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Yes to consumers, no to spectators: the cultural exception backwards

Yes to consumers, no to spectators: the cultural exception backwards

Tribune by François Aymé – 14 December 2020

There will be no cinema release at Christmas this year. People will be able to circulate freely until 8pm, but theatres, museums and circuses will remain closed. Despite the health arguments put forward by the public authorities, this decision is causing sadness, indignation, revolt and above all incomprehension in the cultural world and beyond. When vast shopping centres or department stores with long queues are open, when trains, planes or subways operate at up to 100% capacity, when supermarkets apply sanitary measures without strict control of flows or the hydroalcoholic gel intake of their millions of customers, then it is the feeling of a discriminatory measure against cultural places that springs to mind. This is the cultural exception backwards. How did it come to this? Let’s go back to the beginning.

Winter 2020. On Thursday, March 12, Emmanuel Macron announces the lockdown. Only essential, indispensable places such as supermarkets and cinemas and theatres with reduced gauges can remain open. Places of culture as a sociability outlet? 48 hours later, on Saturday 14 March, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe rectifies: cinemas and theatres have to close down immediately. Haste and last-minute arrangements in a context of general panic. This is understandable.

Spring 2020. The scientific council has made progress in its knowledge of the pandemic. On 11 May, Emmanuel Macron announces the different stages of deconfinement. First the reopening of cafés and restaurants and then, a month later, cinemas and theatres. Cultural venues are likely to gather more people; according to the government’s health doctrine, they would therefore be more dangerous than cafés and restaurants where people are face to face and talk to each other for long periods of time. Here it is legitimate to think that in the balance of political decision-making, the economic weight of the sector has weighed heavily. The cinemas will open on 22 June with a limited gauge, the well-known sanitary measures and, from September onwards, the obligation to wear masks everywhere in the premises.

Autumn 2020. November 24th. The second deconfinement is detailed in three stages. First the shops, then the cultural venues and, finally, the cafés and restaurants. Thus, despite the high level of contamination, people in intensive care, and the daily death toll, “non-essential” shops (including bookshops) reopen. From Black Friday (specially postponed for a week) until Christmas, the traditional rush to shops can take place. It does not matter that these reopenings generate considerable flows of movement, with the limitation of the number of people per square metre, the health reason is saved. Above all, one has the feeling that the balance between this sanitary reason and the economic reason has then tilted in Bercy’s favour. Bruno Le Maire won his arbitration: above all, not to aggravate the health disaster with an economic disaster.

At the other end of the deconfinement process: cafés and restaurants. Reversal compared to the spring: from now on, they are considered more dangerous than cinemas and theatres where the public wears the mask all the time. No joke for these establishments. The risk is too great. In spite of the jobs at stake and the economic weight of the sector, the sanitary sector prevails without any debate.
But then what about cultural establishments, what do we do? What is the criterion that will take precedence? The economic criterion? What a joke! Cinemas and theatres are a drop in the bucket in terms of GDP. The health criterion? Cinemas and theatres have strict protocols in place. But at his press conference on Thursday 10 December, Prime Minister Jean Castex dismissed the argument quickly. Of course the protocols are strict, but that is not enough: reopening cultural venues would generate additional flows that could start the pandemic again. It is on this precise point that there is a profound questioning. What flows are we talking about? Internal flows within buildings? Everyone knows that the public remains seated for the entire duration of a screening session and that, unlike shopping malls, supermarkets or department stores, they do not wander around and, by the way, do not talk. Establishments “receiving the public” systematically have emergency exits. Unlike in many shops, the people going out do not pass the people coming in. Was Jean Castex then referring to the flow of movement generated by cultural outings? Everyone knows that these flows are infinitely less important than those generated by shops. So where is the problem?

The problem is quite simply political. Contrary to other places, President Emmanuel Macron has conditioned the reopening of cultural venues to a precise health situation objective: less than 5,000 contaminations per day and between 2,500 and 3,000 people in intensive care. This objective was justified by Jean Castex as allowing efficient management of the tracing of contact cases from the clusters. But why precisely link this question to cultural establishments: to date, scientists have never designated them as places conducive to the development of clusters. It would therefore be the large number of people brought together that poses a problem. In this case, why did the government and the Ministry of Culture not, at any time before the announcement of the continued closure, discuss with the professional organisations the question of a new seating capacity?

There is indeed “something wrong” in this decision, a mixture of arbitrariness, inconsistency and contempt which, despite the seriousness of the pandemic, gives rise to a strong sense of injustice. To put it bluntly, on 10 December the authorities sacrificed cinemas, theatres and museums. President Emmanuel Macron (through his Prime Minister) had a political signal to send. Let’s save the shops, let’s save at least Christmas, but let’s sacrifice the cultural outing, this is not the time of gimmicks. Why take the slightest health risk for this sector, which is already heavily subsidized financially? Besides, with the plethoric offer that the French have at home on the multitude of screens, where is the problem?

The problem is that, from a strictly political point of view and with a comparable health situation, the establishments receiving consumers have been preferred to those receiving an audience. This is called a societal choice. Defending small business against Amazon, yes. Limiting the transfer of cinema films to platforms, to be discussed later. However, sacrificing collective cultural activities in favour of individual consumption at home is a very dangerous relinquishment in the long run. On the evening of Thursday 10 December, literally and figuratively, Culture was not allowed to have a say. This very same culture was absent from the watershed supposed to maintain a balance between health and economic considerations. The French cultural network, an incredible network of liveliness and creation, essential social cohesion and individual fulfilment, is about to fall into the abyss. Another winter is coming up. In order to prevent permanent damage, public authorities have to resume urgently resume contact with the film industry and the creative sector. During these long months, the latter have shown their sense of responsibility in the face of the pandemic. Between consultation and consideration, and with all the necessary vigilance, it is essential to prepare the reopening of the cultural venues which are partly the spice of life.

François Aymé
President of AFCAE

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