The Artist and the City in “Euro-Mediterranean” Marseille: Redefining State Cultural Policy in an Era of Transnational Governance



Focused on an arts center in Marseille, this article explores how globalization and Europeanization are affecting relations between local cultural producers, national culture, and the state. In France, the state's claims to reshape civil society through cultural policy have been challenged by critics who conclude that economic priorities have ended an era of civic-centered state arts policy. At the same time, local authorities in the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region value “new territories of art” projects as initiatives consonant with Euro-Mediterranean commerce and exchange. Adapting to this context, these artists both challenge and rearticulate state cultural policy. They pursue the same universalist Republican ideals of earlier state policy but they re-define them for the distinctively Mediterranean setting of Marseille. Thus, in spite of anti-state discourse by artists, and fears that the public nature of their work has been compromised by economic liberalization, this case shows the ongoing power of the state to shape cultural policy discourse at the same time that it shows artists interpreting the terms of this discourse in ways that are dynamic, locally-distinctive, and transnational.

The Friche Belle de Mai is a sprawling set of hangar-like buildings that used to be a tobacco factory. In 1992, the old factory became an arts center that now boasts sixty structures filled with more than 400 people including artists, administrators, technicians and staff. Located behind Marseille's train station, the Friche1 contains over 5000 square meters of gallery and theatre space where nearly 1000 artists stage more than 500 events a year. As I waited for the bus to take me there in the summer of 2006, an older woman explained to me why it was late. “It's because of Euro-Mediterrannée,” she said, referring to the extensive urban renovation project responsible for cranes and jackhammers seemingly everywhere. “Ah, the Friche,” she said brightly when I told her where I was going. “A nice place, I hear.” A nice place! I thought at the time. I had been reading about it for months. Didn't she know about all the events and the 105,000 visitors a year the Friche claims? To be polite, it seemed, she added, “I hear they have a theatre there.” And then, less certain: “Don't they?” This conversation was my first hint of concerns later expressed to me by Friche artists and administrators. Many felt that the Friche had few links to the area surrounding it, and had remained something of an island in the midst of a working-class neighborhood in transition. This surprised me because of the founding principle of the Friche in its publicity materials: “the artist, the city, his (or her) city.” The text goes on to state that this principle “can only be realized if one examines the relationship between the artist and economic growth” (Lextrait 2001).2

In 2007, that relationship changed dramatically for the Friche. As with many civic-minded arts groups in France, a public voluntary association had been responsible for its administration since its founding in 1992. In 2007 this association was changed into a “Co-operative Company of Collective Interest” (SCIC: Société Coopérative d'Intérêt Collective). The SCIC is a new type of private but non-profit, general interest co-operative company. Created in 2001, the SCIC combines the structure of a business with certain aspects of cooperatives (such as impartible reserves) and the goal of the general interest in that the SCIC must be focused on its local socio-economic environment. At the Friche it is hoped that the change to SCIC status will allow greater control of artistic projects and a more flexible administration allowing for, as the association's newsletter stated, “the creation of new forms of plural partnership and governance of the site” (Kahn 2005:22).

I am interested in the ways this move toward new forms of governance is linked to broader changes in the political and economic context for art initiatives in France. The experience of the Friche is part of the greater story of how globalization and Europeanization are affecting the relationship between local cultural producers, national culture, and the state in contemporary Europe. I am especially interested in the civic dimension of the Friche project. By “civic” I refer to the way the public value of the arts is defined in political terms, and policies addressing the specific conditions of French society. Two agendas have been particularly important in the Fifth Republic (1958-): democratization and decentralization. Policies pursuing these goals have sought to extend access to the arts by transcending the barriers of territory and social class in France. Cultural policy has also been a key vector of French “republican universalism”: the idea that the preservation of the Republic depends on its being composed not of distinct communities and diverse cultural identities, but on individual citizens equal under law and linked directly to the state without intermediary representation. In France, this idea is central to debates about the integration of immigrants and alienated youth in poor neighborhoods. Through financial support for artists, the state has sought to protect a universalist and disinterested realm of culture, free from parochial concerns and narrowly “particularist” limitations.

Cultural policy has also been a key vector of French “republican universalism”

In some ways, SCIC status represents the privatization of a public enterprise and thus reflects the broader trend throughout Europe since the 1990s in which state cultural policy has been marked by challenges to the public mandate for the arts (McGuigan 2004). SCIC status at the Friche means that it will take responsibility for managing its own reconciliation of artistic freedom with the local economy. A long tradition of rebellion to centralized authority, stark poverty, and an extraordinarily diverse population have long posed challenges to French republican ideals in Marseille. In recent years, the city has also been the site of intense real-estate development. This includes the European Union urban renovation program in Marseille entitled Euro-Mediterranée, part of which is centered in the Belle de Mai neighborhood where the Friche is located. At the same time, the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region has gained considerable power for the administration of culture through policies of administrative decentralization. The context for cultural policy in this region has also been greatly affected by the Euro-Mediterranean aspirations of local government officials, be it at the level of the municipality, department, or region.

Drawing on fieldwork research3 and recent studies addressing the changing nature of the state and state cultural policy in an era of globalization, this article considers the broader political and economic logics framing the civic content of the Friche project. The experience of the Friche shows local cultural producers both challenging and rearticulating state-centered French cultural policy. In redefining their public mission, Friche artists draw on the same universalist ideals that have motivated state cultural policy in France generally since World War II. But, consonant with the ideology of “new territories of art,” they also stretch and adapt these to fit the distinctively cosmopolitan identity of Marseille. In this article, I ask whether recent developments represent a fundamental change in the way that state cultural policy has mediated the relationship between these cultural producers and their local environment. To what extent do the initiatives of the Friche, as a new territory of art, represent a recasting of the public mission for the arts in a new Euro-Mediterranean context?

State cultural policy and the governance of culture in an era of globalization

Recent scholarship addressing the evolution of state power in a globalizing political economy has highlighted two important changes. First, authority in certain sectors has devolved from the state to the private sector. Thus, for example, David Nugent emphasizes the importance of economic changes since the 1970s in discussing scholars (Rose and Miller 1992; Trouillot 2001) who “have begun to trace the processes by which governmental forces are becoming increasingly disentangled from state structures” (2007:214). These processes include the privatization of formerly state-run sectors as well as the introduction of an enterprise model of operation for services such as schools, post offices, and public transportation.

