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Long read: Monaco shows France how and why culture can stay open during a pandemic

Monaco Info

Monaco’s more liberal measures during the coronavirus crisis starkly contrast with France’s adamant closure of entire sectors of the economy. While restaurants in Monaco are facing increasingly stricter measures to stay open, Monaco’s approach to its cultural sector could serve as an example to France and other countries.

As France went into its second lockdown in November, Monaco reduced all concert seats to five euros, staged a new production of Bizet’s Carmen and announced four shows by French comedian Gad Elmaleh that sold out within hours. Two months later, when the bordering region of Alpes-Maritimes introduced a 6 pm curfew, Monaco pushed back concert times to accommodate French spectators. “The concert has been moved to 3 pm to respect the 6 pm curfew in the Alpes-Maritimes,” stated at the time the website of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. 


In Monaco, save a new 7 pm curfew and strict social distancing measures, it’s been business as usual for the country’s theatres, concert halls, cinemas and museums since they reopened at the end of the first lockdown. But if you cross the border into France, you’ll find a very different picture. French cultural venues have been shut for the past three months.

Françoise Gamerdinger, Director of Cultural Affairs in the Principality, prefers to shy away from commenting on France’s policies. “It’s not up to me to give my opinion on a decision taken by the authorities of another country,” she told us. “There is no particular message behind the Prince’s Government’s decision other than that of supporting and promoting culture in these difficult times, as it is an integral part of our lives.” 

Since the beginning of the second coronavirus wave, Monaco has made a point of promoting culture, for instance with the “Culture&You” initiative. In December, Prince Albert II even co-wrote an open letter published in the weekly French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, pleading for “the lockdown on our minds to be lifted”. The letter was signed by 32 public figures, including the Director of the Opera of Monte-Carlo and Stéphane Bern, a well-known French journalist. 

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Spectacle Carmen à l'Opéra de Monte-Carlo
© Government of Monaco

A key sector of France’s economy has been shut for months  

It’s been a tedious three months for France’s culture industry. After November’s soft lockdown, the closure was supposed to be reviewed on 15 December. Mid-December, the projected opening of cultural venues was postponed to early 2021, France’s daily infections being far below the goal of 5,000 a day. Then came January’s rising Covid-19 cases. At the beginning of 2021, the reopening was once again postponed – indefinitely. 

Along with the economy, it is curiosity and creativity that must be revived so that we may emerge from this pandemic stronger and with the means to address the major environmental and social challenges of our time

Open letter signed by Prince Albert II and 32 other public figures

For Aude Extrémo, a French mezzo-soprano who sang the title role in the new production of Carmen at the Opera of Monte-Carlo back in November, the hardest part of the situation is the uncertainty. “It’s difficult because we don’t have a date. We would be much more optimistic if we knew how long it would last.” Extrémo, who is currently rehearsing for concerts in March, says she has absolutely no idea whether the concerts will go through.

The decision to keep cultural venues shut touches a chord in France, a country which not only promotes, but also prides itself on its culture. Culture represents 2,3% of the French economy, or about 80,000 businesses and 630,000 jobs. In 2018, culture generated in France 91,4 billion euros, as much as the agricultural and food industry. 

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“I do need to stress, however that France is very generous with its artists,” says Aude Extrémo. The French government has indeed been generous, giving the sector around 7,4 billion euros in aid, including 1,3 billion euros in immediate aid, for instance to cover temporary unemployment. 

Bertrand Rossi, Director of the Opera of Nice, says that the aid given to them by the city of Nice has been vital. “Without the City of Nice, we would be in an extremely precarious situation today.” In fact, state funding has allowed them to continue to perform behind closed doors. A testament to the importance of culture in France, the city of Nice has not cut the Opera’s 2020 budget, allowing all productions to go through. Staged in an empty theatre, the Nice opera house has uploaded its most recent performances, including a new production of the opera Akhnaten by Philip Glass, to its YouTube channel. 

France is not the only country where Covid-19 has trampled on cultural life. The latest statistics estimate a 30% drop in turnover Europe-wide, higher than the losses of the tourism and car industry. For performing arts and music, the numbers climb up to 90% and 76% respectively. In England, Germany, and Switzerland all cultural venues are shut. Italy has only just partially reopened museums after months of closure.  

Fewer are the countries going against the current. In Spain, despite high case numbers, the country’s museums, cinemas and concert halls are all open. More modest Belgium reopened museums in December, and so did Ireland. 

And then, there’s Monaco. 

How Monaco found a way to keep culture going

On 17 January, French pianist Alexandre Kantarow performed at the Auditorium Rainier III, home of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert is very much awaited; Kantarow is the orchestra’s artist in residence. 

