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Year in Review

Closures, cancellations and chaos: French culture crippled by Covid in 2020

Rendez-vous culture
Rendez-vous culture © Studio Graphique FMM
Text by: Arnab Béranger
9 min

This year saw a rise in the popularity of online entertainment in France, as two successive lockdowns forced theatres, cinemas and most cultural venues to shut their doors. A look back at some of the cultural highlights in France during the year of the Covid epidemic.

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In pictures: the cultural highlights of 2020 in France

For the culture industry in France, 2020 started with all the hallmarks of a promising year.

In January, the Louvre museum in Paris broke its all-time attendance records as it closed the highly popular Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition.

Still from Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass. A part of the Leonardo da Vinci retrospective at the Louvre museum in Paris that closed in January 2020, breaking the Louvre's all-time attendance record.
Still from Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass. A part of the Leonardo da Vinci retrospective at the Louvre museum in Paris that closed in January 2020, breaking the Louvre's all-time attendance record. Courtesy Emissive and HTC Vive Arts

French theatre went beyond its traditional classicism with surprisingly innovative productions such as The Fly, major winner at the Molières, the French theatre awards, later in the year.

France's #MeToo

In the French cinema world, revolution was in the air.

In a transatlantic version of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, women's rights groups in France exposed sexual harassment within the closed circuit of the French cinema industry.

Actresses such as Adèle Haenel spoke out against sexual abuse in the industry, leading to a French #MeToo movement in arts circles.

Adele Haenel lodged a formal complaint against French director Christophe Ruggia in November. Haenel accused Ruggia of sexual misconduct when she was a minor.
Adele Haenel lodged a formal complaint against French director Christophe Ruggia in November. Haenel accused Ruggia of sexual misconduct when she was a minor. AFP/File

A key moment of the movement came when Roman Polanski was nominated for the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars.

Following nationwide protests by women’s rights groups, the entire César Academy resigned.

Polanski, who did not attend the ceremony, was awarded the Best Director prize for his film on the Dreyfus affair, leading Adèle Haenel and other actors to stage a walkout.

Les Misérables, nominated for the Academy Awards last year, won the César for best Film.

Les Misérables by Ladj Ly, wins Best Film at French Césars.

Culture under lockdown

And then in March came Covid-19, forcing cinemas, theatres, museums and all cultural venues to shut their doors.

Thierry Frémeaux, the Cannes Film Festival’s artistic director, said in an interview that this was a first in the history of cinema.

“This has not happened since 125 years… Even the two World Wars did not succeed in shutting down cinema halls. The coronavirus did.”  Thiérry Frémaux on France Inter.

Needless to say, the impact on the culture industry’s workforce was significant.

In France, casual workers in the arts and entertainment sectors need to clock-up a minimum of 507 hours in 12 months to obtain the right to unemployment benefits the following year.

With all major events cancelled, the economic model for France's culture industry seemed on the verge of collapse.

The government deployed some €22 million in emergency aid for the culture sector, but leading French figures criticised Culture Minister Franck Riester for not doing enough.

The rise of online entertainment

Bereft of audiences and with all major festivals cancelled, France's cultural sector had no alternative other than re-invent itself on the web.

Artists started performing to live audiences online.

France's National Orchestra plays Ravel's Bolero from home

France's most important international film sales event, on the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival, held an online edition of their film market in the absence of the regular celebration of cinema. 

Even photographers snooped around for their unique Covid cliché to post on the Internet. 

Summer renewal

Venues cautiously started opening up in June.

But the experience was hardly the same for most spectators.

Travel restrictions, social distancing, online reservations and compulsory wearing of masks inside theatres often took away the pleasure associated with such an outing.

Cinemas reopened in France in the summer of 2020 with sanitary restrictions and social distancing
Cinemas reopened in France in the summer of 2020 with sanitary restrictions and social distancing AFP - THOMAS COEX

A government reshuffle in July saw Roselyne Bachelot - former minister under presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy - appointed as Culture Minister. 

Cultural icons who passed away in France in 2020

France bid farewell to actor Michel Piccoli, showgirl Zizi Jeanmaire and co-creator of the famous Asterix comic book series Albert Uderzo

British academic Christopher Tolkien, son and posthumous editor of Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R Tolkien, also died at 95 in France, where he had been living since the 1970's. 

Culture sector protests at second lockdown

Just as France's culture sector was starting to raise its head above the waves, France declared a second lockdown at the end of October.

The lockdown was eased to a night-time curfew in December, and 'essential' shops were allowed to re-open.

But theatres, cinema halls, museums and all other cultural venues were to remain shut till January. 

On France 24: Culture left out in the cold as French lockdown lifts progressively

Culture - essential or not to French society?

The year thus ended with widespread indignation within the cultural sector against the French government's decision.

"Once again the government has shown its deep misunderstanding, even disdain, for the cultural and artistic sectors. Theatres and cinemas don't open and close like shops."  French actress and director Maïwenn 

Many in the cultural sector have wondered why religious gatherings and schools — judged as essential services— were allowed to remain open while theatres, museums, concert halls and bars were closed indefinitely.

Independent bookshops became the symbol of the culture sector's resistance to the lockdown. Initially  decreed shut, bookshops were allowed to open with sanitary measures (Picture: the co-owner of bookshop De Beaux Lendemains sorts through orders that have arrived as part of the click and collect system.)
Independent bookshops became the symbol of the culture sector's resistance to the lockdown. Initially decreed shut, bookshops were allowed to open with sanitary measures (Picture: the co-owner of bookshop De Beaux Lendemains sorts through orders that have arrived as part of the click and collect system.) © RFI/Mike Woods

The matter was taken to the highest court in France, which upheld the government's decision. 

As the French celebrate Christmas under tough health restrictions, the culture industry will be hoping to restart their activities on 7 January at the earliest, if Covid-19 and the government so decide.

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