The second change involves the growing importance of new transnational modes of governance. Scholars have addressed the influence of transnational agencies such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, NGOs, and international voluntary and activist organizations. Ferguson and Gupta, for example, argue that the outsourcing of functions of the state to such agencies is an important part of “an emerging system of transnational governmentality” (2002:990). Others have addressed changes in European Union governance. Shore (2006) argues that the evolution of European cultural policy since 1992 (when the Maastricht Treaty recognized a distinct administrative domain for culture in the E.U.) has been defined primarily by the desire to exert greater EU influence on the daily life of citizens through the “governmentalisation” of culture.

These changes do not mean that the state has less significance or that a specifically national field for culture has been superseded (Trouillot 2001; Cash 2007). Rather, recent scholarship posits new modes of governance emerging parallel to the state. Jessica Winegar (2006) argues that in Egypt new fields of “cultural sovereignty” are taking shape within and between state-centered fields of cultural policy and international art markets. These studies raise important questions about the role of the state in a new transnational era. If the state has no less significance, how is its role changing in relation to these new forms of governance? Here I am most interested in the relationship between local cultural producers and state cultural policy. I ask to what extent emergent transnational political and economic formations are changing the civic dimension of the Friche arts project.

“Culture” as (local and national) affair of state in France

Addressing the stakes underlying the French model of cultural policy, Philippe Poirrier notes the challenges of globalization, a market economy, and European integration to “a model of public policy, highly centralized for a long time, strongly institutionalized, and founded initially on the will to democratize a clearly-defined high culture” (2002:13). He concludes

That which founds the originality of the French model, it seems to me . . . is the idea, widely shared, that public cultural policy participates in the construction of the Republic and of democracy (ibid).

It is this idea that has infused debates about the arts with such passionate political interest in France, and that has contributed greatly to defining the legitimacy of the state's role in cultural policy. As Rosanvallon (1990) has noted, the Ministry of Culture's importance goes far beyond the distribution of financial support to artists. In addition, it has symbolized and enacted a particular relationship between the state and society.4 This is why decentralization, a major objective of post World War II state cultural policy, has been such a contentious project. The term in a general political sense usually refers to two series of reforms resulting in the devolution of powers from the centralized state to municipal, departmental, and regional authorities in 1982 and 2003. But with regard to the arts, and theatre in particular, it refers to recurrent efforts to provide broader access to works of art throughout the French territory and across boundaries of social class.

The French promotion of a cultural exception for the arts has involved preserving a certain idea of the relationship between culture and the Republic

As with education, the state's role has been viewed as crucial to ensuring the universalist qualities of culture. The French promotion of a cultural exception for the arts has involved preserving a certain idea of the relationship between culture and the Republic, and the ability of the state to mediate this. Because the artist serves the general interest, the state provides special support—an exceptional status designed to protect him or her from, on the one hand, the laws of supply and demand in mass markets, and on the other, the political or otherwise unsympathetic tastes of local elected officials. It is because of the state's role in assuring a putatively disinterested field of culture based on the universalist ideals of the Republic, that the state has had such authority in matters of culture in France. The state's role in cultural policy has expanded dramatically since the beginning of the Fifth Republic. At the same time, local bodies (municipality, department, and after 1982, the region) have developed their own cultural policies, albeit not at the expense of the centralized state. The state has exerted enormous influence in presenting a model for the governance of culture to these local authorities and through partnerships with them. In the decade immediately following the election of François Mitterrand in 1981, as Poirrier noted, we see both the high point of a national politics of culture and a key change in the local role of the state: the passage from a tutelary state, very selective in its support and responsible for protecting a national vision, to a partner state which encourages and institutionalizes little by little the forms of partnership (2002:13).

This is also the key period identified by many critics when the Ministry of Culture became devoted primarily to serving the professional needs of artists, leading in effect to “the death of cultural policy” (Urfalino 1996). The increasing integration of economic concerns (e.g. in the promotion of regions through arts festivals) was an important part of Marc Fumaroli's polemical attack on Mitterrand-era cultural policy in The Cultural State. A Modern Religion (1991). Since the appearance of this work, the criticisms of the failure of the public mission in French state cultural policy have steadily grown. Scholars and former administrators at the Ministry of Culture have described the end of an era: “the end of a myth” (Donnat 1991; Djian 2005), “the end of the cultural exception” (Benhamou 2006), and “the twilight of the cultural state” (Fumaroli 2006). Thus far, in spite of modest budget cuts, neither recently-elected President Sarkozy (2007) nor his Minister of Culture, Christiane Albanel, have proposed dramatic changes. But the overall intellectual climate suggests a clear break with the old model of cultural policy in which the state's role was both central and ambitious. At the same time, local authorities have had their own reasons for supporting cultural policy. The public arts project of the Friche has been greatly shaped by the singular urban context of Marseille.

Marseille: a contradictory cosmopolitanism

With a population of 826,700, Marseille is France's second largest city. And more than any other French city, it has an extraordinarily heterogeneous population, including people of Armenian, Comorian, Spanish, Italian, and North African (especially Algerian) origin. As the main port for France's relations with its colonies, Marseille has long been a key entry point for immigrants and for ongoing relations with their countries of origin. Today the descendents of sharply opposed groups co-exist in Marseille: Armenians and Kurds, Algerian Sephardic Jews and Muslim North Africans. “A contradictory and complicated city” is the conclusion of Emile Temime (2005:11). Reluctant to use the term himself, Temime nonetheless states that it is one of the rare cities in the Mediterranean region where “one can still speak of cosmopolitanism” (ibid). When riots broke out in the peripheral neighborhoods of major French cities in November of 2005, Marseille was curiously quiet. In the national media and among many residents of Marseille, the reason given was often Marseille's exceptional status as a place of multicultural tolerance, a status sometimes attributed to geography.5 Surrounded by mountains, the city is cut off from inland France and lacks a peripheral belt of banlieues (neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and young people). Over and above their diverse origins, residents are said to share an attachment to a singular Marseillais identity, even in the poorest neighborhoods (Moreau 2001).

