Emmanuel Macron believes in grand narratives. Having lost them, as he claims, to ‘post-modern political philosophy’, the French president has long wondered whether social cohesion might ever again be possible. ‘We need to be amenable once again to creating grand narratives,’ Macron said in an interview last year. ‘Why is a portion of our youth so fascinated by extremes, jihadism for example? Why do modern democracies refuse to allow their citizens to dream? Why can't there be such a thing as democratic heroism? Perhaps exactly that is our task: rediscovering something like that together for the twenty-first century.’
During his presidential campaign, he floated the idea of a bite-size version of obligatory military service, in which, for at least one month, French men and women between the ages of 18 and 21 would receive a ‘direct experience of military life.’ But the plan was never clarified and, at least for now, seems to have been shelved.
Instead, earlier this year, his Minister of Culture, Françoise Nyssen, oft-seen hanging out with Jeff Koons or Edouard Louis, met with Dario Franceschini, Italy’s head of culture, to discuss Italy’s ‘culture bonus’ programme, which provides EUR€500 to 18-year-old Italians to be spent on ‘cultural activities.’ These activities include going to independent films, classical music concerts, or fine art museums, although, recently, the scheme has run into roadblocks with young Italians exchanging their passes at corner shops for cold, hard Euros or buying things that don’t have a strictly cultural remit, like math textbooks or tickets to the latest Mission Impossible. More to the point, only about 60 percent of Italian 18-year-olds have even gone to get their culture pass.
But Nyssen and Macron haven’t been dissuaded. In a series of speeches around France, Nyssen referred to France’s ‘Pass Culture,’ as a ‘state start-up,’ dubiously assuring a group in Montpellier that ‘young people are fond of collective practices.’ (Le Monde has a recurring joke of mocking Nyssen for referring to the pass as ‘a revolution.’)
And yet, in many ways, the culture pass does look to be an intriguing and progressive prospect. Sometimes referred to as an ‘arty Tinder,’ the pass is a smartphone application, which, using your phone’s GPS, shows you nearby cultural activities, including movies, art galleries, and monuments at which, if you’re an 18-year-old French person, you can use your €500 credit. (Paying for the project is a serious expense with an annual budget of €425 million; private companies are set to pick up 80 percent of the cost, while the federal government will be taking on the remainder.)
The idea – of allowing an interested young person to go to a museum or a ballet he or she might not otherwise be able to afford – is laudable, but there has been something especially fishy in its rollout.
Currently, the culture pass is only available in four French departments, or governmental areas: Hérault, Seine-Saint-Denis, Rhin, and French Guiana. Hérault and Seine-Saint-Denis have exceptionally large populations of African, Muslim, and lower-income households, and French Guiana, an overseas territory, is particularly demographically varied, with people of mixed African-French ancestry making up the department’s largest ethnic group.
The implication of these demographics is that the pass is largely being targeted at creating a certain kind of social cohesion – that is, of bringing ‘culturally non-French’ people in line with a more typical understanding of Frenchness. Some politicians have barely been able to keep this intention disguised.
‘In Lunel, the ‘French Molenbeek,’ young people loiter outside apartment blocks. The allure of the pass will allow them to leave their houses,’ said Patrick Vignal, the national assembly delegate for the Hérault department, in an interview. His references to Lunel (a small French town dubbed a ‘breeding ground for jihadists’ ever since six local Muslims were killed in Syria fighting for the Islamic State in 2015) and Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (a Belgian municipality that was known, also in 2015, to have been a base for Islamic terrorists) imply a clear motivation behind the pass.
For their part, Macron and Nyssen have used the typical rhetoric of ‘enlightening’ France through ‘cultural values’ – a centre-right, Sarkozy-esque way of saying that there is one true French culture and other cultures would do well to use their €500 to learn about it. Given Macron’s desires for a ‘heroically democratic’ France, this tactic is to be expected. If he were to bring more French people towards a more traditional understanding of French culture – that is white, Catholic, Gaulish, etc. – it would not only help neuter his future political opponents who are at the ideological extremes (Jean-Luc Mélenchon to the left; Marine Le Pen to the right), but it would also help cement a more singular historical narrative for an increasingly heterogenous France.
Still, a narrative functions only if enough people buy into it. National narratives have worked well for France in the past, as with the supposed history that France was a nation of resistors during the Second World War when the truth is far more complex and damning (under General Philippe Pétain the French government acted mostly as willing Nazi collaborators, as described in Robert Paxton’s seminal Vichy France, 2015). But grand, national narratives, if Macron is to truly bring them back, also require social cohesion, which is especially difficult to accomplish in a country as increasingly diverse as France. One solution is to target those who might dissent to the proposed historical narrative and change their minds. And, at least for now, that seems to be the central motivation behind the culture pass.
‘To allow engagement is to regain the meaning of what makes the Nation,’ Macron tweeted earlier this year, ‘our Republican crucible.’
Main image: French President Emmanuel Macron poses for a selfie with a child during a Christmas ceremony for children on December 13, 2017, at the Elysee Presidential palace in Paris. Courtesy: Etienne Laurent/AFP/Getty Images