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MINISTRY OF FUN
I met Jack Lang in 1984, on assignment for an American magazine. He invited me to follow him around for a month, and asked his aides to give me any information I requested, and so it went for years. In 1990, I published Les Jours les Plus Lang, the first (and only to date) critical biography of Lang. Its central arguments were that his cultural policy failed, except in political terms, and that it had helped to open the door to the Extreme Right. Lang sought to suppress the book with only partial success. His campaign -- pressures on my publisher, sources and critics -- became public through French TV and radio commentator Philippe Meyer, whom I had never met. Thanks to Meyer's generosity and nerve, the book did not vanish. This chapter is the first published excerpt in English.
CHAPTER FIVE: THE PALACE REVOLUTION
When he was named Minister of Culture in May 1981, Lang was 41 years old and looked no more than 35. His hair was still curly and long, his shoulders pleasingly broad, his form trim in clothes whose style, as yet, was loud but uncertain. (His favorite suit was pink, the official color of the Socialist Party.) His most important new feature, the one that made him strikingly telegenic, was his smile--relaxed, amused, a bit naive perhaps, his eyes guarding an adult, secret joke. The smile was like an admission and a promise of pleasure. While Ronald Reagan, on the other side of the Atlantic, was calculatedly stepping into the boots of the late John Wayne, Lang would evolve into a latter-day Maurice Chevalier, laughing his way out of the Depression.
Appropriately if inconveniently, Lang's people found the Ministry's headquarters at the Rude de Valois beside the Palais Royal physically bare: "We walked into a ministry that was cleaned out," recalled Jacques Sallois, the first director of Lang's Cabinet. "We didn't find a carpet in the place."
It was with an arrogance softened by genuine astonishment that Lang told Le Monde on September 5: "I think, I have to think, that the Minister of Culture succeeds no one." In fact, he was awaited in his palace with both unease and anticipation. In the preceding few years of budgetary decline and political indifference, amidst a general atmosphere of unhurried inutility, a few talented but under-used functionaries had sat in their offices with the doors closed, drawing up detailed plans for projects that they despaired of ever seeing realized. Rare was the ambitious graduate of the Ecole nationale d'administration who chose to start his career at the Rue de Valois; few were the visitors who sought out the Ministry to expose their ideas and seek encouragement or aid.
Moreover, despite his strong and direct tie to Mitterrand -- Lang communicated directly with the President's staff in the Elysée Palace, bypassing Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy's services, which did not amuse the latter one bit -- his position in the Government was weak. The Communications portfolio, an essential part of any far-reaching cultural policy (as Lang had argued in his 1978 book Eclats), had been given to Georges Fillioud, while another corner of Lang's potential empire had been split off into a Ministry of Free Time under André Henry. Henry's vague but happy declarations -- "My objective is to help people live their life in all its social and cultural fullness" -- were an invitation to a turf battle with Lang.
Lang's insecurity was showing when he told Le Monde that in the Ministry's thick-walled, high-ceilinged rooms, "The beat and noise of life seems filtered and diluted. Where can you find the heat of real life?" He was afraid that once more he would be isolated, out of the action that counted. As Sallois later observed, culture was a "marginal activity" of the State. The problem was how to turn it into a "preoccupation."
From his first day in office, Lang rushed to put his stamp on the Socialists' program. His vehicle was Mitterrand's campaign pledge to "abrogate" the power of booksellers to set prices on their wares. Behind that promise was a peculiarly French history of government intervention in the market at private demand. In the postwar era, as American power carried the English language toward a dominance undreamed of even in the glory days of the British Empire, French literature -- the first and ultimate rampart of the language, guarantor of its prestige and influence -- became ever more an object of national pride and anxiety. (The anxiety was particularly marked among the Socialists, whose ranks contained more teachers than any other occupational category.) Measures to protect French literature were thus widely approved by the educated classes, and by the political elite, at least in rhetoric.
Until the mid-1970's, French publishers, and the legion of small booksellers who carried their wares, enjoyed a certain relief from cutthroat price competition, thanks to universal acceptance of the prix conseillé system: The publisher set the price of a work, and the booksellers sold it at a discount of 10 percent or less. But the arrival in 1974 of France's first cultural supermarkets, the FNAC chain of stores, which discounted at 20 percent, shattered the system. The FNAC's immense success attracted other mass retailers into the book business, and soon discounts of 40 percent off the cover price were common.
The booksellers' union, the Fédération Française des Syndicats de Libraires, fought back in 1980 by obtaining a change in the prix conseillé from the government of Prime Minister Raymond Barre. Under the new legal regime, of prix net, all booksellers were guaranteed the same wholesale price, and could fix the retail price themselves. But instead of helping small booksellers and serious literature, the new system reinforced the market share of the giants, who could cut prices deeper and longer than the independants. By the beginning of the 1980s the FNAC and supermarkets held more than 20 percent of the book market between them. By some standards this was not worrisome concentration; fully half the book market in the U.S.A. was controlled by only two retail chains by the mid-1980s. But French publishers and writers were horrified by such a future. As a Ministry of Culture report later put it, it was believed that "in the long term, literary creation will be threatened, because its distribution depends on specialized bookstores."