There is some truth to all these claims. But there is much that this narrative leaves out. Marseille has been the site of racially motivated murders, and the xenophobic National Front routinely receives a relatively high percentage of the vote. Émile Temime describes a long tradition of distrust of foreigners (2005). Rather than a melting pot, Marseille is a place where communities do co-exist, but often warily and at a distance. Compared to other French cities, Marseille is a place of striking poverty. While the city has no circular periphery of banlieues, it does have a clear and dramatic division between the northern neighborhoods (with exceptionally high levels of young people and unemployment) and the wealthier south. The city has the largest “ZUS” (Zone Urbaine Sensible: a high priority for urban policy targeting social inequalities) and the highest number of residents living in these zones of all French cities. In 1999 unemployment was at 40 percent in these zones, worse for young people (50 percent), while at 20 percent for Marseille as a whole. A report in 2005 noted that three of the five poorest ZUS (in terms of residents' level of income) were in Marseille (Ballaguy 2007:128).

Unemployment in Marseille has decreased dramatically in recent years (from 20 to 15 percent between 1995 and 2003). But in spite of this overall change, unemployment continues to be highly concentrated in certain neighborhoods and the city remains, as Langevin has put it, “the champion of inequalities” (2007:28). Instead of short-term jobs, he argues, what is needed is more training and follow-through in order to make sure that the benefits of growth do not go only to those outside the city or those in the wealthiest parts of it. An important part of the recent growth he refers to is the intensive urban renovation that began in the 1990s and continues today, a process that included the creation of the Friche Belle de Mai.

Friche autonomy and municipal cultural policy in Marseille

The Friche Belle de Mai owes its beginnings to a broad arts renaissance in Marseille that began with the election of the independent (former Socialist) candidate Robert-Paul Vigoureux in 1989. Key to this revitalization was the transformation of rundown and abandoned properties into dynamic sites for arts creation, a process enthusiastically endorsed by the municipality as a means of infusing life into neglected parts of the city. Peraldi and Samson noted, “in Marseille, friches are now one of the essential components of cultural policies” (2005:209). Peraldi and Samson see the explosion of the Marseille arts scene in the 1990s as one component of a vast “re-enchantment” of the city nationally spurred by the introduction of a new high-speed train line between Paris and Marseille and the real estate speculation that came with it. The first part of this re-enchantment involved the promotion of a new image of Marseille through extensive press, magazine, and television coverage. The second part, they state, “consisted of the celebration of a cultural inventiveness consonant with the expectations of the Parisian creative class” (2005:118).

The Belle de Mai SEITA factory closed in 1989. In 1992 Philippe Foulquié, a theatre director from Lyon, became the director of the new Friche arts center. He opened the site to experimental and other arts groups. An accomplished artist himself, Foulquié developed a strong voice as a visionary thinker about the place of the arts in society and he situated the role of the Friche in Marseille within this broader vision. Since 1992, he negotiated skillfully to define a place for the Friche in the city's urban planning projects, arguing for the economic value of the arts for the city of Marseille.

Peraldi and Samson note that many empty industrial spaces had other attractive suitors whom political leaders found embarrassing. In 1989, for example, a huge flea market opened in the abandoned Alsthom factory in the 15th arrondissement, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each weekend. Neighborhood committees mobilized and the market sparked debate across all shades of the political spectrum. Installing cultural projects in abandoned buildings was a cheap and efficient way of keeping these spaces free for future development in ways more palatable to those Marseillais disenchanted with the increasing importance of North African trade in the local economy.6

The Friche has thus benefited from and contributed to a national economic revalorization of Marseille and been integrated within the major EU project of urban development in Marseille

The Friche draws on municipal support (the property belongs to the city), but Foulquié has also worked to protect his autonomy. A key move in 1995 was having the Friche designated the “major cultural axis of development” (“pole culturel majeur de développement”) of the Euro-Mediterranean project (Euro-Med), the extensive urban renovation plan targeting the port area and extending to the Belle de Mai district. Euro-Med receives half of its funding from the state, 25 percent from the municipality, and the rest from the department, region, and the ensemble of municipalities (Marseille-Provence-Métropole) to which Marseille belongs. Euro-Med is the primary medium through which European Union funds are distributed to the municipality of Marseille. The Friche has thus benefited from and contributed to a national economic revalorization of Marseille and been integrated within the major EU project of urban development in Marseille. Being aligned with Euro-Méditerranée provides the Friche with a counterweight to municipal politics other than the state Ministry of Culture, while simultaneously defining an important cultural policy role for itself with regard to the municipality's European and Mediterranean aspirations.

Friche perspectives on state cultural policy: monarchism vs. new territories of art

When I first visited the Friche in 2006, I wanted to understand how it defined and enacted the public mission of its arts project. In Friche publicity materials, Foulquié seemed to reject the idea that the Friche was an exemplary cultural policy initiative.

The Friche is not a model, nor an alternative, it is perhaps only, in the end, one of the multiple forms of this extraordinary capacity of men to counter (déjouer) the systems that prevent them from speaking (Philippe Foulquié, Friche Dossier d'information, n.d.)

What surprised me, in interviews with Foulquié, was that state cultural policy often seemed to be included as one of these systems that prevent people from speaking. Foulquié criticized the Ministry of Culture for its bureaucratization, cronyism, inequities, and a general institutional sterility. He spoke against the “monarchist” cultural policy of Presidents Mitterrand and Chirac. He was not against the “great works” of these presidents, such as I.M. Pei's pyramid at the Louvre, or more recently, Chirac's Quai Branly Museum. What he objected to was the use to which such art is put—the celebration of the “king” (here Mitterrand or Chirac) in the same manner as Versailles celebrated Louis XIV. He also criticized the system in which a few prestigious projects are singled out for resources. Locally, this is reflected in the overwhelming share of state money that goes to Marseille's La Criée, a national theatre (Scène Nationale). Foulquié proposes focusing on more modest initiatives (such as the Friche, of course) under the rubric of “new territories of art.”

