Asked to defend France’s reputation on the global stage, a French diplomat once told the International Herald Tribune, ‘If Germany has Siemens, we have Voltaire.’ In this vision lies something very obviously French: a single-minded belief in superiority grounded not in the future but in the glorious intellectual past. Schooled in the tradition of exception culturelle or cultural superiority, the French truly believe that their cultural capital is the finest in the world. Think Diderot, Condorcet, Sartre and Camus and you can see why.
It is in this context that we should understand actress Corinne Masiero’s ineffably Gallic striptease at the Césars. Casting off a donkey outfit and a blood-stained dress – what else – to reveal the message ‘no culture no future’ scrawled across her bosom and ‘give us art back Jean’ across her behind, Masiero made no bones about who she had in her sights, namely the Prime Minister Jean Castex (she also cleverly elided ‘l’art Jean’ with the French word for money ‘l’argent’ making us think about false homonyms; oh to be French). Add to this the recent occupy protests staged at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris by artists in the spirit of May ’68 and you can feel the anger France’s culture sector radiates towards Macron’s government over the pandemic. To allow shops and offices to stay open but to keep the arts shut up is, they argue, nothing short of an assassination of the French soul.
But why is the French soul so interwoven with its culture? Soul might be a good place to start. As card-carrying secularists, French intellectuals engage in ardent anticlericalism upheld in such publications as Charlie Hebdo and parsed through acrimonious debates about the place of Islam and Judaism in its national fabric.