The FFSL, joined by the vast majority of publishers, therefore urged a return to an even more restricted version of the prix conseillé‚ in which retailers could legally offer no more than a five percent discount on the publisher's universal list price. Thus small booksellers would be able to compete head to head with the giants, and serious books would not be crowded out by cheap and silly ones. Of course price controls could not force people to read "serious" or "difficult" authors; but they could ensure that lightweight material was not an easier buy.
Did Lang accept this logic? He always claimed that he did; he would defend any measure that helped "creation." In any case, what Mitterrand had promised, Lang would execute, and the prix unique du livre figured among the new President's campaign promises. Lang's cabinet prepared a decree to enact it at the end of June, 1981. "We thought we didn't need a law, a regulation would suffice," said Sallois. "We wouldn't need a vote." The Socialist deputies at the National Assembly shared that opinion.
Lang's announcement of the decree was to be the centerpiece of the first great party of his Ministry, a luncheon for a crowd of publishers at palace on the Rue de Valois. His wife Monique, aided by Marie-Françoise George, who had rejoined Lang as his press secretary, rounded them up. But at noon on the appointed day, with their guests due in a few minutes, Lang and Sallois learned that they needed a law and not a decree, after all -- which meant that they had nothing to announce.
The luncheon that followed might have been the worst of debuts. But Lang walked into the dining hall with a grin, shook his head at the silliness of it all, and in a ringing voice promised that he would now go to the Assembly and bring back a law. "He managed to get applauded," marvelled Sallois.
A mere few weeks later, they had their law. It was a frenzied month, as constituencies close to the Socialists (notably unions, schools, and nonprofit associations) lobbied for exemptions to a law that would make them pay more for their books, and the new Socialist legislators tried to prove their own efficacity and independance from the government. But on July 31, the bill passed almost unanimously (it took effect on Jan. 1, 1982). The first of Mitterrand's pledges to be concretized was the Lang Act.
Lang had reinforced the existing (and very French)
principle that a book is not just a product like any other, but an arm
of the national culture... which could not, must not, become extinct,
simply because consumers could find cheap substitutes. Yet even if one
granted the necessity, one could question the means. A report from
Lang's Services des Etudes et Recherche, published
in October 1982, suggested why: "Contrary to what is often advanced,
the paperback book did not democratize reading. It simply
facilitated reading among those who were already assiduous readers."
This implied, first, that price cuts were no incentive to buy books for
people who didn't like to read in the first place; and second, that the
cheaper the books, the more of them that people who like to read will
buy. If so, the prix unique du livre might,
perversely, lead the publishing industry's best customers to buy fewer
books. It amounted to a tax on dedicated readers, for the alleged sake
of authors whom they were not particularly interested in reading. The
point was made by the law's opponents, but besides consumers'
associations whom the Socialists simply ignored, they consisted of
precisely the large retailers whom the law was meant to
counter. (They soon fought back, through defiant
price-cutting and in the courts, starting with the FNAC; but one by one
they would be beaten down.)
A hidden talent emerged in Lang in that summer of 1981. It would remain hidden from the public; no one would ever talk about it but the functionaries who dispense or withhold budgets to Ministers, year in and year out. But in that tight circle of connoisseurs, Lang was the unquestioned Modern Master.
During the Presidential campaign Mitterrand had avoided pledging anything beyond a substantial increase in the Culture budget; and when the first "collective budget" was settled among the Government in July, Culture was granted a 25 percent boost. That was arguably substantial, but Lang now invested himself personally in the battle to get more, and to a very rare degree.
Most Ministers, then and now, took their vacations in July and August, resting up for the parliamentary rentrée in the fall. Meanwhile, their cabinets did the tiresome work of drawing up a budget and negotiating with the functionaries at the all-powerful Ministry of Finances (whom, Lang had pointedly remarked in L'Etat et le Théâtre, were the true masters of the arts in France)... not to mention smoothing out their differences with other Ministries, each of which was likewise clamoring for a bigger piece of the taxpayers' change.
But Lang stayed in Paris, with a telephone in his hand, personally lobbying bureaucrats far below his own rank... who were often startled to find a Minister on the line, especially a Minister full of charm, by turns playful, persuasive, and percussive. "By far, it's Lang who fights tghe hardest for his budget," said a functionary who served at both Culture and Finances. "He follows it day by day, he fights for every line." Monique often prepared the way for him, calling to say that her husband would call, following in his wake. "If Jack called ten times," said one of his fellow Ministers with a half-admiring, half-stupefied laugh, "Monique called 110 times."
Whenever his opponent proved utterly intractable, Lang turned to Mitterrand, reminding the President of his own pledges and promises. This time, as he had not when the Government was named, the patron gave his protégé full satisfaction. It helped that "the administration was rather tetanized, rigid with fear, when they saw the Socialists coming," thought Francis Beck, a functionary of the Rue de Valois since 1971 who joined Lang's Cabinet. "We could thus obtain things from the Ministry of Finances that wouldn't be possible now."
By the end of August, Lang had obtained a near-doubling of his Ministry's credits for 1982, the next fiscal year, to some six billion francs -- an increase, in proportional terms, unprecedented for any Ministry in the history of the Fifth Republic.
He was now fully armed for what amounted to a palace revolution, the reformation of the Rue de Valois in the summer and early fall of 1981.