It is not just funding priorities that concern Foulquié—it is the relationship between the artist-citizen and the state that has evolved from an increasingly bureaucratic system. Here Foulquié echoes the views of Vincent Dubois (1999), who has argued that a deliberate vagueness in the key concepts of cultural policy has masked the state's increasingly important role in shaping discourse on the arts in France since the 1960s. Dubois also argues that while the state's policies of decentralization have failed to significantly alter the class-based nature of art appreciation in France, they have succeeded in shaping subjects of democratization. He is referring not to the populations targeted by these policies (e.g. distant rural citizens or residents of the urban banlieues) but to the cultural policy actors and administrators who have fashioned themselves as democratic subjects in ways that follow the contours of a cultural logic proper to this field of administrative discourse. Doing so, they enact the civic agenda called for in state cultural policy, and act as advocates for the value of, and need for, its institutions.7 Foulquié noted “I fight for a system that would be a little more ‘civil society’ and a little less ‘para-public society.’ ” When I asked him what he meant by para-publique, he said “a society where everyone is a civil servant (fonctionnaire).” In his view, state cultural policy has been “more about consecration than the true work of creation.” He preferred the new territories projects, where “the state is secondary. Its importance is reduced.” Similarly, François Cervantès, director of the theatre troupe L'Entreprise, stated that he had turned down an offer to become director at one of the national theatres because of the incestuous relations among directors (“people who just keep each other happy”). He described it as “I'll buy your production and you buy mine.”

At times, mayors or local critics have opposed state-supported artists in their communities and one of the missions of the Ministry of Culture has been to protect the universalist work of such artists from the “particularist” critiques of local publics. In 1993 I asked one administrator if she was worried about low attendance at performances supported by her Ministry. “On the contrary,” she replied. “It means we are doing our jobs.” She meant that they were supporting worthy artists who would not be able to pursue their work otherwise—that is, if they were dependent on selling their wares to a public incapable of recognizing and appreciating their artistic merit. It is this desire to protect culture as a special field that has led the French government to lobby successfully for a cultural exception for the arts, both in the GATT trade agreement of 1994, and later in the European Union. This field is held to be both apart from the economy, and because of that paradoxically, capable of acting as an ameliorative force upon it—what Raymond Williams once described as a “mitigating and rallying alternative”8 (1983[1959]:xviii). Singularly important in the French case is the crucial importance of the state in defining, institutionalizing, and administering this field of culture. It is just this role—or at least the way it has been played in the recent past—that has been challenged by “new territories” artists.

The implications of this change extend far beyond funding priorities and directly affect the spatial dimension of civic engagement for artists in France. Beyond providing financial assistance, state cultural policy has structured the sphere of interpretation for arts practice by providing a civic frame, a broader political context defining the public value of art. Performances in isolated rural towns are not simply art or entertainment, but “cultural animation” or “cultural action.” Policies of decentralization have been defined with reference to a national territory, and frame the local work of artists as interventions into national society in line with broad policy objectives directed by the state. The recent challenges to state cultural policy threaten the coherence of this discourse and suggest a broader shift in the desired role for the state in French society. Some artists on the left have criticized the new territories artists for not according an important enough role to the state. A 2002 editorial about these arts projects in the leftist daily newspaper l'Humanité warned against concessions to “the advance of a globalizing economic liberalism that consumes and digests everything.” The author (Nicolas Romeas, editor of the journal Cassandre) refers to the “Pavlov complex,” which

forbids any specific political control or will under the pretext that the artist must be allowed his ‘liberty’ . . . This complex, which leads to impotence, eliminates from the outset any idea of control by the state. And thus encourages the imminent takeover by the private market of the greater part of artistic and cultural circuits (2002).

In stark contrast, Friche critiques portrayed the state as a dangerous actor, tempting and co-opting theatre artists engaged in the real work of creation. When Foulquié speaks of the capacity of people to “counter the systems that prevent them from speaking,” he refers as much to the state as to the global economy. But he does not reject either. Rather, he calls for playing within these systems and turning them to one's own ends. In Friche critiques, the state's value in protecting artists from the vagaries of commerce and the incomprehension of locals is hardly mentioned. This may be because cultural entrepreneurs such as Foulquié have found such a fertile ground in Marseille for projects combining urban renewal and arts creation. But in distancing themselves from state cultural policy while presenting themselves as more capable of realizing the republican ideals of state policy in the past, Friche administrators have become more vulnerable to criticisms about the local impact of their public project.

Belle de Mai and “the problem of the neighborhood”

Situated to the northwest of the Saint Charles train station, the Belle de Mai contains many of the complex and contradictory factors characteristic of Marseille more generally. Roughly one eighth of the neighborhood (in its northwestern corner) is part of a ZUS. On the opposite, southeastern side of the neighborhood, an area about twice as big that runs parallel to the train tracks is included within the Euro-Mediterranean urban renovation plan.

The Friche arts center was established in a neighborhood with a rich and singular history, in a building that was key to the identity of this neighborhood in the past

The Friche arts center was established in a neighborhood with a rich and singular history, in a building that was key to the identity of this neighborhood in the past (Bonnadier 1997). Waves of Italian immigrants came to the neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The women working at the tobacco processing factory on Guibal Street (opened in 1868) were key to shaping the area's unionist and Socialist identity. In March 1871 the contingent from the Belle de Mai assumed leadership of the Commune of Marseille, the most important after Paris. The reputation of the neighborhood was apparently so strong that Jules Guesde, a key political figure in the fight for workers' rights in the late 19th century, called it the “Boulevard of the Revolution.” Describing the neighborhood in the 1980s in the first book of his detective trilogy (in which Marseille plays a central role), Jean-Claude Izzo called Belle de Mai “historically, the oldest popular neighborhood of Marseille. A red, worker's neighborhood”:

The neighborhood gave birth to hardcore unionists, Communist activists by the thousands. And a few fine criminals as well. Francis-le-Belge9 was a child of the neighborhood. Today, people voted almost in equal numbers for the Communists and the National Front (1995:176).

