It’s like Tinder but for the arts, and with benefits. Your phone shows you a picture teasingly described as likely to “arouse desire” – of a play, a film, a concert, a book, an instrument, a dance class – that is on, or available, in your neighbourhood.
If it’s not for you, swipe left and the app serves up an alternative. If it is, swipe up to get more details, reserve a ticket or buy your copy. The bonus: if this is the year of your 18th birthday, it comes preloaded with €500 of culture credit.
Four hundred young people in five départements are currently testing the technicalities of France’s new culture pass, which fulfils a campaign promise by President Emmanuel Macron to improve popular (and particularly youth) access to a broad range of cultural events, activities and goods.
From late October, according to the culture ministry, which is running the €430m-a-year scheme, 10,000 young people will start using the app in real time in a six-month trial. The scheme is set to be rolled out nationally for all from next spring.
With its key aim being to “encourage cultural discovery and diversification”, the project – 80% funded by the private sector, including potential partnerships with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple – has prompted debate about what constitutes culture, and whether some kinds should be promoted over others.
There have also been warnings that it risks running into the same problems as the “bonus cultura”, a similar scheme introduced in Italy in 2016 by the then prime minister, Matteo Renzi, which local media have reported was widely abused. Italian students not much inspired by the arts reportedly auctioned off their passes to the highest bidder on social media, while unscrupulous retailers exchanged culture credits for electronic items such as tablets, laptops and games consoles while ringing up the sales as weighty art books.
France’s culture minister, Françoise Nyssen, said last month the French pass would involve “no cultural snobbism … No cultural or artistic offering will be excluded. Every organisation active in the cultural arena will be welcome on the pass – public or private, physical or virtual.”
But leading cultural figures have asked whether the French government should really be offering teenagers free tickets for Hollywood blockbusters, such as the latest episode in the Star Wars franchise. “All young people can go and see this kind of movie,” Richard Brunel, director of the national drama centre in Valence, told Le Monde. “It’s not necessary for it to be available on the pass.”
Others disagree. “Culture in France is stuck in a kind of aristocracy,” said Fabrice de Boni, director of a successful web TV series. “Star Wars absolutely should be part of the culture pass’s offering.”
If that argument appears to have been settled (Hollywood is popular culture and will be represented in all its guises, the culture ministry insists, and it will be up to independent and arthouse cinemas to find ways to use the app effectively), there will nonetheless be some “editorialising”.
In principle, offers could range from a ticket for a Comédie Française performance to a week-long water-colour painting course, a school book on a cultural theme, a subscription to a major online music service, six weeks of hip-hop classes or even a critically applauded video game.
But the algorithm is likely to lean towards public sector, independent and local offerings rather than content produced by Netflix or Spotify. It will also, unlike those companies’ apps, promote diversity of cultural experience rather than recommend similar products based on recent behaviour.
Nyssen has also said she intends to set limits – yet to be defined – for certain kinds of expenditure on the app to ensure 18-year-olds do not spend all their credit on subscriptions to US streaming platforms. (Practical cultural activities will not be restricted, allowing young people to blow their €500 on drum lessons if they choose).
“We will be asking for an extra effort from the very big players,” said Frédéric Jousset, a senior member of the project’s management team. “There’s no way this is going to turn into some sort of motorway for the digital majors.”
While many have welcomed the scheme’s potential to expand the cultural horizons of France’s youth, it has plenty of critics, including the late Socialist president François Mitterrand’s influential former culture minister, Jack Lang. In an interview with French public radio, Lang said he was “not convinced” by the project as it stood. “In Italy, it was above all pure entertainment that benefited. Young people have not really been elevated culturally.”
Lang said arts policy should be built on creativity. “We have to have confidence in arts organisations: when you see opera opening up to young people, museums almost becoming schools … We should be encouraging them to open their doors wide, not promoting a sort of cultural consumerism.”
Stéphane Troussel, a Socialist party politician in the northern Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, where the app is being tested, also had his doubts. “Culture is a powerful mechanism for reducing inequalities,” he told Libération. “But it has to be accompanied. For the popular classes, access to culture is not just a financial issue. There needs to be some form of mediation, of preparation. It can’t just be a publicity announcement.”