Jacques Sallois, the Cabinet director, was another of the éminences grises whom Lang typically sought as collaborators; slender, soft-voiced, he wore his impeccable clothes like streamlined silence. He had become a Mitterrandist after ten years with Michel Rocard in the PSU, Mitterrand's main rival as a vehicle for the Left. Sallois liked to show visitors a copy of one of Rocard's old revolutionary tracts, with a contemptuous grin. He had spent seven years as the Ministry of Culture's budgetary controller at the Inspection des Finances. He thus knew all the plans that were lying in the drawers at the Rue de Valois. And he took a professional delight in administrative details, which bored and oppressed Lang.
Lang and Sallois agreed that it was far easier to create new administrative structures than to reform old ones. Lang had never forgotten the nightmare of his attempt to manage the unions at Chaillot, and Sallois knew perfectly well how hard it would be to demand new methods and goals from certain of the Ministry's divisions. They were afraid that there would not be much time, that the Socialist experiment would be as short-lived as the Front Populaire had been. If they were to make changes rapidly, they had to bypass administrative barriers.
They began with the Cabinet. Instead of choosing administrators, the normal procedure, Lang packed his cabinet with men carrying specific projects -- like Claude Mollard, an Enarque and former Generaml Secretary of theCentre Pompidou, who wanted to overturn the peculiarly conservative avant-gardism of the French contemporary arts establishment in favor of an anything-goes activism, and Dominique Wallon, a Rocardien and former chief of the radical student union UNEF, who wanted to reduce the State's power over cultural life in the provinces. Beside them were longtime friends of Lang, like Robert Abirached and Jean-Pierre Colin. It was an unusual group, in that it contained few career functionaries; it was as much an esthetic tool as a political one.
The new Minister's esthetics were clear enough: Lang believed in the inherent good of creation with a passionate sincerity, which was not always the case when he designed a policy. He had portrayed himself thoughout his career as a champion of the new, against the incomprehension and prejudice of entrenched interests, and to some extent it was true. He needed an ideal to motivate him, and to justify the purely political side of his nature. Compared to creation and creators, the collective mass of France's treasures from the past was simply a bore for Lang. As Dupavillon put it, speaking for both men, "When the national heritage is dead, it isn't interesting; when it's intelligent, it allows creation to happen." Heritage was valuable only as the ground in which new creation could take root.
That attitude had practical consequences for the Ministry, which was essentially dominated by its heritage Directions -- the Patrimoiny, Archives, and Museums de France. These administrations, charged with protecting France's treasures of the past, far outweighed the "creative" Directions -- Theatre, Spectacles, Music et de la Danse, and to a lesser extent, Books and Public Reading -- in terms of jobs, funding, and prestige. Lang was determined to reduce the weight of the heritage Directions. It was clear that the Socialist party would back him. A July colloquium on "Creation in the City" at Avignon concluded, reported Sandier, that "the PS strongly affirms the priority of creation, conceived as the 'superior pole (as in North Pole) of reference', promoted as a 'utopian pole.'" The network of Maisons de la Culture founded by André Malraux to present established great works to the masses would now be called upon, each and every one, to devise a program of new productions. Already there was a turning away from the past, a rejection of pedagogy in favor of invention.
Lang, meanwhile, spread the message that the Power and creators could finally sit down in harmony. So it went at a reception in Le Beaucet on the night of July 14, where Lang, "all in pink dressed,," in the phrase of writerYves Navarre, accompanied Navarre and stage directors Ariane Mnouchkine and Marcel Maréchal to Mitterrand's table. Watching the scene, journalist Matthieu Galey asked ironically if this was to be the new "offical art". Of course, as Galey knew, Mnouchkine and Maréchal had been subsidized by the State before the Left took power. The real point was that the official ties between art and power would now be doubled by unofficial ties. Artists and politicians would party together and celebrate each other. No longer would France's creators share the reflex of biting the hand that fed them.
Before the year was out, the creators were further bolstered by a radical reorganization of the Ministry. Its keystone was a new Direction of Cultural Development (DDC), under Dominique Wallon -- a super-Direction, whose powers included supervising all contracts between the Ministry's other branches and the regions, departments and cities of France. The DDC was thus in a position to block or promote the expansion of every other Direction. It became clear very quickly to the traditionalists that only projects designed to attract and excite a larger public would get the DDC's approval.
Meanwhile, Mollard devised a plan to gather the various splinters of France's creative arts institutions into a unified Delegation for the Plastic Arts (DAP) -- in effect, an eighth Direction--with immense authority to promote new museums of contemporary arts, and funding for a vast program of commissions and acquisitions. The 42.2 million francs at Mollard's disposal for purchases in 1982 were not only eight times what had been available the previous year for contemporary art, they nearly equalled the 45.4 million francs allotted for acquisitions at the National Museums. The palaces of the past had been doubled by a parallel structure for moderns.
When one counted the massive infusions of new funds that were poured into the living arts -- the Direction de la Musique, for example, would soon be given six times its previous funding for contemporary composition, while its overall budget tripled -- the revolution became evident. Despite a near-doubling in the budgets of the heritage Directions, the new ratio was 45 percent of the Ministry's budget for creation, to 40 percent for tradition. For the first time in the Ministry's history, creation came first.
The conservatives felt their power diminish in another sense: Lang left them out of the "Saturday Club," an inner circle that began to meet at the Ministry on weekend mornings. The club was structured like a cabinet within the cabinet, open only to the supporters of creation -- Mollard, Sallois, Dupavillon, Abirached, Maurice Fleuret (who became Directeur de la Musique et de la Danse in October) and Lang. It was part debating society, and part boys' club, where ideas were brought out before they reached the policy planning stage. Its significance was simply this: the Creators had a lobby within the Ministry's highest circles, and the conservatives -- who came together at the Rue de Valois only in monthly meetings of all the Directors -- did not.
