criminalises illegal downloading of cultural content. This proposal has been challenged by authors, playwrights and composers and Hollande is going to have to square the circle between those whose aim is to protect their livelihood, and those who see regulation as a means of smothering creativity.
Who is to be Minister of Culture? Several names are being bandied about but the favourite appears to be Aurélie Filippetti, a published writer, who was in charge of culture and media in François Hollande’s campaign team.
But in the end François Hollande’s big plus is that he is not Nicolas Sarkozy. The perception is that Sarkozy did not care about French intellectual life, although he did try to change that perception during the campaign. However his love of bling, TV cop shows and a young Italian heiress turned pop star, meant that he was viewed as a bit embarrassing by the French – especially the French intellectual. M. Hollande may indeed be M. Normale but at least he reads books.