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Marseille-Provence 2013, cultural capital, but for what kind of Europe and (...)

Marseille-Provence 2013, cultural capital, but for what kind of Europe and under which globalisation ?

Ferdinand Richard
In : "The Cultures and Globalization Series, Cities, Cultural Policy and Governance", edited by Helmut Anheiner and Yudhishthir Raj Isar, Sage Publications, 2012

This account of cultural process in Marseille focuses on the challenges, opportunities and tensions within the preparations that are being made by the city-region ‘Marseille-Provence’ to become a ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2013 (together with Košice in Slovakia).
This collection of Mediterranean municipalities has rich cultural assets and an enviable geo-cultural position. In the context of globalization, however, notably migratory flows and worldwide trans-cultural connections, the author discusses how these preparations present a range of challenges, tensions and perhaps some missed opportunities.

Introduction : the potential

Strategically placed at the centre of the Eastern Mediterranean, but facing strong competition, Marseille seeks to capitalise on and harness its creative talents.
To begin with, Marseille can boast of a considerable number of such talents, based on the wide variety of artistic groups found there, together with a solid infrastructure of artistic provision, even if the latter is neither as rich nor as well-endowed as those of other major French regional cities such as Lyon or Bordeaux. Over decades of regular relations with other centres of the arts in the southern Mediterranean, particularly in the Arab countries, Marseille has also greatly increased its cultural exchanges of individual artists, teams or groups.

Built up by many different ethnic communities over 26 centuries of history (an exceptionally long life-span for a city, even in Europe), the heritage of Marseille, both tangible or intangible, is a fountain of life where, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, a myriad of artists quench their thirst, whether they are established or nascent, either originating from the various sections of the city’s population or hailing from other shores and attracted by this extraordinary location. Even if their motives are sometimes little more than fantasy, their ‘artistic assimilation’ is often both rapid and definitive. It is often said that the artistic career of an artist from Marseille who has ‘gone up to the capital’ (i.e. Paris) continues to show characteristic and indelible signs that a discerning eye could rapidly detect. It goes without saying that this has nothing to do with either the artist’s accent or their physical appearance. It should however be noted that, after the 1990s, ‘the golden age of the Marseille movida’, there followed a slowdown or maybe even a moderate decline in the arrival of European and non-European artists. Incidentally, in this context, one might easily imagine Marseille-Provence 2013 playing the role of a flow regulator.

Conventionally, Marseille’s industrial image is seen only as a negative aspect and this obscures its more attractive features. Its tag graffiti and its strong smells could be seen as the flip-side of that other, summery Provence : full of festivals, bathed in the scent of rosemary and the blue of the lavender fields. Two opposite worlds indeed… The city therefore seeks to overcome this difficult starting point and, in this sense, becoming European Capital of Culture in 2013 is a blessing that none of the city’s leaders can afford to disregard. However, taking advantage of the blessing will depend on the city’s ability to harness its creative talents and this goal will not be attainable through local measures alone. Indeed, the more the mechanisms of globalisation gain ground, the more a gap emerges between two ideologies or cultures across the European continent.

The first option, which might seem obvious, relates to a rationalisation or a uniformity of ‘cultural consumption’ and logically implies a concentration of power among an ever-decreasing number of global monopolies, giants of the ‘entertainment industry’, who industrialise artistic production in ‘top-down’ flows. Here – where we might also question the contradiction in terms between ‘creative’ (a singular and experimental act which cannot be considered ‘industrial’) and ‘industry’ (essentially, the act of duplication which, by definition, is not ‘creative’) – the concept of ‘creative industries’ is deliberately interpreted in a particular way which is in principle divergent from ‘cultural diversity’ (cf. Anheier & Isar, 2010). Works are mass (re-)produced, are highly entertaining, with a short life-span and low production costs, making them accessible to the resources of the private mass market. The target is the world market. The source is concentrated in a few cultural ‘Golden Triangles’ of an all-consuming attractiveness.