There was an even more select club, composed of Lang and Monique, on the Ministry's payroll as his "special secretary." Her job, depending on whom one talked to, was that of St. Peter at the door of heaven, or Ceres at thegates of Hades. No phone call reached Lang from outside the Ministry without her approval -- to the frequent exasperation and occasional rage of elected officials from France's cities, whom Monique was under orders to keep at a distance -- and no appointment was made until she set the calendar.
Like Nancy Reagan in the United States, she controlled her husband's time and presence. What she did not control was his mind -- contrary to a rumor that Mitterrand, consciously or not, helped to feed, by openly calling her "Madame le Ministre." Lang was often seen to ignore Monique's ideas during meetings, and never to give way to one against his will. Whatever else he was, he was not her creature. On one occasion, Monique ordered one of Lang's press assistants out of his office, and he replied that he chose his own collaborators. On another, Monique asked Marie-France Georges to bring a note to "Papa" -- and the two women stared at each other, then burst out laughing.
The basic currency of politics, in France as in America or China, is jobs. Politicians give people paid work, and thus build their empires. At the Ministry of Culture, that previously had meant giving commissions to a few artists, or posts to functionaries. But in the fall of 1981, Lang exploded the previous definition of a cultural job -- and with it, the limits of his Ministry's constituency.
Seven years into la crise, unemployment was indisputably the major concern of the Socialists, the key test of their economic policy: "A France entirely at work... Such is the central bjective of the economic policy,"declared Mauroy on Sept. 15. A Socialist government could simply not accept that 1.7 million French who wanted jobs did not have them. The Socialists therefore committed themselves to the creation of 160,000 public jobs, once the "Interim Plan" of 1982-84 took effect in January, 1982.
But Lang had already designed a jobs program of his own. It bore Sallois's stamp, because it was adapted from one of the reports that had been lying in a drawer, and Wallon's, because it had a distinctly "social" and decentralist edge, concerns that the ex-student radical held far more strongly than Lang initially realized. Their starting point was a report from the Service des Etudes et Recherche in February 1980, which argued that the Ministry ought to offer start-up money to cultural projects that might turn into self-supporting businesses, thus setting off "a continuous spiral of expansion of cultural employment." Thus in June, even before the budget was secure, Lang's Cabinet set up a new structure to counsel employers, the Association pour l'Aide à la Gestion des Entreprises Culturelles. (The very name expressed a new concept, and Lang's people knew it. Culture and enterprise were supposed to be antithetical terms. Artists were above business... and for more than a few Socialists, business was anti-cultural.)
By Sept. 15, Lang was ready to announce a program of "jobs of local initiative," and his Ministry's desire to "make the greatest possible number of its cultural partners benefit from this program." The concept in itself was amazing to many who had previously tried to obtain a subsidy from the Rue de Valois.) Sallois sent a hand-picked team of 30 young men and women into the regions to help get the program underway, figuring on 3000 applications to be handled and controlled. Before long, 10,000 would seem a more realistic figure. Photocopied flyers blanketed the regions, promising grants of 36,000 francs to anyone who would take the time to fill out a surprisingly simple two-page form: "Got an idea? Make it happen!"
The 100 million francs allotted for that operation were a mere drop, compared to the enormously enlarged funds that were promised to artists and institutions through the regular channels of the Directions. For the Direction du Livre et de la Lecture, Sallois pulled another plan out of a drawer... and the "operating credits" for public librairies shot up from 10 to 148 million francs. In the theatre, the Théâtres Nationaux and Centres Dramatiques Nationaux saw their combined budgets boosted by 60 percent in a single year, to some 342.5 million francs. But the "independant" companies, legally separatefrom the State, were granted a truly unprecedented largesse... and one that was relatively cheap for the Rue de Valois. From 189 companies that received a subsidy in 1981, the number burst to 342 for the following fiscal year, their overall funding rising from 38.4 to 96 million francs. Which meant that not only were far more people getting grants, but the size of the average grant went up, too, by 40 percent. Similar figures could be cited for musical ensembles, dance companies, and other artists, adding up to nearly two billion francs.
The word quickly spread that a tidal wave of money for artists was going to pour from the Ministry of Culture. Lang himself was his own best press-agent, a one-man road show that touched virtually every corner of France, and every conceivable form of culture. In a typical swing through the Midi in September, he gave a speech promoting artistic professions in the depressed, agricultural Limousin... then appeared in Marseille to promote one of the social history spectacles so dear to the Socialists, about naval shipbuilders... and swung by the Ile de Frioul to celebrate a troop of volunteers who had restored an 18th-century hospital... and finally wound up with a conference on the region's numerous summer fesivals. Everywhere he went, he promised increased aid and new jobs.
The excitement boiled over in January 1982. A virtual riot of aroused artists and would-be artists descended on the Ministry. Alain Surrans, second-in-command at the Direction de la Musique, witnessed it firsthand: "The first three months of 1982 were a nightmare. Until eight at night, people called, all kinds of people who said, 'I was a singer, I was this or that, do you think I could...' There were hundreds of calls like that, it never stopped. A totally crazy time."