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Being able to go to a concert is such a relief

Even if the audience is larger than usual, the auditorium is nowhere near half-full. Staff, careful to observe social distancing, guide each spectator to their seat. “I feel safe here,” says a concert goer we start talking to. “Much safer than I do when I’m shopping in Nice on Jean Médecin. There is so much space, everyone’s wearing masks. And being able to go to a concert is such a relief.” The avenue Jean Médecin, Nice’s main shopping street, is notoriously packed at the weekend, especially now that sales have started. 

It is true. When you sit in a half-empty concert hall, ceilings as high as a church’s dome, you cannot help but wonder the risk of catching Covid-19 in such an environment, and how that risk differs from shopping on avenue Jean Médecin on a busy Saturday afternoon.

What are the risks of contracting coronavirus in a cultural venue? 

The epidemiological risk of concert halls, theatres, and museum should be at the core of the debate on whether or not to lift the culture lockdown. However, it’s not. Why? Because there is very little research on the topic. A study published by the Pasteur Institute found that for infections outside the household, the chief source of contagion are family meetings (33%), followed closely by workplace colleagues (29%), and friends and acquaintances (21%). The study identifies three environments that are at a high-risk of coronavirus infection: meals, shared offices, and gyms. Yet, the report does not mention anything about the risk posed by cultural venues. Asked for further information, the institute declined to reply.

While the exact risk of contracting Covid-19 in a theatre or museum remains unclear, epidemiologists have confirmed that cultural venues do not pose a greater threat to the pandemic than other everyday environments. Interviewed by French newspaper La Croix, epidemiologist Dominique Costagliola confirmed that studies have not been able to prove that there is a high risk of catching Covid-19 in cultural venues. “Staying in a museum for an hour while wearing a mask and without talking to anyone is no riskier than taking the metro,” explained Costagliola.

How did Monaco fare?

In Monaco, the decision to keep culture open throughout the autumn and winter months did not quicken the course of the pandemic. In fact, by the end November, Monaco saw a 75% drop in coronavirus cases compared to the beginning of the month. Cases are now significantly up, but the new rise is in line with the European trend of spiking infections. 

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You have to keep in mind that Monaco is a city-state

While Françoise Gamerdinger stressed that Monaco “did not report Covid-19 clusters amongst the audience,” there have been cases amongst performers. Most recently, three dancers of the Monte-Carlo Ballet tested positive, leading the company to swiftly cancel its New Year’s performance. For Françoise Gamerdinger, Monaco’s success is due strict health measures. These range from overflowing hand sanitizer, compulsory masks, temperature reading and an empty space between each spectator. The venues keep record of all audience members in order to track them were a cluster to appear.

The size of the country must also be taken into account. “You have to keep in mind that Monaco is a city-state that is only 2 square km and where measures can probably be introduced more quickly and monitored more easily than in other countries,” says Françoise Gamerdinger.

Is culture an essential need? 

Yet mere country size is not enough to justify France’s culture lockdown, which in December took a sour turn when shops were allowed to open up again. For many, the preferential treatment given to shops was difficult to ignore. Interviewed by French news channel LCI, the actor Charles Berling accused the government of having concerning priorities, saying that the cultural industry was being “sacrificed at the altar of an absolutely appalling consumerism.”

Who can truly think that culture is not essential?

However, the director of the opera of Nice says that the analogy is beside the point. “I don’t like the current debate about whether culture is essential or not and whether closing cultural venues is more justified than closing shops,” argues Bertrand Rossi. “Who can truly think that culture is not essential?” And yet in the French Maslow hierarchy of needs, culture is at the very bottom, stomped down by the more essential need of consumerism, laments Aude Extrémo. “We are emphasising consuming over culture, that’s for sure,” she says when asked about the opening of shops. “I do ask myself a lot of questions about the coherence of the decision. Going to a concert or visiting a museum is, in my opinion, a much greater source of comfort than the consumption towards which we are pushed constantly.”

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Culture helps us develop and fosters our well-being

With rising cases, no one can predict when culture in France will get back on its feet. Just last week, the Mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, announced that the city’s cultural life would be on hold until 15 September 2021. What is sure, however, is that the past months have left artists and spectators with a bitter after taste. France’s decision has started a debate on the societal value of culture that had already begun back in November when the government closed bookshops but allowed electronic stores to stay open.

Without using the term “essential”, Monaco’s Françoise Gamerdinger stresses that culture has never been as important as it is now, in words that sound like a discreet nudge to Monaco’s neighbours. “Culture lifts us up. It confronts us with multiple ideas and means of expression; it helps us develop and fosters our well-being. In times of crisis, we now need it more than ever.” 

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