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Accentuate the positive
In addition, France has long assigned itself a "civilizing mission" to improve allies and colonies alike. In 2005, the government even ordered high schools in France to teach "the positive role" of French colonialism, i.e. uplifting the natives. (The decree was later rescinded.) Like a certain other nation whose founding principles sprang from the 18th century Enlightenment, France is not shy about its values. As Sarkozy recently observed: "In the United States and France, we think our ideas are destined to illuminate the world."
Sarkozy is eager to pursue that destiny. The new President has pledged to bolster not just France's economy, work ethic and diplomatic standing he has also promised to "modernize and deepen the cultural activity of France." Details are sketchy, but the government has already proposed an end to admission charges at museums and, while cutting budgets elsewhere, hiked the Culture Ministry's by 3.2%, to $11 billion.
Whether such efforts will have much impact on foreign perception is another matter. In a September poll of 1,310 Americans for Le Figaro magazine, only 20% considered culture to be a domain in which France excels, far behind cuisine. Domestic expectations are low as well. Many French believe the country and its culture have been in decline since pick a date: 1940 and the humiliating German occupation; 1954, the start of the divisive Algerian conflict; or 1968, the revolutionary year which conservatives like Sarkozy say brought France under the sway of a new, more casual generation that has undermined standards of education and deportment.
For French of all political colors, déclinisme has been a hot topic in recent years. Bookstores are full of jeremiads like France is Falling, The Great Waste, The War of the Two Frances and The Middle Class Adrift. Talk-show guests and opinion columnists decry France's fading fortunes, and even the French rugby team's failure at the World Cup held in France this year was chewed over as an index of national decay. But most of those laments involve the economy, and Sarkozy's ascension was due largely to his promise to attend to them.
Cultural decline is a more difficult failing to assess and address. Traditionally a province of the right, it speaks to the nostalgia of some French for the more rigorous, hierarchical society of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Paradoxically, that starchy era inspired much of France's subsequent cultural vitality. "A lot of French artists were created in opposition to the education system," says Christophe Boïcos, a Paris art lecturer and gallery owner. "Romantics, Impressionists, Modernists they were rebels against the academic standards of their day. But those standards were quite high and contributed to the impressive quality of the artists who rebelled against them."
The taint of talkiness
Quality, of course, is in the eye of the beholder as is the very meaning of culture. The term originally referred to the growing of things, as in agriculture. Eventually it came to embrace the cultivation of art, music, poetry and other "high-culture" pursuits of a high-minded élite. In modern times, anthropologists and sociologists have broadened the term to embrace the "low-culture" enthusiasms of the masses, as well as caste systems, burial customs and other behavior.
The French like to have it all ways. Their government spends 1.5% of GDP supporting a wide array of cultural and recreational activities (vs. only 0.7% for Germany, 0.5% for the U.K. and 0.3% for the U.S.). The Culture Ministry, with its 11,200 employees, lavishes money on such "high-culture" mainstays as museums, opera houses and theater festivals. But the ministry also appointed a Minister for Rock 'n' Roll in the 1980s to help France compete against the Anglo-Saxons (unsuccessfully). Likewise, parliament in 2005 voted to designate foie gras as a protection-worthy part of the nation's cultural heritage.
Cultural subsidies in France are ubiquitous. Producers of just about any nonpornographic movie can get an advance from the government against box-office receipts (most loans are never fully repaid). Proceeds from an 11% tax on cinema tickets are plowed back into subsidies. Canal Plus, the country's leading pay-TV channel, must spend 20% of its revenues buying rights to French movies. By law, 40% of shows on TV and music on radio must be French. Separate quotas govern prime-time hours to ensure that French programming is not relegated to the middle of the night. The government provides special tax breaks for freelance workers in the performing arts. Painters and sculptors can get subsidized studio space. The state also runs a shadow program out of the Foreign Ministry that goes far beyond the cultural efforts of other major countries. France sends planeloads of artists, performers and their works abroad, and it subsidizes 148 cultural groups, 26 research centers and 176 archaeological digs overseas.