The second option proposes globalisation in the form of instantly multi-lateral, multi-level, multi-cultural production networks (therefore ‘bottom-up’), within which power is shared, equally or not, between different geographical extremes and varying weights. There is a kind of expanding profusion of initiatives that leaves more room to the commercial balance of power than to global industrial planning. This balance of power is never definitive : everything about it is negotiable. Working within it, priority can be given to works of a more singular, lasting nature, which have a low turnover and a strong power of influence, clearly identified by their ‘territory’ of origin, possibly costly and unlikely to exist without public funding. Driven by specific population centres, they ‘communicate’ a shared, proclaimed identity. Targets appear through a fluctuating network of local markets, which are more or less interconnected. Every individual is a potential source of cultural production.

As usual, the ever-changing reality lies somewhere between these two extremes. However, the two options influence cultural decision-making in radically different ways. For the simple fact of raising any city or any group of towns or cities to the rank of ‘European Capital of Culture’ obliges it to place itself, consciously or unconsciously, in line with one of them.

Marseille-Provence 2013

Marseille-Provence, one of two cultural ‘capitals’ for 2013, will obviously not escape this rule, although, in this respect, the city has not as yet expressly chosen either option in an undisputably clear fashion. Yet its candidacy is unique, which may in some respects represent a pause for thought in Europe’s ‘cultural journey’ at the dawn of the European Commission’s new 2014- 2020 planning period. Unique indeed, because of a novel combination of diverse factors : the large number of towns involved, the area’s geostrategic position in the Mediterranean, i.e. at the junction of Europe and its neighbouring zones ; and the long-term cultural structure of the area.
Will culture remain a vaguely identifiable object, floating above us, the preserve of certain specialists isolated in a ‘protosphere’ ? Or will it undergo a radical ‘mainstreaming’, swarming with experts in all administrative services, in all departments of private enterprise, involving itself in public health, in education, transport, security and even in the search for social cohesion ? It is clear that, for the programme directors of the European Commission, what happens today through the creation and management of the Capitals of Culture serves as R & D for the long-term ambition of integrating Europe’s different regions.

We will not enter into any critique here of the themes to be explored during Marseille-Provence 2013. They are all the more legitimate in that they structured the decisive line of argument that led to the success of this candidacy. A visit to the website of ‘MP13’ (as we shall choose to call it from now on) is enough to understand the thematic expectations of its backers (be they the European Commission or the French State) and the strategic intelligence of Bernard Latarjet, who directed the candidacy and then became the principal director of the entire operation. Latarjet is a senior government official, having served in the French Ministry of Culture, notably as an adviser to Jack Lang and, subsequently as an aide to President François Mitterand, finally as the director of the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris. No quarrel, then, with the overall aims of the project, yet there is a slight frustration regarding its artistic daring, which is somewhat restricted by an almost ‘miserabilist’ context that weighs down MP13 : the city is seen to be needy and therefore deserves to be chosen over Lyon, Bordeaux or Toulouse. This kind of ‘positive discrimination’, barely defensible and of little instructive value, opens the door to all sorts of exaggeration and reflects an unflattering image that the city’s residents would willingly leave behind them, once and for all.

Nor is it useful to dwell on the destructive effects of the worldwide financial crisis which has hit businesses very hard, both here and elsewhere. However, we should rapidly take up an entrepreneurial sociology of Marseille which is seen, contrary to cities like Lyon or Lille, to have somehow become consolidated around businesses that are more family-based than industrial and whose international influence reflects an older, trading-post style of commercial policy, rather than global monopolies, international alliances or multinational networks. The hopes of finding business sponsorship have also been significantly reduced from the level they were pitched at when the bid was made. In terms of artistic programming, therefore, MP13 must make certain choices which will limit it financially and which, if Bernard Latarjet’s line is not sufficiently supported, could well attain the very basis on which the bid was won, namely that the project would put in place sustainable cultural infrastructure and provision, investment for the long term rather than showy events and public relations. Unfortunately, there are already signs that such processes are taking place…

We need to discuss further certain specific predispositions of the city that complicate the process. Belonging to both Provence and to Marseille, as I have done for 46 years now, I must at the outset make it clear that it is not at all my intention to damage either the bid or its success, but rather to restore to it all the dignity that it has the right to expect.

