France is synonymous with its culture - hence the large number of foreign tourists who flock to the Louvre and the Pompidou Center and queue up for performances at the Opéra Bastille (Bastille Opera House) and the Comédie-Française. The vitality of the arts scene is sometimes held to stem from a distinctive French tradition of cultural policy, in which the state intervenes constantly - an approach that frequently gives rise to heated debate.
State intervention in the arts goes back a long way in France. As early as the 16th century, the royal decree of Villers-Cotterêts (1539) stipulated that French must be used in legal decisions and notarial acts, while changes to the language have been monitored by the French Academy since its inception in 1635. In the 17th century, particularly during Louis XIV’s reign, the state officially became the protector of the arts, and as such encouraged artists and writers by providing them with stipends and commissions: the construction of the Palace of Versailles and the creation of the Comédie-Française (1680) are examples of this ambitious royal patronage.
When the state turned the Louvre Palace into a museum in 1793, it became a curator as well as a patron of the arts and contributed to the creation of the “national heritage”. The policies implemented from 1834 by the new department of historic monuments under the direction of Mérimée, and the initiatives of the architect and restorer Viollet-le-Duc were further steps along this path. Subsequently, the Republican governments undertook to disseminate culture throughout society in the name of democracy, often with a view to educating and emancipating the population.
Yet it was not until the twentieth century that the objective of making culture more widely accessible was clearly defined, over and above the encouragement lavished on artists and the preservation of the cultural heritage. The pioneering work of Jean Zay, Minister for Public Education and Fine Arts in the Popular Front government, was taken a step further after the Liberation, with a policy designed to afford the widest possible access to artistic treasures previously restricted to a limited audience. One example was the public subsidy for the work of Jean Vilar, director of the Théâtre national populaire (National Popular Theatre - TNP). Under the Fifth Republic, André Malraux, appointed Minister for Cultural Affairs by General de Gaulle in 1959, gave impetus to a coherent government policy with regard to cultural affairs. The writer and minister stated before the National Assembly that his aim was to do for the democratization of culture what the Third Republic, with its republican ideals, had done for education.
At the dawn of the 21st century, this threefold approach to cultural policy is as pertinent as ever. Indeed, each of these goals can now look to increased support, added to which, the state no longer acts alone in this field.