Lang had given thousands of the French a focus for their wildest dreams of a creative, meaningful life. But there was also a method here, which Lang willingly described in an interview in May 1989: "I tried to set things up so that our action would be supported by the vastest possible community of artists, known and unknown, from all the artistic disciplines -- but also by public opinion. That was the great bet: An action for the arts and culture benefitting from the confidence of the elites -- I don't like that word; the professionals, let's say -- and also the trust of the great public... one must never cut oneself off from the great public. There's a risk of closing oneself into a ghetto."
Like Reagan, whom Lang studied on these points, the Minister was reaching around the administration and his own party, to build his own, independent public base. But with one key difference between himself and the American: Reagan's base was ruthlessly ideological, excluding anyone who seemed contaminated by non-conservative ideals; Lang's doors -- and coffers -- were opened to Right and Left alike, in this crucial early phase. When he met for the first time with a commission on poetry at the Centre Nationale des Lettres, Lang made only one request of its members: that they support every style of poetry, without regard to politics.
The same applied to power players in the capital. If Lang took care of his friends from the old days -- filmmaker Serge Moati, for example, a Nancy pal and faithful chronicler of Lang, was installed as program director of the FR3 network -- he took equal care to make new ones, like Paris Mayor and longtime adversary Jacques Chirac, whom Lang invited more than once to lunch at the Rue de Valois, to chat about how they might work together for the greater beauty of the Capitol. He had learned, finally, not to make war on every front at once.
But he had not forgotten that his Ministry was only one corner of a divided cultural empire. In his interview with Le Monde on Sept. 5, with the battle of the budget successfully behind him, Lang had called for a "radical decentralisation" of the national audiovisual media -- a matter that belonged to George Filioud's Ministry of Communication, not his own. Asked bluntly if he had authority over the issue, Lang replied: "The government will deliberate and the Parliament will decide. The voice of the Minister of Culture must be heard throughout the process."
Three days later Lang was featured in the popular weekly Journal du Dimanche, where he made hugely public his refusal to attend the forthcoming Festival of American Cinema at Deauville: "Dpon't count on me to promote American movies!" Asked if he had an anti-American policy, Lang replied, "We're not anti-Americans at any price... But we have to recognize that American films depend on a powerful worldwide distribution network." He continued: "A counter-attack and a strategy should be foreseen at the European level.... We want to defend our art of living and not let anyone impose a foreign, impoverishing and standard model on us."
Lang always denied subsequently that he intended to create a scandal... but the point is finally irrelevant. He never disavowed these remarks, and a scandal there was. Moreover, if Lang had based his career on any principle, it was that the media could transform declarations into acts; through them, public perception became political reality.
Nor did Lang act entirely on his own. The cinema was a personal concern to Mitterrand, whose sister-in-law, Christine Gouz-Renal, was a film producer, and whose brother-in-law, Roger Hanin, was a film actor. The Elysée had demanded action on the film front, and Lang had already set his friend and co-author of Eclats, Jean-Denis Bredin, to prepare a study and a program for action. With power came new allies: Bredin's committee included film director Bertrand Tavernier, who had previously held back from attending Lang's cinema colloquium at Hyères, but could now be heard complaining to the Journal du Dimanche: "The Americans have all the money!" Lacking which, he argued, their "debilitating, hardly stimulating" productionswould be dead in the marketplace. American movies now claimed precisely one out of every three francs spent in French cinemas.
The week after Lang dropped his bomb, in what appeared to be a move coordinated with the Rue de Valois, Le Monde published an anti-American advertisement by the so-called "Committee for the National Identity", whose members included numerous friends of Lang from Nancy. The committee argued that French cinema and pop music were being "colonized" by the Americans. To redress this evil, their manifesto demanded that three out of five films shown on French television be made in France, and that another five percent be reserved for films from other Francophone countries. No more than 20 percent of cinema on French networks could be American, and American independants should be favored over Hollywood's corporate masters.
The argument that American cinema was overrunning the planet had been raised at Hyères in almost the same terms. But this manifesto went further in a key respect: It introduced the principle of television quotas to the public debate on film policy. This had both domestic and international political implications. At home, it legitimized Lang's claim that the Rue de Valois must be heard in debates on television. Abroad, France's filmmakers were now calling for something much more far-reaching than a strict interpretation of existing provisions of the Treaty of Rome, as they had demanded at Hyères. They wanted the creation of a new category of international trade, cultural products, whose freedom of circulation would stop at national borders.
The debate took a sharper turn on Sept. 19, when filmmaker Gérard Blain -- a man of the Left who would soon veer to the Extreme Right -- attacked "The American Poison" in Le Monde. Raged Blain, "It is through films made in Hollywood that America infuses her venom in the minds of entire peoples, that she insidiously but profoundly imposes her stereotypes on them and literally (sic) devitalizes them." Blain was arguing that leaving American films in the marketplace was the equivalent of permitting French schoolchildren to taste heroin.
As the scandal lingered -- and it became apparent that not everyone in France shared Blain's horror of Hollywood -- Lang separated himself from the most extreme of the anti-American rhetoric. He invited the American filmmaker King Vidor to the Rue de Valois to become a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters on Oct. 6, and declared to the press "that never, absolutely never, would a French leader manifest any sort of contempt or defiance toward American cinematographic art." In conversation, he explained that artists like Vidor were one thing, and "soup merchants" were another, with that wide smile and the ironic shake of his curly head. Pressed on the point, he could become genuinely angry. He had suffered for the Americans -- for Bob Wilson at Chaillot, or the Bread and Puppet Theater at Nancy! He loved creators, whatever their passports!