Uniqueness and atavism, overcoming problems

To ensure this dignity, several obstacles have to be overcome. First, there are several internal political restrictions. Examining the city’s geography in terms of concentric circles, we see that first – from Arles to La Ciotat, taking in the town of Aix-en-Provence – shows immediately that MP 13 is primarily a partnership representing more than 130 municipal districts surrounding Marseille, with a total resident population of about 1.5 million.
A great team effort… Sadly, this team effort is increasingly hampered by a major event in the political calendar : in 2014, barely a year after the event, each of these 130 municipalities will hold elections and each incumbent mayor will be counting on the dynamism of ‘MP13’ to lure voters to re-elect her or him. This manipulative exploitation of the event could go so far as to severely call into question the notion of the ‘common pot’ (or central fund), a symbol of the unity at the heart of the bid. Some mayors have even gone so far as to declare that their financial contribution will only be confirmed on condition that it will be exclusively used within their own territory, a condition impossible to manage for the visionary and demanding artistic programme planner that MP13 seeks to be.

We also have to bear in mind the position of the ‘second circle’ of municipalities, which are not integrated into the main bid but belong to the regional community that also contributes financially. These municipalities have legitimate expectations of a ‘return on investment’, although they are geographically distant from the regional capital. Finally, the fast approaching prospect of the Euro-regions plan becoming operational requires this bid to echo it. Note that the Euro-region to which we belong – made up of PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur), Rhône-Alpes, Piedmont, Liguria and Aosta – aims to be first off the starting-block. But in view of the kinds of ongoing programmes, negotiations and alliances that can be observed, this seems to be still no more than just a declaration of intent.

Another major political constraint is the proposed reform of the local government authorities that is currently being debated in the country. This reform, expected to enter into force in 2012, would mean that municipal responsibility for cultural matters could become either optional, obligatory or even might be done away with. Certain outcomes would cruelly deprive the municipalities concerned not only of major additional resources that they have the right to expect from the Regional Council and also from the administration of the Département, but also the indispensable ‘political advocacy’ that these major local government authorities could provide. Even though, with the exception of Marseille and Aix, the towns do not really have the capacity for external cultural relations (and what would a European Capital of Culture be without international relations ?), one might have expected an effort in this respect from the Region or the Département Council at the international level. But will these entities even still exist after 2012 ? What direction will a collective bid involving more than 130 towns take if two shared levels of administration (the Département and the Region) were to disappear and if the new structures that replace them do not acquire sufficient competencies for cultural affairs ?

Currently Erratic French Cultural Policy

The European project increasingly calls the country’s established models of cultural policy into question. These inward-looking models have aimed traditionally to achieve national prestige and influence, to propagate an official state culture. Until now the prerogative of the central state, the making of official cultural policy followed a single model, possibly reproducible at the local level, with every town seeking somehow to be yet another ‘Paris in miniature’.
And if we are to believe the directives set out by the then Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in December 2009 – where no mention is even made of local authorities and even less of any decentralised cultural cooperation – France’s cultural diplomacy remains a domain reserved for a ‘diplomacy of influence’ [sic], essentially aimed at strategic goals which have little to do with cultural rights. Let us not forget that the French Government is one of the most stubborn in its refusal to ratify, for constitutional reasons, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages adopted under the aegis of the Council of Europe in 1992. In view of Marseille’s polyglot population this is a strikingly incoherent position.

