Is French culture dying?

The European edition of Time Magazine’s November 21, 2007 issue shocked many of us by announcing (click to read)

The Death of French Culture (click to read)



After noting that most books, music, and films in France come from abroad, mostly America, the Paris Bureau’s Donald Morrison explains, gives examples, and then offers his opinion on the subject, pointing out some unexpected cultural phenomena that the French themselves may not consider Culture.


He starts by trying to find causes of the paucity of French cultural offerings in the rest of the world: most are in French, only the world’s 12th most widely spoken language (Chinese is first, English second). Another problem may be the subsidies, he says, adding that critics think that ensures mediocrity.

Below are some extracts from the article:


In his 2006 book On Culture in America, former French cultural attaché Frédéric Martel marvels at how the U.S. can produce so much “high” culture of lofty quality with hardly any government support. He concludes that subsidy policies like France’s discourage private participants – and money – from entering the cultural space. […]


Certain aspects of national character may also play a role. Abstraction and theory have long been prized in France’s intellectual life and emphasized in its schools. Nowhere is that tendency more apparent than in French fiction, which still suffers from the introspective 1950s nouveau roman (new novel) movement. […]


French cinema has also suffered from a nouveau roman complex. “The typical French film of the ’80s and ’90s had a bunch of people sitting at lunch and disagreeing with each other,” quips Marc Levy, one of France’s best-selling novelists. […]

And now he defends French culture, pointing out what France itself might consider a subculture:

What those foreigners are missing is that French culture is surprisingly lively. Its movies are getting more imaginative and accessible. Just look at the Taxi films of Luc Besson and Gérard Krawczyk, a rollicking series of Hong Kong-style action comedies; or at such intelligent yet crowd-pleasing works as Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole and Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, both hits on the foreign art-house circuit. French novelists are focusing increasingly on the here and now: one of the big books of this year’s literary rentrée, Yasmina Reza’s L’Aube le Soir ou la Nuit (Dawn Dusk or Night) is about Sarkozy’s recent electoral campaign. Another standout, Olivier Adam’s A l’Abri de Rien (In the Shelter of Nothing), concerns immigrants at the notorious Sangatte refugee camp. France’s Japan-influenced bandes dessinées (comic-strip) artists have made their country a leader in one of literature’s hottest genres: the graphic novel. Singers like Camille, Benjamin Biolay and Vincent Delerm have revived the chanson. Hip-hop artists like Senegal-born MC Solaar, Cyprus-born Diam’s and Abd al Malik, a son of Congolese immigrants, have taken the verlan of the streets and turned it into a sharper, more poetic version of American rap.


Therein may lie France’s return to global glory. The country’s angry, ambitious minorities are committing culture all over the place. France has become a multiethnic bazaar of art, music and writing from the banlieues and disparate corners of the nonwhite world. African, Asian and Latin American music get more retail space in France than perhaps any other country. Movies from Afghanistan, Argentina, Hungary and other distant lands fill the cinemas. Authors of all nations are translated into French and, inevitably, will influence the next generation of French writers. […]


And what keeps a nation great if not the infusion of new energy from the margins? Expand the definition of culture a bit, and you’ll find three fields in which France excels by absorbing outside influences. First, France is arguably the world leader in fashion, thanks to the sharp antennae of its cosmopolitan designers. Second, French cuisine – built on the foundation of Italian and, increasingly, Asian traditions – remains the global standard. Third, French winemakers are using techniques developed abroad to retain their reputation for excellence in the face of competition from newer wine-growing regions. […]

Reactions to the article, as expressed on the TV show, Esprits Libres:

Maurice Druon of the Académie Française reactions as follows: “La moitié des billets de cinéma qu’on achète dans les box offices (sic!), c’est pour les films américains. … En fait, … il y a une méconnaissance totale de ce qu’est la culture. Et les Américains ont tendance à confondre culture et divertissement. La culture à moins de plusieurs siècles, ça n’existe pas.”

Frédéric Martel’s response: “On n’est plus de grande puissance culturelle comme on n’est plus d’ailleurs non plus une grande puissance économique. Mais so what? C’est pas grave.”

Martel’s suggestion on how the French culture can revive: “en produisant une culture chaque jour plus moderne et qui notamment pourra se nourrir des millions de jeunes Français issus de l’immigration qui chaque jour apportent des idées, une énergie, une volonté de s’ouvrir au monde. Et si on est capable de reconnaître ces talents, on sera plus forts dans le monde parce qu’ils incarnent aussi le futur.”

3 Responses to Is French culture dying?

  1. Gabriel says:

    We the French raped the known world quite thouroughly in the XIXth century, when it came to culture. For every genius the others had, we had ten : Oscar Wilde didn’t know who to exchange letters with, between Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Les Goncourt, Théophile Gautier, Zola […] Nietzsche stood his ground, but then again, the man, not content with writing better than Goethe, probably had the same writing skills in French as Maupassant.

    Now it seems God has decreed pay-back time. French culture is indeed dying. Nothing worth reading or watching nowadays.

    Now that I think about it, that’s maybe why I decided to learn English.

    Since the post mostly speaks about cinema, it can be worth mentionning that the leading French film director (much like Almodovar in Spain), Luc Besson, doesn’t even try to make French movies anymore. I don’t think he ever did a decent one.

    So yeah, French culture is screwed. I’ve hard the Indian have started making better cheese than us.

    Oh dear,” la fin des haricots” is near…

    This blog is fun.


  2. jojo says:

    ever since it lost it status as the lingua franca of the world to the english language, the language has never been able to regain full-power and full-domination…ah well, at least people will then have an easier time learning the current langua since french is by far harder to learn and master than english.


  3. Christine Berl says:

    Even if French culture is undergoing a multiethnic revision, the legacy of French art and intellectual prowess is mind boglingThere is enough to study from the past for the next few hundred years.


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