Nonetheless, Lang soon adopted virtually the same television quotas advocated by the Comittee for the National Identity as his own. From now on, his film policy would be centered on reserving safe domains for French film in the cinemas and on the small screen, in the name of France's cultural identity. He would continue to fight for those principles well after their domestic and international political cost became exorbitant.
Meanwhile, Lang's attacks on the Americans, however artfully qualified, encouraged another danger. "Never," marvelled Le Monde in its introduction to Blain's article, "have people spoken so much of the national identity." Except, that is, on the Extreme Right, whose leading force, the National Front, had been shown by Le Monde's election day coverage as a marginal collection of Pétainists, Royalists, anti-Communists and "fascistes," impotently railing before the statue of Jeanne d'Arc in Paris against the demon Socialists. A Socialist Minister was lending credence to the warning that France was losing her soul to an alien tide. And not only in the cinema: A "Reflection on the French Song" commissioned by Lang that fall informed the Minister that "live spectacles and the phonographic industry, tributaries of the media, will not long resist the invasion of the market by Anglo-Saxon products." Once again, quotas were demanded.
It is difficult not to see a contrast with the fact
that the Socialists had taken an immense political risk in favor of
France's burgeoning immigrant population on Aug. 11, by regularizing
the legal status of some 150,000 "clandestines," much to the fury of
the Right. Lang had cheered the measure; he had not lost his idealistic
sympathy for outsiders, his real generosity toward the
oppressed. But the contrast is perhaps only
apparent. At the same time the Socialists opened France's
doors to foreigners, Lang took the stance of an ardent defender of the
nation's essence, against American culture. Consciously or
not, he thus protected the Socialists against the charge that they were
soft on foreign enemies. The spectacle did not escape Jean-Paul
Enthoven of the weekly Nouvel Observateur, who
remarked on Sept. 12: "Since France, once again a land of asylum, wants
to grant the right to vote to foreigners who live and work on her
territory, the eye baths that our Minister felt obliged to take -- we
had perhaps best call him Jacques, so as not to be
suspected of Yankee sympathies
-- are surprising. They seem in
every way contrary to the opening to the world that was finally
promised us (by the Socialists)."
For the moment, there was no danger of that. The Bredin Commission's report was handed to Lang on Nov. 3, and in virtually every respect it gave the auteur lobby satisfaction. As Bredin and his colleagues analyzed the situation, French cinema was menaced by the dragons of Hyères -- the Americans, and television, both of which vampirized the ticket-buying public for French films. The commission's priority was above all to maintain France's production capacity: "Confronted with the inimitable Leviathans from across the Atlantic, the diversity and plurality of creation are the only effective strategy." This creative output in turn would guarantee France's creators "a significant part of the market of the century: the image," which would soon "know an unprecedented explosion", through cable and satellite television and video technologies.
The auteurs' financial demands underpinned this policy document: French-content quotas for television, enriched payments for broadcast rights, increased aids to filmmakers, and a tax-shelter investment scheme for the cinema. The commission also demanded "a veritable anti-trust policy" aimed at forcing the three major French distributors (UGC, Gaumont-Pathé, and Parafrance) to program more "fragile works" (meaning intimist, non-spectacular films) for their paying customers. Meanwhile, the State must set up new regional circuits, and aid the construction of cinemas in towns that lacked screens.
The Commission's essential philosophy was identical to that of the prix unique du livre: keep the small distributors and "difficult" products on the market, whatever the cost to industry and consumers. The future of French cinema, its "renewal," required nothing less. And if anything, the stakes were even higher in the cinema than in literature. For in the coming era of electronic media, argued Bredin, to be without a stock of images was like being without nuclear weapons in the Cold War; it meant being a subject of the Great Powers, and not a power unto oneself. (Remarkably, Socialist cultural policy thus echoed Gaullist diplomacy.)
Bredin's prediction of an exploding media industry would come true. But the strategy he proposed to ensure France's part of that market looked determinedly toward the past. "The cinema," he declared flatly, "is a film in a theatre"--a crowd in the dark, lost together in an artist's bigger-than-life dream. The Nouvelle Vague, launched from scattered neighborhood cinemas in Paris, had been built on that dream. It remained vital for their inheritors, to whom Bredin listened so attentively. The policy Bredin recommended was designed to enable successive generations of filmmakers to benefit from the same conditions as New Wave innovators François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard at the beginning of their careers. Other media would be subjugated and taxed to support that goal.
A different vision was driving the Americans and Japanese, however. Instead of propping up dying theatres, they were rushing to provide each consumer with his own cinema, through videocassettes and cable channels. Throughout the world these new products were rapidly changing the public's perspective on cinema -- making it into an individual medium, not a social one. The crowd in the dark was being replaced by the couple in the living room.
Would France resist that trend? That was what the auteurs were asking Lang to do, and he was willing to subsidize their desires. In the next three years, his Ministry would pay for the modernization or construction of 454 cinemas, while the "advance on receipts," the most important of the Ministry's aids to filmmakers, went up sixfold to 25 million francs in 1982 (and kept climbing, to 85 million francs by 1985). It was not yet clear that all this wealth and sollicitude amounted to a rope with which the auteurs could hang themselves.