Recent voting figures confirm that support for the Communist Party has dramatically declined since the 1980s and support for the National Front has grown.10 The neighborhood underwent serious changes that reflected the broader post-industrial changes in Marseille. In 1990, the last of the many factories that had provided so many jobs to the neighborhood closed and the neighborhood lost much of its former life. Many shops closed, as did the neighborhood nursery school. The main change to the neighborhood in the 1990s involved the conversion of the old SEITA factory buildings to house three complexes (called îlots i.e., small islands): a heritage center with storage facilities for Marseille's museums and archives, a media center (where one can often see a crowd outside waiting to see the actors of the television series “Plus Belle la Vie” which is filmed there), and a venue for cultural and artistic events (the Friche).

In view of these changes, it should be noted that the old neighborhood never entirely died. The market at the Place Cadenat held three times a week shows the ongoing life of neighborhood sociability. Many residents maintain a lively commitment to the neighborhood through organizations such as the community association relaying local concerns to the mayor's office (the CIQ or Comité d'Intérêts de Quartier), and Babel de Mai, an innovative neighborhood journal. Dynamic local arts projects that are unattached to the Friche include Bancs Publics and the Théâtre Gyptis.

In the last few years, the changing goals of the Friche and their new status as SCIC have led to hopes that the arts center will be less “an island” than in the past. A 2008 article in Babel de Mai is worth quoting at length. Drawing on an interview with Friche representative Alexandra Ivantchenko and on written statements of the SCIC president (architect Patrick Bouchain), Blandine Cordellier describes the relations between the neighborhood and the Friche:

In Marseille, in general, when one speaks of Belle de Mai, people think immediately of the Friche. In the Belle de Mai neighborhood, in general, the residents feel that the Friche is not really part of their neighborhood. This sentiment does not come out of nowhere: at the beginning, the development of the Friche Belle de Mai was not really conceived in relation to the neighborhood and its history. However, a change seems to be taking place. Soon, maybe, several projects will be realized—a sports track, a daycare center, an urban gardening project (Jardiner la Friche) and a self-help housing construction project (le Grand Ensemble)11—largely open to residents of the neighborhood, beyond the cultural activities usually presented (2008:10).

Regarding the integration of the Friche within the neighborhood, Cordellier underlines both the reasons for hope and pessimism. She uses a hesitant tone: a change seems to be taking place. It is important to note here that it is the new SCIC status that has motivated both the hopefulness expressed in this article and the criticism about the distance between the neighborhood and the arts center. In none of the earlier Babel de Mai articles (published since 2003) does one find such criticisms. It appears that while SCIC status has brought the Friche new freedoms, it has also invited greater scrutiny of the local dimension of their project. Other analysts of urban renovation in Marseille have argued that cultural initiatives such as the Friche are less a solution to economic problems than part of the problem. Describing the aggressive gentrification of the Marseille-République project close to the Vieux Port, journalist François Ruffin argues that

Culture plays its role of alibi, and the consensus reigning around culture, around its industry, its cosmopolitanism, its sanctuaries (who would take the risk of opposing the installation of a new theatre or library, even though the new Paris opera house and the Vieille Charité museum actually acted as spearheads for the real estate ‘re-conquest’ of these neighborhoods?) masks the social forces at work . . . Cultural actors, ‘the world of architects, photographers, cinema, and theatre’ benefit concretely from these ‘renovations.’ They are the first to profit from the proximity to service industries, high speed rail stations and other facilities of renovated areas. The involvement of those who work in the performing arts helps to explain the weakness of their opposition to this urban transformation (2007).


Figure 1. “Enough evictions.”“Too much is too much.” Graffiti (from the Belle de Mai) criticizing the rue de la République neighborhood renovations. Photo by author.

Such criticisms hardly seem to apply to the Friche, given that the Belle de Mai has not been the site of the aggressive speculation and evacuation of residents described by Ruffin in the Marseille-République project. But they do focus blame on artists (as opposed to state or municipal authorities) in new ways that highlight the difficult reconciliation of civic goals with culture's role in making neighborhoods more attractive to investors. Here, local cultural producers are negotiating a public role for culture while trying to maintain their autonomy. This has involved playing off certain actors, such as the state and the municipality. In addition, the local constituency they claim has questioned them more about the local impact of their work.

Defining the local in civic terms: fighting “le repli communautaire” in Belle de Mai

The first of three fundamental objectives of the administrative committee of the Friche (Système Friche Théâtre) regarding urban development, as stated in their public relations dossier, is “to valorize and reinforce the bonds with the local territory, particularly with respect to the surrounding neighborhood.”12 In 2006 I asked François Cervantès about this. I had walked the wide expanse of the Friche and it didn't seem that there were many outsiders, and after talking with administrators, not many links with the local community.

No. My experience is, there are not a lot of links. The neighborhood is changing very fast and there are people who are very, very poor. The Friche is changing very very fast. There are links but not a lot. But it is barely the beginning for the Friche. We have fought for fifteen years just to exist. The opening out to the neighborhood is something that will happen as there are more things for people to see, more reasons for them to stay.

We sat at a table in the midst of construction for the restaurant which has since opened and I strained to hear him over the noise of the hammers and drills. The restaurant is one of the innovations made possible by SCIC status at the Friche. For Cervantès the restaurant and other proposed businesses at the Friche (e.g. a bookstore) will help draw people in. Cervantès envisioned a future with the Friche as a social crossroads within the Belle de Mai, with local residents stopping by for all kinds of performances such as marionettes, theatre, dance and music, as well as for books, meals and art.

The Friche has pursued projects reaching out to the neighborhood, including a theatre production Cervantès created in a Belle de Mai middle school with the students. Based in part on his own experiences attending classes at the school, this production was a compromise with city officials who approached him and wanted him to teach the students how to act. He agreed but only if they would let him create a performance with the students in the school. His goal was to help the students gain a new perspective on their surroundings that would give them ownership of the school experience—making them creative, dynamic actors rather than passive recipients of instruction, prey to social alienation and isolation.

For Cervantès this project provided a voice to students through the language of art. In 2006 in answer to a question about the relationship between art and cultural identity, Cervantès emphasized the value of art in going beyond cultural identity by helping individuals transcend tradition and heritage: “Certainly, culture provides reference points that we need but the important thing remains the present moment, meetings, exchanges . . .” (Kahn 2006c). For Cervantès in a Marseille composed of people of different national, ethnic, and religious heritages, the important thing is to avoid a retreat into a closed and narrow identity (a “crispation identitaire”) at the expense of collective solidarity.

