The good and bad of French culture in 2021

·3-min read

For French culture, still a beacon for much of the world, it was a year of stutter-steps back to freedom amid fears that the old normal may never fully return.

There were bright spots as a backlog of great art from the harsher lockdowns of 2020 poured forth, but there were some darker moments as well.

- Feast for art-lovers -

It was a feast for art-lovers in Paris in 2021, as museums crammed in shows postponed the year before, from Banksy and Georgia O'Keefe to Botticelli and Salvador Dali, as well as two shows at once for David Hockney.

A battle of fashion industry billionaires added to the embarrassment of riches.

Kering owner Francois Pinault finally opened his $194 million modern art museum (Bourse de Commerce), while its cross-town rival, the Louis Vuitton Foundation, countered with the Morozov Collection, a treasure trove of masterpieces brought over from Russia, including little-seen works by Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and many more.

- #MeToo hits theatre world -

France has sometimes felt like less than fertile ground for the #MeToo movement, and its storied theatre world has been no exception.

That started to change in 2021 after a theatre blogger accused an actor with the famed Comedie-Francaise of rape, triggering an avalanche of similar stories from women in the industry and protests in October.

Much anger was directed at the Colline Theatre, one of France's six national theatres, after it commissioned two controversial figures: Jean-Pierre Baro, who was accused of rape (though the complaint was dismissed for lack of evidence), and rock star Bertrand Cantat, who beat his girlfriend to death in 2003.

- Cannes gets back its glitz -

The pandemic almost forced a second year without the world's top film festival, but despite a three-month delay, the Cannes Film Festival returned in (almost) full glitzy form in July.

There were fewer cheek-kisses at the top of the red carpet and pointed reminders for celebrities to keep their masks on during premieres.

But it was a vintage year, with a bevy of A-list stars and arthouse genius that seemed to mark the official return of cinema just as theatres re-opened around the world.

It was a strong year for women, too, with Julia Ducournau becoming only the second female to take the Palme d'Or for her riotous bloodfest "Titane".

- Plummeting wine production -

Already hard-hit by the pandemic, the French food sector faced additional problems in 2021.

Adverse weather, including spring frosts, hail storms and deluges of summer rain, led to "extremely low" wine production not seen since the 1950s.

And while the cheese sector did well as a lockdown comfort food, there was horror at the news that Italian mozarella is rapidly catching up on camembert as France's favourite fromage.

- African novelists win plaudits -

Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr became the first from sub-Saharan Africa to win France's top literary prize, the Goncourt, while two of his compatriots won the International Booker (David Diop) and Prix Neustadt (Boubacar Boris Diop).

That mirrored successes elsewhere as Tanzania's Abdulrazak Gurnah became a Nobel laureate and South Africa's Damon Galgut won the English-language Booker.

These were not token gestures: as one critic told AFP, it showed the Western industry finally recognising a booming literary scene in Africa that "no longer really needs recognition".

But the best news for French publishing came in the sales figures -- up a whopping 19 percent on 2019 as many took solace in a good book during lockdowns.

- Gender-neutral pronouns trigger division -

The decision by a major French reference dictionary to include "iel" -- a mash-up of he and she ("il" and "elle") -- had traditionalists spluttering about US-inspired "wokeism" invading their venerable tongue.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said "inclusive writing is not the future of the French language".

Robert's director said it was only defining a word that was already in use.


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