John Lichfield: The death of French culture? I don't think so

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The Independent Online

Where have all the Sartres and Piafs gone? Who is the new Czanne? Even Marcel Marceau is dead. Even Johnny Hallyday, 64, has announced his retirement from wearing tight, shiny trousers on stage (from 2009).

Time magazine has caused indignation in France by posting an obituary, on the front page of its European edition, announcing the "Death of French Culture". Despite the vast quantities of public money spent on arts subsidies and despite a ferocious diplomatic campaign to protect France's "cultural exception", Time proclaims that "the land of Proust, Monet, Piaf and Truffaut" has "lost its status as a cultural superpower".

This is one of the old, cyclical, favourites of foreign journalists, like the prevalence of dog-shit on the streets of Paris and the decline of French love-making. I wrote something similar on the collapse of French creativity when I first went to Paris 11 years ago. I was wrong, but not wholly wrong, then. Time is wrong, but not wholly wrong, now.

If there is any news to report, it is the revival of French artistic creativity in many areas, ranging from architecture and pop to classical music and film.

Johnny Hallyday is no longer, as Time believes, the only French pop practitioner foreign kids have ever heard of. In truth, Johnny was always something of a joke outside the Francophone world. Not so Daft Punk, Stardust, Etienne de Crecy or Mojo, leaders of the French House movement who are all internationally respected. French architects are winning acclaim from Beijing to Hollywood. Jean Nouvel is to build a new glass tower in Manhattan. Hollywood's future cinema museum has been designed by Christian de Portzamparc.

French film, so often mocked, is actually going through a period of relative international acclaim, from Amelie to March of the Penguins to the Edith Piaf bio-pic, La Vie en Rose. French writing may still be in the relative doldrums but the satirical novelist Michel Houellebecq (Atomised, Platform) is the first French author in years to create any kind of following abroad. The Paris art scene still lags far behind London, and above all New York, but Adel Abdessemed, Algerian-born and Paris-based, is a rising star.

Partly, the Time article makes a cyclical argument. France used to export Frenchness through such cultural superstars as Monet or Sartre or Piaf, it says. Despite all France's efforts to protect or subsidise its cultural heritage and industries, the French voice is now barely heard. International culture is dominated by the Anglo-Saxon world and by the English language.

This is rather like a spokesman for Tesco complaining that family grocery shops are no longer what they were. As Didier Jacob observed in Le Nouvel Observateur, much of the article was rooted in a cartoon transatlantic definition of French culture, old and new. "If it could be reduced to an algebraic formula, it would be: De Gaulle plus Sartre plus baguette plus Sophie Marceau's breasts = the culture of France."

In truth, French political subsidies are not meant to make France into a cultural superpower. They are, first and foremost, meant to prevent French culture from being swamped by American culture within France.

You can argue backwards and forwards whether the subsidies are well used. The fact remains that France unlike Italy, or Germany, or Britain still has a cinema industry which is capable of making French thrillers, French comic films or French romances. They may be good or bad or indifferent but they are, at least, French. The British movie industry, by comparison, is largely a branch office of Hollywood.

All the same, Time is not wholly wrong. There are great gaps in the contemporary creativity of a country which once led the way in persuading the world to look at itself in new ways. French television is a creative wasteland. French fiction writing is still mostly stuck in over-intellectualised, self-absorbed abstraction rather than story-telling. For many years, creative France seemed to be in a sulk with the modern world. If the Americans were going to dominate, French artists seemed to say, we are going to look inwards or backwards.

That self-imposed spell is breaking. There is a new generation of French film directors who are prepared to take the best from Hollywood and make films which could only be French. In music and art, there is a new generation which is pushing out the global boundaries in a distinctively French way.

We are still waiting, it is true, for a contemporary Flaubert or Proust. But how many Tolstoys do the Russians have? How many Melvilles are in the US? A great, contemporary French writer is, however, long overdue. Here's betting that when he or she turns up, his or her first name will be something like Ahmed or Rachida.