The problem to be avoided is the withdrawal into communities (“le repli communautaire”). People stay with their own, and those people, we don't see them. It's an important question in Marseille with so many different cultures. But this last year with all the burned cars in France?13 We didn't have them here. There are people who say it is because of the harmony between groups here. Maybe. Maybe it's that, and maybe it's that the mafia won't allow it. . . . 

Referring to a withdrawal into an identity based on ethnicity or religion (le repli communautaire), Cervantès described a stance incompatible with the universalist ideals of the Republic. State cultural policy has been an important vector of the republican model of citizenship as it has treated culture as a medium for transcending the particular interests of specific groups through its universalist aspirations. For artists like Cervantès the theatre is a vital medium for the individual's engagement with society, expressed here in the context of the distinctive Marseillais environment of today but in the terms of a longstanding national discourse on culture linking arts practice and understandings of citizenship. But while faithful to these Republican ideals, he and other Friche artists criticize the state's role in ensuring the universalist qualities of culture.

New territories of art as regional cultural policy initiative

new territories arts projects have been embraced by regional administrators as a new initiative sensitive to local interests just as regions are gaining power for the administration of culture through decentralization

At the same time, new territories arts projects have been embraced by regional administrators as a new initiative sensitive to local interests just as regions are gaining power for the administration of culture through decentralization. The NTA are a loose coalition of artists and administrators promoting a new conception of the public value of the arts. They share a desire to have a strong impact on their local environments and to protect their autonomy with regard to the state and globalizing economic change. Many are based in non-traditional non-institutional settings, such as abandoned warehouses in post-industrial cities. In 2000 the Secretary of State responsible for heritage and decentralization authorized a study of these new initiatives which led to a conference hosted by the Friche in 2002.

The central theme emerging from the collection of essays published after this conference is the importance of establishing closer interaction between artists and the people living in their community. As one administrator put it: “These new sites permit the co-production of expression between artists and inhabitants” (Kahn and Lextrait 2005:23). Renaud Muselier, deputy mayor of Marseille, described the Friche as a symbol of a new era of cultural policy in which “works are no longer disseminated in temples of culture but created in sites where artists can establish a different bond with the public” (ibid 2005:24). Another key theme is maintaining artists' autonomy from the state. The criticisms of state cultural policy evident at the national level are also evident at the local level, even by administrators who are presumably responsible for defining state policy. “I reject the official, statist vision of culture” said Michel Collardelle in a 2007 interview. Collardelle is the president of the new state-funded Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MUCEM). Administrators express the fear of “institutionalizing” the new territories of art. Christian Martin, former cultural attaché for the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region (1998–2004), states that “these projects emanate from the population, emerge from local actors.” They exhibit a kind of “spontaneous affinity with spaces that are charged with daily life, and vectors of memory, of popular lived experience” (Kahn and Lextrait 2005:26–27).

There is some continuity here with earlier civically-minded theatre projects celebrating the popular such as Jean Vilar's National Popular Theatre of the 1950s and 60s. But here the local authorities do not propose a single unifying frame within which these projects are defined as meaningful at the national level. They do, however, emphasize their territorial constituency. Martin, for example, notes the growing importance of the region in French cultural policy following the processes of state administrative decentralization undertaken since 1982:

In terms of cultural decentralization, a sort of quiet revolution is taking place, in which regions have an important role to play. The friches are absolutely important points of support . . . They are tools for inventing a new kind of cultural policy (2).

With this exceptional reference to decentralization, the administrators rarely referred to national society, but there were frequent references to Europe and the Mediterranean. These projects seem particularly valuable as examples of Europeanization and internationalization at the grass-roots level. Former Minister of Urban Affairs Claude Bartolone (1998–2002) states “this meeting at the very heart of a cultural friche allowed us to situate our debates at a European and international scale in a North-South dialogue that we must strengthen” (p.23). Christian Martin makes a similar point while emphasizing his administrative area, the region:

I would like to insist on the major role that these friches are being called on to play in the construction of a regional space. A regional space that we would like to remain strong in its traditions, its values, and its solidarities, but also, . . . especially, open to the cultures of the world, with obviously, as it concerns the PACA region, a special attraction to the countries of the Euromediterranean space, on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Here the new territories arts projects are aligned with Marseille's aspirations to a major role in new political and economic partnerships. These goals have taken on new importance following the 2008 creation of the Union for the Mediterranean joining the European Union and twelve Mediterranean countries.14

There are important differences between the Euro-Mediterranean initiatives discussed here. The Union for the Mediterranean is the product of the Barcelona Process (begun in 1995) and the recent efforts of President Sarkozy. The future direction and importance of the Union (and hence, its impact on the Friche) are unclear at present. In contrast, the Euro-Mediterranean urban renovation project was central to Friche autonomy with regard to the municipality and continues to be crucial to the Friche. Equally important is the designation of Marseille as European Capital of Culture for the year 2013. The city's Mediterranean identity was central in its campaign to win this designation. The headquarters for the ECOC campaign were on Friche grounds and the Friche was named a key cultural intermediary for the project. What these initiatives share is their contribution to an increasingly significant Euro-Mediterranean frame for culture in Marseille. In addition to providing a potentially important source of funding outside the usual municipal, regional, and state sources, this frame has provided support for the interpretation of the universalist ideals of the Republic in ways that reflect the distinctively Mediterranean qualities of Marseille.


Figure 2. Marseille Chamber of Commerce with 2013 European Capital of Culture campaign banner. Photo by author.

Friche International exchanges: republican universalism in a new context

In 2006 Jean-Louis Fabiani described the future Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean.15 For Fabiani, the creation of this museum in Marseille signals a radical transformation in France. The MUCEM will replace the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, designed to illustrate the various popular and local origins of national culture. The underlying assumption, he noted, was that a singular national frame contained these local forms of expression and provided the dominant context within which they were meaningful. The transnational frame of the new museum indicates the obsolescence of this model and signals the recognition of the importance of Europe and the Mediterranean (especially North Africa) in French society. The museum also contributes to defining Marseille as a key site for reflection about France's colonial legacy and its future relations with other European and Mediterranean countries.