More or less painfully, but irreversibly, a transfer of cultural sovereignty from the European nation-states to their local power structures is taking place and gradually finding its own limits.
We believe that, within the French Ministry of Culture itself, certain voices are making themselves heard, evoking a reversal of the principle of ‘Culture For All’, whose record is far from positive, in favour of a move towards the principle of a ‘Culture of All’ – in other words from a model of cultural ‘democratisation’ to that of cultural ‘democracy’, encouraged by the recent ratification of the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. The national debate about culture, or rather the glaring absence of a true debate, creates confusion in the governance of cultural affairs. It has created a vacuum that some local government authorities are trying to fill, especially the larger towns and cities. It is a difficult period, but also an exciting one, because multi-level governance of culture is coming into play, from the local to the pan-European, as shown by the public debate on this subject in the European Parliament in June 2010.

Therefore the French State will soon have to harmonize its international commitments, bringing the more instrumentalizing orientations revealed by the Foreign Ministry’s directives referred to above into line with the ideas it adopted when it ratified UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. On the face of it, the two sets of principles are incompatible and this ambiguity will resonate throughout the world of the arts, including the European Capital of Culture project.

Two great challenges

In this context, it requires considerable daring on the part of a French city to seek to become a European Capital of Culture and is bound to create innumerable pitfalls. If the political elites have the vision and the courage, and if Mr. Latarjet (or his successor) understands the full extent of local knowhow, then MP13, the ‘anti-Parisian’ rebel, could succeed with dazzling cultural innovation, and could take advantage of the candidacy to launch a renovation of its cultural policy, to be extended well beyond 2013.
Or else it might sink down to the lowest common denominator of average European cultural mediocrity, based from one end of the continent to the other on the same works, the same communication, and the same places and venues, and it may possibly suffer from Byzantine political struggles. In any case, it will be essential to ratify a certain number of seminal texts, especially the UCLG’s Agenda 21 for Culture (as discussed in this volume by Duxbury, Cullen and Pascual), something which no participant in MP13 has yet done, with the exception of the City of Aubagne, which deserves our compliments for doing so.

- Accepting its internal diversity
Although it owes its survival and its pride to its dazzling indiscipline, occasionally mixed with indolence (which, besides, renders it so human), our city-region must finally accept the reality of its own patterns of immigration. Let’s admit it, the greatest militants for Marseille’s cause are to be found among its innumerable immigrants, as is to be expected, but also among ‘Parisians’, northerners, not necessarily the inhabitants of the most affluent quarters, sometimes those who audaciously un-French, who humbly adopt the cause, thereby becoming ‘more Marseillais than the people of Marseille themselves’. Conversely, it is enough to read the self-satisfied, quasi-populist phrases, the ‘Pagnolesque’ clichés, dished out by the national press, including (above all ?), the ‘progressive’ press, in order to understand the extent to which Marseille suffers from a negative image in the minds of French people, especially where the life of the mind is concerned.

It’s an old cliché, but also the reality, that the city of Marseille welcomes children from all over the world into its schools, with no hesitation concerning their colour, their accent or their material wealth or lack of it. No one comments on your origins. We wait to see your work ! This redeeming principle ought also to be applied to the cultural field in general and to MP13 especially, provided that the project actually succeeds in including everyone from the humblest to the most boastful of the Provencal people. The moral contract which should link MP13 to its inhabitants will operate within this delicate balance : trust artistic innovation, trust the people, because, in Marseille, the one should not prevail over the other. Breaking this contract could well be one of the principal causes of the failure of MP13, should that come about.

- Going beyond its geostrategic heritage
Marseille was the chief port of the French Colonial Empire. It always was and still is one of the main transit points of immigration and emigration, especially within the ‘Mediterranean backyard’. Toulon, which could have been the other big city in the bid, had its municipality not chosen to dissociate itself from it, is the home port of the French naval forces and their allies. Marseille recently welcomed a department of the World Bank and is also claiming a leading role in the Cultural Council of the Union for the Mediterranean as in other areas of influence.
Therefore purely ‘heritage’ reasoning means pushing MP13 to adopt an inward-looking attitude of ‘self-segregation’, one that also remains within the French sphere of influence, which some outspoken commentators would see as pure neo-colonialism.

