Last week, the appointment of the fifth French Minister of Culture in six years, Franck Riester, perplexed the art world. President Emmanuel Macron had just fired the unpopular Francoise Nyssen, who was accused of lacking political acumen and of conflicts of interest, from the position. After Riester’s nomination on Tuesday, October 16th, insiders began to wonder who exactly the politician was and how he had landed this position; it soon became clear that the appointment was informed more by political, commercial, and bureaucratic motives than by France’s genuine cultural ideals.
Contrarily to Nyssen, formerly an executive at the prestigious Actes Sud publishing house, Riester is a champion of popular culture, television, the internet, and sports. Relatively unknown by culture professionals, his longstanding political career had aimed towards the Ministry of Culture for years; he had been nominated repeatedly. After his victory, the rightwing and openly gay politician abstained from making a defining statement on his mandate, instead sharing general thoughts about culture, violence against journalists, coming out, and LGBTQ rights. He is a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage and adoption, both heated issues in France.
Critics argued that the nomination showed once again that president Emmanuel Macron was keen on keeping the spotlight on his own persona by surrounding himself with weaker ministers (his first gesture was to deny Riester the team he suggested and to bring in his own candidates for the culture ministry). As his popularity decreases, and in the face of major debates around budgets, immigration, borders, and the 2019 European Union elections, the president seems determined to maintain a stronghold on his office’s mandate by making the key announcements and decisions on budgets and teams.
“There is nothing good to come with this nomination,” a French diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, explained to Hyperallergic. “Riester is a politician from the provincial right, but because he’s gay they are pushing for his likeable, modern side. He’s an old Nicolas Sarkozy [former French president] supporter and has now shifted to support Macron as an opportunistic strategy. His conception of culture is rooted in entertainment and mass culture, the opposite of Françoise Nyssen’s. In brief, there won’t be much change to come.”
Born in 1974, Riester studied commerce, became involved in politics at age 21 and was elected in 2007 as the rightwing party Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP)’s deputy in the Sèvres-Marne region of France. One year later, he became the mayor of the town of Coulommiers, a position he held until 2017. He has also since presided over his family’s automobile business, which sells Peugeot, Hyundai, and Citroën cars in his region for an annual profit of €65 million in 2016. Mostly active in the broadcast and film industries, he has notably focused on the promotion and implementation of anti-pirating laws. In 2011, former Minister of Culture and Communication Frédéric Mitterrand commissioned him to issue a report on musical creation in the digital era.
Upon his appointment, Riester shared his “eclectic” cultural preferences with French radio station, Inter. His tastes range from Coldplay (his favorite band), to Baroque music and abstract French painting. As for his priority actions, they mainly involve implementing existing policies, such as a major reform of the broadcast industry. His first step when joining the cabinet was to contact the president of every public broadcast channel in the industry. His office has not responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for an interview.
Riester is inheriting a heavy load of controversies, particularly in regards to social and racial inequalities. One project initially conceived to tackle this issue was the Culture Pass project, which launched as a pilot in September and was presented as a possible French contribution to the European Union. According to the Culture Ministry, in the upcoming months, over 10,000 French users will have access to the app described by The Guardian as, “Like Tinder but for the arts,” which grants a €500 (~$570) gift card to be used on cultural activities. The project, launched by Macron to invigorate the youth’s engagement with the arts, will cost €430 million (~$490M) per year, mostly funded by corporations such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple.
The project’s main criticism among art-world insiders is its potential lack of success among underprivileged communities, hotbeds for frustration and segregation within French society.
However, addressing these deeper concerns doesn’t seem to be on the French agenda quite yet. Last Friday during the FIAC fair, Macron convened “everyone who matters” (according to him), to a glitzy gathering at the Élysée Palace, which is in the midst of a major redesign and awaits fresh additions from the Picasso Museum and the Centre Pompidou. It was the first time since 1985 that a French president had hosted such an event.
“I will always be on the side of the creators,” he said in a short speech to an audience of dealers, critics, artists, and curators, including dealers Kamel Menour and Daniel Templon, FIAC director Jennifer Flay, and artist Xavier Veilhan. “I need creatives, rebels, and inspiring people.”
He also emphasized the importance of fighting extremism through culture and creativity, noting the “political struggle we have today, fighting against obscurantism [extremism], and the marginalization of creation and culture.” Reminding the audience of France’s historical mission civilisatrice, he insisted that “we have to bring to the country, and to the continent, a project [based on] civilization and culture, putting creation at the heart of what we are.”
Myriam Ben Salah, an independent curator and the editor of Kaleidoscope Magazine, is skeptical about the state of things. “Institutions remain, internally, quite chauvinistic,” she told Hyperallergic in an email interview. “I’m a young female North African curator, and although I’m based in Paris, all my main projects are happening outside of France. I worked for a cultural institution for seven years but felt that I had reached a glass ceiling and that recognition wouldn’t come from my country of adoption. France simply has no foreigners in high positions within art institutions. The system is still quite bureaucratic, a bit elitist and very centered on what we call the ‘entre soi’ [‘among themselves’].”
Ben Salah points out the continued lack of meaningful engagement with France’s post-colonial heritage. “I found it quite ironic that Macron claimed the need for culture and creativity to help fight extremism,” she explained. “Extremism in France is deeply rooted in its post-colonial history, with a fringe of the population being marginalized thus more inclined to joining ‘dark forces’. Maybe a first step would be for these populations to be reflected in French institutions and not mostly governed by elitist white, middle-aged men?”
As for one of Macron’s cultural proposals — to improve access to visas for artists — it could solve a pressing crisis in a world of problematic borders. “Revising the Visa system for artists is crucial,” explains Ben Salah. “I can tell you from firsthand experience that opportunities are determined by the color of your passport. The utopia of a borderless cultural world is only real until you face a refusal from an embassy because you are part of a ‘risky population.’” Time only will tell if Macron’s promises will translate into concrete actions, or the cabinet redesign will bear more of the same.