The Friche has made a strong contribution to this new role for Marseille. The international exchanges of the Friche include a production centered on the Comores Islands involving exchanges between artists there and Cervantès' troupe. Another (entitled “Cities on the Edge”) establishes exchanges with other post-industrial European cities including Liverpool, Gdansk, and Naples. In an article published 2007 in the monthly periodical of the Marseille municipality devoted to culture, Philippe Foulquié emphasized the creation, in collaboration with the P.A.C.A. region, of a contemporary Arabic-language theatre in Marseille, to be administered by Ziani Chérif Ayad, former director of the National Theatre of Algiers. The project will be truly transnational in drawing on both the administration of the Friche and the El Gosto Theatre in Algiers. The goal is to create contemporary works in Arabic “between the two shores” with Algerian, French, and other European artists, and the work to be presented in both countries and elsewhere.

In words calling to mind the Fourth Republic Constitution which guaranteed access to culture for all, Foulquié spoke of the importance of providing works in Arabic to Marseille's Arabic-speaking population:

It was like a city of 100,000 without a theatre . . . It was necessary to have the Arabic language and its dramatists heard by these fellow citizens. A question of dignity, of recognition of one's own culture, that's all. To be able to go beyond . . . 

He added, significantly, “It is definitely not a case of a withdrawal into a community (repli communautaire).” Like Cervantès', Foulquié's is a voice of Republican universalism but interpreted to include linguistic pluralism, something that has often been viewed as a threat to these ideals in the past. In many ways, the theorists of new territories of art are proposing not so much a new approach to the arts, as the adaptation of old ideals of French cultural policy to new social, political, and economic conditions. Fred Kahn (co-editor of the post-conference new territories book) noted in 2006 that these projects call for more imagination in envisioning the political project of the municipality and the role of civil society in the co-construction of the polis. But his conclusion underlines the continuities with the past: the fundamental goals of the new territories of art are to “reactivate the ideas of decentralization and of participative democracy” (Kahn 2006b). As is evident in the words describing the Arabic-language theatre, these ideals are being interpreted in ways that valorize cultural pluralism, transnational exchanges and a singular local urban environment. In this regard, the Friche and other new territories projects seem especially interesting as laboratories where the ideals of republican universalism are being stretched to fit changing political and economic conditions even as they reproduce a national discourse on culture.

New wine in old bottles?

I described recent changes affecting the civic frame for the Friche arts project, and more generally, for new territories for artists in the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region. These changes are part of emergent transnational forms of governance that are transforming the political and economic context for culture and cultural policy in Europe. They recast the more explicitly statist cultural model of the past by introducing new economic imperatives that are especially evident at the Friche in their emphasis on the city. At the end of the 20th century, as Heikkinen observed, “the competitive ethos of selling places” spread throughout Europe (2000:201). Culture has helped to define places as attractive to potential investors and residents. Increasingly the Friche has served as cultural intermediary for Euro-Mediterranean and other transnational initiatives such as the Euro-Med urban renovation plan, the European Capital of Culture program, and the “Cities on Edge” exchange network.


Figure 3. Graffiti at the Friche near the “Marseille-Provence 2013” Information Office. Photo by author.

This increasingly transnational environment has provided new sources of funding to artists and a broader frame of reference for civic discourse. It has also placed greater weight on the civic work of local cultural producers. At a time when the French state's authority in cultural policy has been challenged, these artists are redefining civic Republican ideals for a new era of globalization and Europeanization These ideals have been interpreted in ways more sensitive (than previous state cultural policy) to the distinctive cultural diversity of Marseille. But the Friche has not (yet) created a locally-sensitive project with regard to its own neighborhood. Foulquié has rejected the idea that the Friche should be especially bound to the Belle de Mai, stating that he feels responsible to all Marseille neighborhoods. This reflects the desire to avoid a narrowly communitarian vision of the arts center's mission and to become a site of universalist culture. Here again the relevant broader civic frame is the city rather than national society, Europe, or the Mediterranean. In adapting to the new Euro-Mediterranean political and economic context, the Friche has established a broad network of transnational institutional partners in which cities have been central. In the promotional efforts of the EU, the internal diversity and stratification of cities tends to be elided, with “unity in diversity” achieved through international exchanges between cities (rather than within them). But locally, this stratification is impossible to ignore and the Friche is being pressed by local residents to realize its civic aims in ways more meaningful to its own neighborhood.

The case of the Friche highlights the paradoxes and ambiguities for artists in France as they seek new bases of legitimacy for civic arts projects in an era of globalization and European integration. Critics have portrayed new territories artists as pawns of a neo-liberal economy because of their anti-state views. It is also possible to view them as tools of governance—subjects who have internalized discourses of the state and serve to disseminate its authority, consonant with the analysis of cultural policy actors by Dubois (1999). But seeing them only as subjects in either sense misses the dynamic and creative qualities of their work in contributing to new networks of influence. Discussing state policy throughout Europe since the 1990s, McGuigan asserts the importance of “the rise of market reasoning within the public cultural sector during the recent period of neo-liberal hegemony” (2004:35). He notes that a key French term associated with this change (désétatisation) was translated into English as privatization. But, he states, this misleading translation hides the fact that many of the new structures created to replace or complement state cultural policy provided opportunities for individual citizens to be more involved. He cites Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, where the art collection and building remained the property of the state and although employees were no longer classified civil servants, the new independent foundation created to manage the museum was supported by public funds.

A more accurate term than ‘privatization’ for naming such a development is “autonomization” . . . Organizational change at the Rijksmuseum might have brought it closer to civil society: devolving power and enabling better opportunities for public participation in the policy-making arena, rather than delivering it to the free play of market forces in the cultural field (ibid:50).

In many ways, “autonomization” aptly describes the goal of participatory democracy among new territories artists and the rationale underlying the Friche adoption of SCIC status. But these artists have also invited new questions about the local dimension of their project. In this case, a responsibility formerly associated with the state (mediating the relationship between culture and the Republic) has been adopted by local cultural producers, who now face new expectations about the public impact of their work. It is likely that the Friche's role within the city will grow, given its status as a key cultural intermediary for the 2013 European Capital of Culture program.

