By Jessie Williams
Our tour guide, Stephanie, leads us through the chaos of selfie sticks and tourists, her perfume leaving a trail behind her as we follow obediently through the crowd. Monday afternoon at the Musée du Louvre and the auditorium is alive with voices from around the world, but we only have ears for the melodic French voice coming through our headphones. Her calm explanations about the main oeuvres (from the Mona Lisa to Venus de Milo) makes the world’s largest museum – with over 30,000 objects on display – feel much less overwhelming and more like a walk down the Seine.
These tours are primarily for foreign tourists; a way for them to learn about France’s vast cultural history. But Stephanie also believes it’s essential for people living in France to have access to art. “I think that culture is a way of stopping exclusion in our society, so it’s very important to come to the museum as early as possible, that’s why we collaborate with many schools and many pupils.” But what about those people who cannot access culture so easily? According to a recent report by the charity, Secours Catholique, around 9 million people in France are living below the poverty line, which means they receive an income of less than €1,008 a month. This social inequality is at the fore-front of the battle for the Élysée Palace which is beginning to heat up ahead of the final round of the Socialist Party primaries, with the presidential election being held in April this year.
Photo credit: Jessie Williams
France is a country brimming with history and culture; Bien sûr, it is the birthplace of Monet, Duchamp, Proust, de Beauvoir, Gainsbourg and Piaf to name a few. Paris in particular is seen as the centre of fashion, art, architecture and cuisine. The word ‘culture’ even comes from the French language, therefore many people feel that a lack of access to it can result in social exclusion and alienation from society.
One such person is Eléonore Lacroix, Executive Delegate at the RATP Group Foundation, who believes this is a particularly serious problem within France. “Culture is at the core of our identity, so you could say that you suffer much more in France from being far from culture, than it could be in a country with less history, with less culture, in which there is less evidence of this culture in all the codes and the way people are living and speaking.” She adds that “in France if you don’t share this kind of culture, this kind of heritage, then it’s very difficult to feel part of the life of the nation.” Lacroix describes it as being the real gap between the upper class and the lower.
This is why the RATP Group Foundation, one of the biggest public transport providers in Paris and the Île-de-France region, are trying to break down barriers to culture. By partnering with cultural institutions around the country, such as the Louvre, the group aims to encourage people from underprivileged backgrounds to visit and engage with culture. Lacroix describes RATP’s scheme as being like a metaphor: “As a company we bring people physically through territories, and as a foundation we try to bring them also through life, through difficulties, to help them reach a sort of place, a feeling of belonging to the community.”
The partnership with the Louvre began when the museum came to RATP with an idea. According to Lacroix, the museum told them that they had difficulties attracting people from disadvantaged backgrounds as taking the bus or the metro was difficult for them. The scheme has two parts to it. The museum helps people to access the art by training specific guides to welcome them and answer their questions while the RATP Group help the Louvre by financing the costs of the visit, and offering free transport by bus. They are accompanied by charity volunteers and usually come in groups, so as not to be scared by the thought of traveling alone.
The RATP Group has subsidiaries all over France, but Lacroix says that the people they help through the scheme mainly come from Paris, its banlieues and places in Northern France, such as Charleville-Mézières and Boulogne-sur-Mer. “These territories are more or less poor, and also far from Paris and far from culture.” Indeed, in 2015 a study by the newspaper, Les Echos, found that Boulogne-sur-Mer ranked in the bottom six zones in France for quality of life: 299th out of 304. It has been 11 years since riots ripped through council estates in Paris and other urban areas, which many saw as a sign of the harsh social divide within the country. More recently after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that there is a “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” in France. It is these feelings of isolation and abandonment within the poorer areas of the country which Lacroix hopes the scheme will prevent.
With the presidential election looming, I ask Lacroix how she thinks it will affect the scheme – particularly if Marine Le Pen comes into power. She doesn’t seem too worried: “We have this core of the nation built on culture and you have some translations according to the political movement.” She says that you won’t find any French politician who doesn’t share this common idea. However, the difference is how easy they make it for people to gain access to culture. For example, Lacroix explains that those on the left view it as very important to open the doors and “make some mediation, some intermediaries” in order to help people to “climb the steps and to reach this culture.” Essentially Lacroix is talking about making culture more democratic, which she thinks is the “key part of the functioning of our society.”
This year, RATP will have a new partnership with Versailles, where people are invited to visit the Château, but also to “learn about the history and to rewrite it with their words to come into a sort of knowledge of French language, French culture, French history.” As well as this, Lacroix says that they have many projects with musical institutions, such as the Orchestra de Paris.
Back at the Louvre, Stephanie is explaining how she decided she wanted to become a tour guide. “I studied at the school of the Louvre and I had an amazing teacher. When I saw her talking about art, I thought it must be an amazing job and so I wanted to become exactly like her.” Maybe one day a child from the banlieues will be inspired to become an artist, or a teacher, because he or she had the opportunity to spend a day at the Louvre.