Cohen: France makes culture affordable. Canada can learn from that

Museums, monuments, memorials and galleries are everywhere — and the Macron government wants people to be able to access them.

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TOULON, France — When Emmanuel Macron ran for president the first time in 2017, he promised to make culture a priority for his government, elevating its stature and extending its reach.

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In France, where culture is character, this wasn’t revolutionary. All French presidents celebrate the importance of the arts, in social and economic terms, as a national mantra; it’s simply a requirement of office. But Macron is a man of refined tastes. His enthusiasm is real.

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During five years in office he has increased spending on culture. The annual budget of the Ministry of Culture exceeds $5.7 billion Cdn.

Macron promised to make art more accessible to people everywhere, which led his minister of culture to consider sending the Mona Lisa on a national tour, though fears for its security are likely to keep it in the Louvre.

Macron has honoured his promise to send back art taken from former French colonies. In 2021, France returned 26 works of art plundered from a royal palace in Benin in 1892. Macron marked the repatriation with a showy ceremony with Benin’s president in Paris; he promises to return more looted treasure.

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Macron’s edgiest cultural gesture is a national cultural pass for young people. It offers 18-year-olds about $430 Cdn to spend on books, concerts, lessons, musical instruments and the like over two years.

Addressing his audience, Macron announced the program in a short video on TikTok and Instagram. He invited young people to read, watch videos or almost anything else. They can take dance lessons, buy musical instruments or subscribe to digital platforms as long as they are French (désolé, pas de Netflix!)

Predictably, it’s a hit. Now the government is offering a smaller amount to those under 18. While some are spending their cultural allowance on comics, surveys show most are buying books.

Encouraging young people to read books is brilliant. And that France would see a role in encouraging reading beyond the classroom curriculum shows a society that takes culture seriously — as do Germany, Scandinavia and other European nations.

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One of the ways the French can use their pass is visiting museums. Most are already free or have reduced admission for students, but the choice is staggering, and not just in Paris, Lyon and Marseilles.

In Toulon, once a hardscrabble port, they can visit the Musée d’Art de Toulon, which opened in 1888. It’s a jewel, boasting a collection of regional landscape paintings, beautifully mounted and annotated. It also has contemporary art. Upstairs, in the library, “the cabinet of curiosities” exhibits exotic treasures.

The museum was recently renovated. It’s transporting. If an afternoon in a museum anywhere is one of life’s most civilized experiences, and the most democratic, France has it right.

And not just art. Perched atop Mont Faron, overlooking the Port of Toulon and the glittering Mediterranean, is the Mémorial du débarquement et de la libération de Provence, commemorating the Allied landings in Southern France in 1944. Established in 1964 and renovated in 2017, it is a careful mix of objects and explanations, one of the best small war museums anywhere.

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Both institutions, you should know, are in Toulon, a secondary city of 169,000, which understands the urgency of art and memory. The palm-fringed city of Hyères, to the east, has turned a stately bank into an art gallery with a garden of orange trees. It’s entrancing.

Of course, museums, monuments, memorials and galleries are everywhere in France. Not all work — the post-modern opera house in Lyon is sterile — but many do, and they reflect who the French are.

It throws into sharp relief the mediocrity of several of Canada’s national museums, especially the National Gallery of Canada, which isn’t mediocre but has lost sight of its mission. While its feckless administrators lament psychological barriers to admission, they ignore its biggest problem: the high price of admission.

France is too smart for that. It makes the arts affordable and finds new ways, such as the culture pass, to bring a new generation to its museums, concert halls, dance studios and streaming platforms. It understands that it’s the art — not ideology — that matters.

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

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