The new Euro-Mediterranean emphasis has often sustained rather than diminished state influence

The case of the Friche suggests that the civic dimension of French arts projects continue to be greatly shaped by the cultural and other policies of the centralized state. Many of the goals expressed by new territories artists are variations on the key themes of Fifth Republic state cultural policy and Friche leaders are motivated by the same ideals of republican universalism so important to state cultural policy in the past. In addition, the growth of local arts initiatives such as the Friche owes much to the evolution of a national economy greatly shaped by the state (e.g. through the TGV train extension). The new Euro-Mediterranean emphasis has often sustained rather than diminished state influence. But the civic dimension of these artists' work is not simply a case of “old wine in new bottles.” In fact, this is probably better described by reversing the cliché—new wine in the “old bottles” of French cultural policy ideals. As they adapt these ideals to the singularly distinctive environment of Marseille, Friche artists are crafting a form of artistic civic engagement that is more sensitive to post-colonial pluralism than centralized state cultural policy has been in the past. At the same time, they are contributing to a nexus of political and economic conditions favoring Euro-Mediterranean exchanges, not simply in Marseille but within a broader national discourse on culture in contemporary France.


  • Acknowledgments. An early version of this paper was presented at the 2006 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting as part of the panel “Problems with Freedom: Re-Thinking Liberalism in Europe.” I am grateful to panel participants Jelena Karanovic and John Bowen for their feedback, as well as to colleagues Jennifer Cash, Jeffrey Cole, Rebecca Free, and Susan Carol Rogers. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers of City and Society for their extremely valuable insights, comments, and suggestions.

  • 1

    The word friche means a fallow piece of land, and by extension, an unimproved or neglected urban property.

  • 2

    All translations from the French (written and oral) are by the author.

  • 3

    This article draws on work with theatre arts initiatives in the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region, including research conducted between 1991 and 2008, especially done in Marseille in the summers of 2005, 2006, and 2008. I draw primarily on interviews with Friche director Philippe Foulquié and Director of the Entreprise theatre troupe François Cervantès. Other interview subjects whose input has informed the analysis here include Friche administrators, theatre artists, schoolteachers, and municipal arts organizers who have worked with the Friche on projects targeting the Belle de Mai neighborhood.

  • 4

    Writing in 1990, he argued that culture and education should not be understood as mere sectors of state intervention. Rather, they are “the very raison d'être of this state. The specificity of the French state on this point is striking” (Rosanvallon 1990:110).

  • 5

    2001 Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin noted that Marseille's being surrounded by mountains led to the public housing being in the heart of the city and “no tension between the populations. The poor and immigrant populations, having arrived at the port, were absorbed by the center of the city” (Les Echos 2001).

  • 6

    In 1985, before his later (and current) tenure as Mayor of the city, Jean-Claude Gaudin spoke of the Porte d'Aix, a strongly North African neighborhood (close to the current Boulevard de la République renovation project) where both formal and informal trade takes place: “The neighborhood of Aix is a true Arab neighborhood. If I have the means to do something at city hall in Marseille one day, I will” (in Le Matin, Nov. 9, quoted in Ruffin 2007).

  • 7

    Dubois echoes recent studies employing the Foucauldian concept of “governmentality” to address the role of cultural policy in the management and control of populations in a neo-liberal era (see Miller and Yùdice 2002; Shore 2006). Like these studies, Dubois' analysis emphasizes the internalization of self-regulating ideologies and practices. Foulquié is self-consciously defining the project of the Friche against a kind of “governmentality,” he sees present in the administration of culture in France.

  • 8

    In Society and Culture (1959), Raymond Williams describes “culture” as an arts-centered response to changes in capitalism and democratic politics. Williams examines key English writers between 1780 and 1950 who sought to protect a separate and sacred realm in opposition to the alienation and aesthetic degradation brought on by capitalism. They also sought to make this sacred realm operative and influential, in short to define culture as a “mitigating and rallying alternative” (xviii) to the harmful social effects of rapid economic change.

  • 9

    Francis the Belgian (1946–2000) was a major figure in organized crime in Marseille during the “French Connection” years. According to a childhood neighbor, “In the Belle de Mai, there were those who went the wrong way and those who went the right way. We saw it immediately. The Vanverberghes went the wrong way. It's because of the neighborhood. The Belle de Mai was the prep school leading directly to the Baumettes prison” (quoted in Cardoza 2000).

  • 10

    In the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, for example, the National Front received 27.7 percent of the vote in Marseille vs. 19.4 percent nationally. But as Andres (2006) notes, this percentage was much higher (38 to 43 percent) in certain polling centers in Belle de Mai (Benit 2004).

  • 11

    The Grand Ensemble“aspires to give the opportunity to socially excluded people, victims of a lack of work or housing, to participate actively in the construction of their home on Friche sites (formerly industrial, today cultural)” (Cordellier 2008: 10).

  • 12

    The other two are to “develop the accessibility of arts content and the projects of social reactivation of the designated audiences . . . ,” and to “put in place specific activities and projects, sponsored by ‘Système Friche Théâtre’ in partnership with the local institutions and actors, and based on social and economic thematics and urban issues” (Friche la Belle de mai, n.p. in part 7c “Politique de la Ville”).

  • 13

    In the fall of 2005 many cars were burned, primarily in the peripheral neighborhoods of major French cities. These followed the accidental deaths of two young men, Zyed Benna (of Tunisian descent) and Bouna Traore (of Mauritanian descent) after they hid in an electrical substation while running away from police. Most car-burnings took place in the greater Paris region but many were outside Paris, including some in Marseille, although reportedly many fewer than might be expected in France's second-largest city.

  • 14

    The Union for the Mediterranean (created in 2008) was initially encouraged by President Sarkozy. It grows out of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership formed at a conference held in Barcelona in 1995. The “Barcelona Process,” brought together the 27 member states of the European Union and Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Libya has observer status and Mauritania has traditionally been invited as a special guest. The Union aims to work more collaboratively on issues such as counter-terrorism, immigration, energy, trade, pollution, water and sustainable development, and peace in the Middle East.

  • 15

    Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San José, Nov. 18, 2006.