This article is part of a series I wrote between the presidential and legislative elections in France.
- The hole in the centre ground: how France’s north-east coalfields turned to the populists
- Can Macron bring back the extremes?
- The Louvre-Lens museum: elitist imposition or economic catalyst?
When French postman Philippe Abrams pretended to be disabled in order to secure a work transfer to the Mediterranean coast, he was found out and sent as punishment to the town of Bergues in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, where it rains a lot and the people are supposedly almost primitive.
This is the plot of Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, a popular French film which plays on the stereotype of the region as a land of chips, rain and decline. So imagine the surprise and controversy when the area was chosen to house a satellite of the world-famous Louvre museum.
Bringing the Louvre to the town of Lens was an attempt to take culture to the provinces and boost business in the former mining area. It was in the mould of the installation of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao or the Tate museum in Liverpool, although Lens is a much smaller city. Some see it as a metropolitan colonisation of the North-East, and others as a white elephant. However, it has succeeded in improving the area’s economy and self-esteem.
On a mild Saturday afternoon in April I walked from Lens train station along a neat path which goes past the town’s large football stadium to the museum. Despite the nice weather, the 2km-or-so route was almost deserted.
The museum, opened in December 2012, is housed in a minimalist aluminium and glass building. The free exhibition, the ‘Galerie du Temps’, features artwork from over the centuries all displayed together. In the words of one commentator, it risks looking “like a bookshop where all the books are muddled up”. There is also a temporary exhibition room where the entry fee is €10.
The museum – whose total exhibition space is less than half as big as that of the Louvre in Paris – did not feel particularly busy for what is presumably a peak time of the week.
In August 2016 Jean-Michel Tobelem, a professor at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University, wrote a blistering article in Le Monde claiming the museum was out of place in Lens. He charmingly described the town as of “reduced attractiveness: this is not to insult the Lens-Liévin basin but to note that its cultural, historical and touristic attractions are limited in the eyes of a number of potential visitors.”
Lens has an unemployment rate of 28 percent among 16-65 year olds, double that of the rate of France as a whole, and in the time that the museum has been open the far-right Front National has made considerable local gains at the expense of the left, which used to be dominant in the area. Marine Le Pen was Lens’s preferred candidate in both rounds of the recent presidential election.
The museum argues it is able to bring some haute culture to a place where it has been lacking. It told me it accomplishes its aim “to provide art education, particularly for young people,” and receives more than 70,000 school visitors per year. According to a 2015 study by the Ministry of Culture, 56 percent of visitors to the Louvre-Lens had little or very little familiarity with museums, compared to 43 percent for the average of the establishments surveyed.
However, Anne Roquet, a local parliamentary candidate for new president Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche party, thought it could do more. She would like to see “real educative ambition, and truly innovative action with the people who are most alienated from culture”.
Andrew Hussey, a cultural historian of France, sees the museum as part of a mision to “bring culture to the masses and therefore change society”. He regards the installation of the Louvre-Lens as a type of culture which is “official, normally left-wing, bossy boots, telling you what to like,” in contrast to a popular culture which “people create themselves” – this could include jokes, pigeon fancying or local football teams.
This cultural mission Hussey referred to was pioneered by Francois Mitterrand, Socialist president of France from 1981 to 1995, and Jack Lang, his Minister for Culture from 1981 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 1993. Louvre-Lens falls within their legacy of an active cultural policy which takes the arts to the people.
Under Lang, the budget for culture doubled, and large architectural projects in Paris were prioritised in order to restore the capital’s grandeur on the international stage.
However, from the 1970s onwards, there has also been a trend to decentralise culture, with regional bodies and local politicians given more power. Mayors have enjoyed developing big cultural status symbols. In its budget, Marseilles city hall spends €9 of every €100 on culture.
Projects such as the Louvre-Lens may have played into the growing political divide between large urban centres and left-behind rural areas. Hussey says “people resent, particularly outside Paris, being told what to think, what to appreciate, and what to like”. He believes the condescending, top-down imposition of culture could help to explain the disconnect between rural working-class areas and the French left.
Under Jack Lang, culture was seen as an economic asset. This may now seem an unremarkable idea, but at the time marked a radical departure from the traditional left-wing notion of culture and business existing in separate spheres. Lang’s phrase was: “Economy and culture, same fight.” In Lens, the new museum has helped boost the struggling local economy.
The museum says 600 jobs have been created indirectly since its opening, principally in the accommodation and catering sectors. Aside from the impact on jobs, it says the economic benefit of people visiting the Louvre-Lens is valued at more than €100 million. In a town of just 30,000 people this makes it a big part of the local economy.
With over 2.3 million people visiting in four years, the Louvre-Lens ranks third among museums outside Paris, behind museums in the much larger urban areas of Marseilles and Lyon. The figures are roughly in line with what Xavier Dectot, then director of the museum, predicted before it opened its doors: 700,000 visitors in the first year and 500,000 per year after that.
The museum also points to indirect and more intangible economic benefits, arguing that the momentum it creates and the change in the area’s image can count when businesses decide where to locate and develop.
The museum says 84 percent of residents in the area feel pride towards the museum and 72 percent now have a better image of their area. It argues that before the area is seen differently on a national and international scale, local residents must change their perspective.
Julian Perdrigeat, principal private secretary to Jean-François Caron, who is the current mayor of nearby Loos-en-Gohelle, believes the museum is the start of a new dynamism, regenerating the economy. He told me it represents “the rejuvenation of an area through culture”.
Not all politicians agrees it is a success, however. Hugues Sion is a far-right parliamentary candidate for Lens. Sion calls public investment in the museum “a catastrophe.” He says the subsidy paid by the local population is “enormous” compared to local income levels.
The Nord-Pas-de-Calais region funded most of its capital cost at the beginning and pledged to support the €15 million annual bills, while the European Union contributed €37 million to the project. Sion believes the authorities should be told “the people of Lens are not going to pay one more Euro.” He believes the museum should “make its own way”.
Yet the public investment clearly has helped revitalise a struggling area. While the idea that the Parisian art world has something to teach Lens seems rather condescending, so does the idea that such a museum does not belong in the town. In an area which has felt neglected by the elites, expressed through the rise of the far-right, this type of investment helps to bridge that divide.