BY Tom Jeffreys in Profiles | 12 JUL 17

France’s New Culture Minister

Who is Françoise Nyssen?

BY Tom Jeffreys in Profiles | 12 JUL 17

The May election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France was celebrated as a new way of doing politics. His subsequent appointment of respected former publisher Françoise Nyssen as Culture Minister has been welcomed by professionals from across the arts. One of Nyssen’s first tasks has been to deal with Emmanuel Starcky, director of the Palais de Compiègne in northern France, accused of living like a king in the chateau he was supposed to manage on behalf of the public. Nyssen’s solution has been to transfer Starcky to the Musée des plans-reliefs, a museum of architectural models in Paris. From leading a team of 130 to one of just 12, it’s quite a demotion. But French culture has more deep-rooted problems than Starcky. Will Nyssen be able to deal with these so neatly?

Since the charismatic Jack Lang led the Ministry of Culture for most of the 1980s and early ’90s, few have held the role for more than two years. Under the previous president, François Hollande, France went through no less than three Culture Ministers. Despite changes in government from centre-right to centre-left, cultural policy in France has remained static. It is exactly the kind of political impasse that Macron – who strode to victory after launching his own political movement, En Marche – has pledged to end.

Françoise Nyssen. Photograph: Olivier Monge

Hence the appointment of Nyssen, one of several of Macron’s much-heralded appointments from outside politics or the civil service. Nyssen is the daughter of Hubert Nyssen, who founded French publishing house Actes Sud in 1978, and she has been president of the company since 1987. She is therefore a figure of significant credibility. Actes Sud has produced beautiful books for French institutions such as Mucem in Marseilles and Galerie Azzedine Alaïa in Paris, as well as artists Sophie Calle and photographer Charles Fréger. The company is based in Arles in the south of France, where Nyssen recently returned for the opening of La Rencontres d’Arles, a major photography festival that takes place in the town every year. Actes Sud also produces the catalogue for the festival.

Like Macron, Nyssen is someone who has carved their own path. She and her husband Jean-Paul Capitani established the Association du Méjan, which runs exhibitions and events in the Saint-Martin du Méjan chapel in Arles. In addition, following the tragic death of their son in 2012, in 2014 the pair founded a school, Domaine du Possible, housed in a farm outside the city. Since Nyssen’s appointment, however, the school has come under attack: left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who, like Macron also launched his own party in advance of the 2017 election) has criticized its links with Steiner-Waldorf, an alternative form of education whose origins stem from a belief in reincarnation.

Aside from such politicking, Nyssen has a potentially difficult brief. French publishing sales may have risen by 4.25 percent in 2016 and the Louvre still remains the most-visited museum in the world. Funding for France’s major institutions has remained relatively stable in recent years – at least compared to the more severe cuts experienced by their Anglo-American counterparts. France still spends 0.8 percent of GDP on culture, compared with 0.3 percent in Britain. However, following a number of terrorist attacks, Paris’s overall museum visitor figures have been falling. Many have high hopes for Macron, but aside from a ‘Pass Culture’ consisting of 500 euros for every 18 year-old to spend on books, access to museums etc. – his manifesto is notably light on cultural policy.

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Furthermore, while there is a widespread acknowledgement that changes must be made to ensure the global repute of France’s cultural output, there is no consensus on what those changes ought to be. Several curators I’ve spoken to have expressed concern over a growing gap between Paris and the provinces. Others see it differently. Gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac, for example, who has two spaces in Paris, cites shrinking budgets for contemporary art museums: ‘This lack of a strong political support threatens particularly Parisian museums, [as] they have to defend their leading role by continuing to set the level of excellence challenged by New York and London.’

Arguably more pressing, however, are the difficulties faced by living artists. Although France’s most prestigious arts schools remain free, there is comparatively little support for artists, especially those who don’t have gallery representation. Many work second, even third jobs, as gallery technicians, installation photographers or assistants to more commercially successful artists. Some simply leave – for London or Berlin. In 2009 the ‘auto-entrepreneur’ tax scheme was conceived to help freelance workers such as artists, but the scheme does not include the kind of benefits enjoyed by more traditional employees. Macron has pledged to reform the economy and this summer he will take on the unions over labour reforms. Could this lead to increased support for those in such precarious employment? With Macron an avowed advocate of the ‘gig economy’, the 5,500 who graduate each year with arts degrees should not expect life to get much easier any time soon.

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).