The Socialists had promised that there would be a vast new "shining" of French culture, at home and abroad. The first indication of just how much that promise mattered to Mitterrand came on Sept. 24, when the President seized on the occasion of a press conference on his foreign and economic policies to announce the undertaking of what became known as the Great Projects -- a program of monumental construction, bigger and faster than any other in French history.
The new Power had inherited four of the Projects from the Right--the transformation of the Gare d'Orsay into a museum, the completion of La Villette in the North of Paris, and of La Défense in the West, and a "Maison pour l'Islam," later renamed the Maison du Monde Arabe. To these Mitterrand added a renovation (as yet undefined) of the Louvre -- which involved creating a giant new home for the Ministry of Finances, now happily and gorgeously settled into the Richelieu wing of the Louvre, beside the Rue de Rivoli -- and the construction of a City of Music . Finally, he declared, the Bicentennial of 1989 would be marked by an Exposition Universelle, a "worksite open to the imagination, works of art, artisans, to the humble and great professions, all that permits France to feel younger." In the Socialist celebration, the common man and the great man would salute each other as equals, in a fresh new world... a world in which the people would have their monuments, just as the Pharoahs, Lords and Bosses of earlier times did.
A single condition unified all the Great Projects, though it was not spoken aloud. The Socialists were determined to move so fast that if and when the Right regained command in 1986, the next scheduled Parliamentary elections, the projects would be too far advanced to cancel. Which meant that if they succeeded, within seven years Paris would be transformed, in body if not in soul.
Lang held a certain, but limited power in these operations, as one among five "sages" appointed by Mitterrand in October 1981 to oversee the Great Projects. The others were no lightweights: They included Robert Lion, the director of Mauroy's cabinet, and a man of long experience in public works; Paul Quilès, a powerful Socialist party regular soon to become Minister of 'Urban Development and Housing, where he would compose a law that froze rents across France, to the anguish of landlords and the delight of young Parisians; the current holde rof that portfolio, Roger Quillot; and writer Paul Quimard, a trusted confidant of Mitterrand.
For the most important project of all, the Grand Louvre, Mitterrand personally appointed Emile Biasini, the man who had built and managed Malraux's Maisons de la Culture, to direct the work through an independant Etablissement Publique, accountable solely and directly to the President. Only when the project was completed would it come under Lang's command, through the Direction of the Museums of France. If, that is, he was still at his job in 1988. In short, he could not build it, but he would end up taking care of it. And along the way, he would help pay for it: some 20 percent of his Ministry's budget was committed to the Great Projects.
The Orsay project was likewise handed over to a man chosen by Mitterrand, Lang's former ally from Chaillot days, Jacques Rigaud. Asked by Lang if the Minister could help him in any way, Rigaud, who regarded Lang's rhetorical flourishes with a growing skepticism, replied: "Yes, I want you to leave me the hell alone." And indeed, Rigaud later recalled, "Lang left me alone royally." In fact, Lang and Dupavillon perfectly approved Rigaud's concept of the Orsay, which was to construct a public attraction, run like a business, instead of a vault run like a fortress, as the Rue de Valois tended to view France's other great museums.
It was essential, thought Dupavillon, to "shake up" the curators of the National Museums, and make them "accept a pretty avant-garde bet at the level of their public presentation." He meant: more like what the Americans were doing in their museums, where films, lectures, seminars, gift shops, and concerts pulled the customers in... more like a joyous gathering, and less like a somber pilgrimage to the tomb of glory. Rather than reform the National Museums from within, Dupavillon and Lang would pressure the curators to follow a successful new model, using the Great Projects as another gleaming parallel structure. To the delight of the Rue de Valois, their goal of bringing in a new public was shared by Hubert Landais, Directeur of the Museums France, who lent them a forward-looking deputy, a brilliant curator named Michel Laclotte, to second Rigaud at Orsay.
Missing from Mitterrand's list was a seventh project, which had been vaguely discussed in the President's entourage, but was only now assuming a concrete shape among Lang's advisers: a new, "popular" opera for Paris. In July, during a hot afternoon's promenade over the scorched earth of his rented vacation home in Roussillon, Lang had confided a mission to define the project to Jean-Pierre Angrémy, an old friend who was about to lose his job as Directeur of the Theatre and Spectacle at the Rue de Valois (to make way for Lang's friend, Abirached). "He wants to please me," wrote Angrémy in his journal. And indeed, Angrémy was thrilled; in 1978 he had discussed a new technical design for an opera with Michael Dittmann, a gifted scenic designer and stage director at the Opéra de Paris, without ever believing that it might actually be built.
In fact, there was a general consensus in France's musical milieu that something had to be done about the Opéra de Paris at the Palais Garnier. It had become the burdensome capstone of a subsidized lyric circuit that drained three out of every five francs spent by the State on musical productions (to the tune of 300 million francs in 1982's budget). The star system imposed by general director Rolf Liebermann, an absence of scenic workshops, and a tangle of union rules had pushed the costs of running the Garnier to these insane heights. Yet for all this costly glamour, only two percent of the population, according to Lang's services, went to the Opera even once per year. The tickets were too costly, and even at high prices, it was hard to find places. The Opéra de Paris was the antithesis of everything Lang had personally worked for in the theatre -- rich, bourgeois, and exclusive.