In fact, nobody in this city dares to question the sometimes stifling clause of a kind of obligatory ‘Mediterraneanism’, which would tend to suggest that there could be no justification for deploying the cultural expertise of MP13 outside the Mediterranean. Quite apart from the fact that the concept of a ‘dialogue among Mediterranean cultures’ is above all a western idea (for the Arab world, the Mediterranean is not necessarily a place of convergence), it is obvious that others have already forcefully claimed the ‘Mediterranean’ label already. Competition is fierce and we could hope that, intelligently, we might enhance the visibility of MP 13 in the world, well beyond the Mediterranean (but not without it), through certain specific attributes and skills that our geo-cultural region possesses more fully than others do. These include the range of cultural activities, places of artistic creation, public sector support for culture, integration of contemporary creation with local heritage, gradual improvement of a formerly devastating cultural tourism, interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation, decentralised cultural cooperation, etc. These are all areas of expertise or works-in-progress already recognised the world over – and not just in the Mediterranean ‘neighbourhood’ area – as belonging to the region. These could integrate its ‘Mediterranean sound’ into a truly global concert… MP13 could achieve such results for itself but also for its neighbours, both European and North African, especially as, in some ways, it already does so, quite naturally.

There is another painful problem : the lack of coordination – even the competition – among the Cultural Council of the Union for the Mediterranean (largely led by France and chaired by Renaud Muselier, deputy Mayor of Marseille), the Anna Lindh Foundation (which is an emanation of the ‘Barcelona Conventions’ and the ‘armed wing’ of the European Commission for dialogue between Mediterranean Cultures) and the initiatives of the Spanish International Cooperation Agency (AECID).
In addition, there are other circles of power that confuse the Mediterranean theatre even further. Obviously, every player plays its pawns according to its own interests and, to my knowledge, the new external relations services of Mrs. Ashton (High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) have not yet issued even the slightest element of doctrine which could allow us to envisage a minimum degree of cohesion, of clarity or of alignment. The image given by this diplomatic confusion is abysmal, and the project is suffering accordingly. Seen from Algiers, from Istanbul or from Ramallah, of what kind of Europe will MP13 be a Cultural Capital ?


In conclusion, the evidence suggests that MP13 will be (or is already) in the eye of a hurricane whose unpredictable movements could either pass it by or do it serious harm. It is not entirely clear whether, when they brought the bid to the baptismal font, its creators had indeed measured the dangers ahead. Yet this problematic context is in itself a challenge, and we will certainly see if the intrinsic cultural resources and the life-blood of MP13 are capable of joining forces once more against misfortune.
They are strong, deeply rooted, and not always visible, and they occasionally reside in the strata of population where we least expect them. For over 2,600 years, the people of Marseille have demonstrated an astonishing capacity for resistance - resistance that has been passive to varying degrees.
Centres of population that have shown such a capacity for synthesis, and who therefore bear witness to very real richness of culture, are rare in Europe. Furthermore, it will be necessary to give every one of them good reasons for identifying with this project and making it their own. This is one of the political frameworks which still needs consolidation.

Finally, as has already been said, the timing of this project makes it a full-scale test for the European Commission’s approach to culture at the dawn of the 2014-2020 planning period, especially regarding the capacity of local government authorities to at least partly assume key policy challenges. It is, of course, at the level of European institutions that the future equilibrium between local development, continental harmonisation, global fair trade and cultural diversity will be established. The member states of the EU, which until now have been leading players in making these choices, will have to deal as much with the growing autonomy of local power as with a European institutional reality that brings them all inexorably closer together.

Certainly, MP13 will experience the joys and the horrors of cultural renovation but, like a mirror, will reflect to its backers all the fundamental questions that such an event will not fail to raise.
But are they ready to answer these questions ?