When Laurent Wauquiez uses culture for political and ideological purposes

The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, chaired by Laurent Wauquiez, has brutally cut the subsidies granted to many institutions up to now. A decision that causes astonishment on the ground and that threatens, in particular, access to culture for high school students.

When culture is held hostage in political reckoning, when it becomes an ideological issue, the worst is to be feared and everyone ends up losing: the artists, the public and the places of culture. However, this is what is happening in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region where, under cover of a rebalancing between the metropolises and the “territories that are further away from them”, the president (LR) of the regional council, Laurent Wauquiez, exhausts part of the subsidies that benefited from the emblematic institutions of Lyon and Grenoble, cities led by environmentalist and socialist majorities.

As the days go by, the list keeps growing. La Villa Gillet, organizer of the Littérature Live festival that begins on May 16; the Lyon Opera, the Biennale of Contemporary Art, the Comédie de Saint-Étienne, the Lumière Festival or even the TNP de Villeurbanne (which the “French Capital of Culture 2022” label has protected no more than the others) were the first affected. And it’s not over. Others are on the lookout. In Grenoble: the Maison de la culture (MC2) is doubly penalized with a reduction of 120,000 euros in its operating subsidy and 100,000 in its investment subsidy; the National Choreographic Center loses 30,000 euros; and the Observatory of Cultural Policies, 60,000. In Lyon: the Maison de la Danse (between 80,000 and 180,000), the Tony Garnier Urban Museum (35,000), not to mention several theaters. Those from Croix-Rousse, New Generation, Point du Jour and Les Subsistances are waiting for their fate to be determined.

Everywhere there is stupor. No one expected this type of announcement, especially in May when the entire year’s programming is complete. There was no consultation, nor warning signal given by the representatives of the regional council, present in most of the boards of directors of these establishments. And rightly so, they didn’t know anything either, proving the thesis that everything was decided in the narrow circle of the cabinet of the president of the regional council. So everywhere there is misunderstanding and anger. About the method. The existence of these clippings has often been revealed in the press or around the corner. The Region did not provide any response to multiple requests for explanations. Above all, no one understands this logic of arbitrations so late, whose consequences are clearly the least of the concerns of those who made them.

The Tony Garnier Urban Museum, in Lyon. “The Region has just signed our death warrant. If it doesn’t come back, we will close at the end of June”, says Catherine Chambon, its director.

Photo Sime/Photononstop

Ignorance of how cultural institutions work or cynicism? The result, in any case, is there. “We are an associative structure, the Region has just signed our death sentence. If it doesn’t back down, we close at the end of June.” says Catherine Chambon, director of the Tony Garnier Urban Museum, dedicated to the famous Lyon architect. Fortunately, not all situations are so dire, but these drops hurt. Because assistance levels have not always returned to their pre-pandemic lows and rising energy costs are weighing on the budgets of the largest structures.. Choices will have to be made. The amount of the operating subsidy eliminated “corresponds to the cost of a third of autumn production”, calculated Arnaud Meunier, the director of the Grenoble culture house. At the TNP de Villeurbanne, this affects two shows of the season. Pierre Martinez, the director of the Maison de la Danse, forecasts a deficit at the end of the year. “All the shows on the fall schedule are signed and committed. I can’t undo anything anymore. » At the end of the chain, the artists will toast.

election count

The silence of the Region fuels all concerns. He sticks to his initial rationale for “dedicate a greater part of the culture budget to promoting initiatives and projects with inhabitants far from the large cultural institutions, such as festivals organized by small associations made up of volunteers or by artistic and cultural education conventions that allow working closer to the inhabitants of the landlocked territories”. This is to misunderstand the action of the Villa Gillet, the Opera or the Biennale, directed precisely at these audiences. Especially since this reorientation leaves many unanswered questions, to which the Region responds only with generalities. Nothing about the choices made to reduce or eliminate these subsidies between the different places of culture. Nothing about the sustainability or not of these cuts. Nothing, above all, about these cultural projects to which the money saved should be used.

An attitude that questions the underlying reasons for these elections and provokes the anger of the opposition. “We very much doubt that the cultural policy of the Region is really carried out with transparent rebalancing criteria, the decisions to grant subsidies seem rather a permanent matter of arbitrariness, even clientelism”, denounce environmentalists and elected leftists in a virulent open letter made public on May 11. “His decisions are only understandable in light of his resentment towards environmentalists and leftist politicians in Lyon and Grenoble. » This feeling of reckoning between two political camps that everything opposes is widely shared. “There is a geography of these budget cuts that is very consistent with that of Laurent Wauquiez’s political adversity,” euphemizes the leader of a cultural institution. Many also underline the desire of the President of the Region to get out of the cross-financing of cultural venues to favor only a few, such as the Musée des Fabrics de Lyon. And gain personal prestige from it alone.

Culture reduced to heritage and memory

The political dimension of this budget reorientation is also on everyone’s mind. The moment chosen to announce it the day after the presidential election, and just before the legislative elections, is not trivial. If cultural policies have no impact on the electoral plan, they can serve to send signals to their voters. Laurent Wauquiez presses on the most divisive levers: the city against the countryside, the small operators against the big ones, an “elitist” culture against a “popular” culture. His political message, whose vocation goes far beyond the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, reinforces the former president of LR in his position as a national leader of the extreme right. This positioning goes hand in hand with an increasingly assertive ideological posture, including in the way in which the regional council exercises its competence in the field of education. As such, it helps fund projects proposed by secondary schools within themes that it defines itself.

Laurent Wauquiez at the inauguration of the Docteur-Charles-Mérieux secondary school in Lyon, on August 30, 2020.

Laurent Wauquiez at the inauguration of the Docteur-Charles-Mérieux secondary school in Lyon, on August 30, 2020.

Photo Nicholas Liponne / Hans Lucas

For the 2021-2022 school year, there were six of them. For the next one, they have been reduced to four and their names have been changed. The theme “Culture and heritage” becomes “Proud of their regional identity, Memory and heritage”. The one dedicated to “International Mobility” that allowed financing trips abroad has disappeared. “I have the impression of being confined to the region and the lexical field scares me a bit”, confesses a teacher, a cultural reference in an institute. With good reason, the chosen vocabulary recalls the presidential program of the National Rally, which had reduced culture to its sole dimension of heritage and memory. “We are witnessing a supposed repositioning of the cultural policy led by the Region, which is refocusing its organization of events and the will to revisit heritage histories by anchoring them in a regional identity”, analyzes a local cultural actor.

The Pass’ Région for high school students subject to a letter

To preach its good word, the regional council did not stop there. He recently announced the implementation at the beginning of the next school year of a “Letter of Rights and Duties” that high school students must sign and undertake to respect in order to acquire or update the Pass’ Région that entitles them to a series of advantages in the field cultural: cinema tickets at 1 euro, reserve money for the purchase of concert tickets, shows or books, free access to museums… The Region even assumes the possibility of suspending the benefits “in case of lack of civility and malicious acts within the establishments”. “In relation to those responsible for the establishments, we are preparing the way in which this withdrawal from the Pass will be carried out” Region, which has not yet taken place, may become enforceable”, confirms the press service of the presidency, stating that the Region “will never replace the authority of the principals.” It is not important. It is difficult to see the latter applying this measure without flinching. Access to culture is a fundamental freedom that has nothing to do with the conduct of individuals in a society governed by law. Everything in its ideological struggle, the regional council seems to have forgotten.

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