Three elements of Lang's decision to support the project -- and in this case, his Ministry's support was utterly decisive, from September 1981 on -- are virtually certain. First, and most idealistically, there was the challenge of inventing a truly popular opera, where there would be enough seats for all, at an affordable price, and a wealth of top-flight spectacles. Lang's theatrical rival and idol, Jean Vilar, had shared that dream, exploring it in a 1968 report composed with conductor-composer Pierre Boulez and the choreographer Maurice Béjart; how satisfying it would be to realize it, and become Vilar's inheritor (as Lang had hoped to be at Chaillot, disastrously). And if this were to be done, as always, Lang would prefer to set up a new structure than to dive into a painful reform of the old one.
Second, and most perplexing, neither Lang normost of his cabinet personally cared deeply about music in general or opera in particular. That was plain from the start to Angrémy, who was shocked at a cabinet meeting on Aug. 31, 1981, when a fellow identified in his notes only as "N" tome him "from the start that he didn't like opera." Agreed Michèle Audon, a friend of Robert Lion who was chosen as builder in February 1982, "At Lang's cabinet as at the coordinating mission, the musical project didn't arouse enthusiasm." The intrinsic interest of the opera had very little to do with the decision to build a palace for it.
Third, and most decisive, was Dupavillon's longing for yet another symbolic coup. If Angrémy and Dittmann imagined that a new opera could revolutionize stage techniques, Dupavillon, who swiftly became the key force behind the project, saw in it the ultimate architectural statement of the Socialist decade -- if, that is, it were constructed at the Bastille. The Bastille, he told me in 1990, was "the last major place in Paris" where construction could be undertaken; and if a new opera could be built there for the Bicententenial, he thought, "That would be very strong symbolically." Indeed, it would mark two Revolutions at once, suggested Gerard Charlet, who was asked by the Rue de Valois to prepare a study of possible sites for the new opera : that of 1789, and that of May 1981. Wrote Charlet: "The Bastille was linked in my mind, as in the minds of the team I worked with, to May 10, 1981." An opera there would symbolically link Mitterrand's election with an earlier triumph over tyranny... and perhaps, perpetuate the joy that Dupavillon and Lang had sown at the site on the evening of the Left's ascension.
It was Dupavillon, recalled Dittmann, who intervened most effectively at the most critical moments for the project -- first of all, to push back the competing claims of La Villette, Marne-la-Vallée, and La Défense, ensuring that the Bastille site was selected, and then keeping the conception and design process moving forward to a point of no return. The battle continued through the autumn, but on January 29,1982, Mitterrand told the centennial congress of the Syndicat professionel des entrepreneurs des trauvaux publics that the construction of an opera" would be undertaken. He was still reluctant. "Several of the projects I approved do not reflect my personal inclination," he told the Nouvel Observateur, long before the Bastille opera became scandalous. "In its initial form, for example, I wouldn't have chosen the project of the Opéra Bastille."
But he had chosen, all the same. He had given satisfaction, and a Grand Project all his own, to his faithful servant Jack Lang.
From victory to victory throughout the fall, Lang had gained a growing sense of his own momentum, and more important, of the public's avid interest in cultural issues. It mattered less that the response to his acts - - especially his attacks on the American cinema -- had not always been positive, than that the media had followed them, and kept following. Lang's ability to sense trends remained powerful, and he was beginning to realize that he was riding one. Yet it still lacked definition; and Lang took the occasion of his address to the Parliament on Nov. 17, before the vote on his budget, to give a name and shape to his policy, one suited to his own new ambitions and confidence.
Watching from the gallery were many of the stars Lang had gathered to the Socialist cause: actors Michel Piccoli, Nicole Garcia, and Laurent Terzieff, film directors Alain Resnais and Costa-Gavras; plus Roger Hanin, an actor who happened to be Mitterrand's brother-in-law; and of course, Monique, Beck, Sallois... and Lang's uncle Luc, who was struck by how masterfully Jack concealed his nervousness, as soon as he stood before the microphones on a dais overlooking the Hemicycle.
He had come to ask not just for money -- that was a mere formality -- but for the moon. "On May 10," he began, "the French crossed the frontier that separates night from the light..."
And how had this happened? "The economic failure of our predecessors was above all a cultural failure," he told the Assembly. "They lost faith in the transforming power of mind and will." The way out was to find, once again, France's creative genius, her eternal, artful youth... which the straight-backed, curly-headed man on the podium, his voice filled with a vigorous confidence, suddenly seemed to personify.
It was a deadly mistake, Lang suggested, to take culture for a gadget, a sideshow to the main business of life. Every act of the Socialist government, Lang declared, was part of a vast cultural project, a transformation of the values that bound society together: "Your abolition of the death penalty is cultural! The reduction of time on the job is cultural! Respect for the Third World is cultural!" And most of all, the government's promise to decentralize power, to give the regions and departments and cities more autonomy, was fundamentally cultural, reflecting "the right of citizens to a cultural presence in theit city." A culture of their ownchoice: in his Ministry, Lang promised, the popular and high arts, the traditional and innovative, would cohabit; never would he impose his choices on the desires of the people. Nonetheless, "On every member of this government weighs an evident artistic responsibility." For if the Socialists turned their backs on creation, if they kept the nation from realizing its dreams, they would become as stunted as the Right, and France would be lost. "A society which does not create, dies," he warned.
The art of government was turning, slowly but unmistakably, into the government of art.