Parisians, who are legendarily allergic to queuing, waited patiently into the early hours over the weekend to see the final, all-night sessions of a triumphantly successful exhibition of Picasso paintings.
Despite sub-zero temperatures, crowds besieged the Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysées, until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights – part of a recessionary boom in demand for cultural activities which is puzzling, and delighting, the French arts industry.
There has been a similar surge in ticket sales for musical events, ranging from a high-brow Bach festival in Nantes to a low-brow, all-singing and dancing pop musical based on the life of Cleopatra.
Sociologists explain the cultural boom as partly a search for distraction from the miseries of the headlines, and partly a tribute to the fact that art exhibitions and concerts are cheaper than eating out.
The French political guru and writer Jacques Attali offered a more existential explanation. "Periods of crisis encourage people to consider the meaning of life," he told the Journal du Dimanche. "We are torn, at present, between despair, anguish and rebellion but we also yearn for the beauty which comes only from works of art."
By the time it closes at 8pm tonight, over 750,000 people will have seen Picasso et les Maîtres at the Grand Palais. The show, which opened four months ago, is the first to exhibit a large number of Picasso paintings alongside canvasses by painters who influenced him, from Velasquez and Poussin to the Impressionists.
The show has become one of the most fashionable events, not just in Paris, but in the world. Visitors who managed to book tickets in the final weeks have included Nicole Kidman, Woody Allen and – on the same day – Mick Jagger and Jacques Chirac.
To satisfy those who failed to buy the limited number of reserved places, the French national museum service extended the show and opened the Grand Palais all night for the last three nights. Queues were expected to form once again for last night's final all-night session. "We didn't want to miss out," said Eric Bonsergent, who queued into the early hours of Sunday. "They say people don't go to museums, but for a wonderful exhibition like this there is huge demand. It was a brilliant idea to open all night."
Others admitted that they were there against their will. "We booked for 2.30am, thinking that they meant 2.30pm," Gerard Sainton, a 59-year-old computer expert, said ruefully.
The runaway triumph of the Picasso exhibition has been mirrored by the success of other cultural events in France in recent months. A new Cleopatra musical, which began last Thursday, is already a sellout and has been extended for two weeks. An exhibition on the life of the pop musician Serge Gainsbourg, due to end last month, has also been prolonged until 15 March.
The Folle Journée de Nantes, a music festival which has run for the past 15 years and is devoted to Bach this year, has sold 96 per cent of its tickets.