The social genesis of cultural policy in Brittany: the imposition process of “cultural democratization” (1950 – 1982)

by Mathilde Sempé, PhD candidate at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre

In her presentation, Mathilde Sempé- doctoral student at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre – discusses how politics inform cultural action. Sempé claims that the difficulty in determining the exact parameters and impact of cultural democratization stems from ambiguities within the world of politics. What is of particular interest to Sempé is when political and cultural agendas come at loggerheads and impede on the progress of cultural policy missions such as cultural democratization. She specifically examines the case of the French region of Bretagne (Brittany), as an example of tensions within the social construction of regional identity. Cultural democratization endeavors as tackled in Brittany result in emphasizing local specificities and “mass culture”, or less legitimate forms of culture as advanced by cultural democracy initiatives. Sempé further outlines these efforts in her presentation.

Sempé explains that the process of regionalization, or decentralization, in France has emerged within a heavily centralized State. The emergence of national belonging is coupled with the reification of material and symbolic elements that constitute a common French history, often bypassing regional specificities. As such, Breton vernacular and folklore are set aside as a unified administration imposes French language and history lessons in schools. Sempé associates the end of territorial exaltation to political decisions prioritizing centralized endeavors. Sempé argues that this is evidenced in French literature of the 19th century (Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac), in which provinces are portrayed as backwaters compared with bustling Paris.

Numerous regional initiatives are launched to counter their assumed lack of legitimacy. Regional literature participates in the construction of a “metaphorical and imaginary community” specific to certain provinces, while local libraries become militant advocates for regionally produced works. Furthermore, a Comité d’études et de liaison des intérêts Breton (C.E.L.I.B) is established by local Breton senators and Parliamentary representatives in 1950. C.E.L.I.B attempts to promote regional institutions and the creation of a Breton cultural identity. In the 1970s, this Breton movement gains recognition and further pushes for the institutionalization of the region.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the 1968 revolution in France, regionalist movements manifest great support of the Breton cause. In addition, the negotiations launched in 1978 around the creation of a Breton cultural Charter contribute to the legitimization of the idea of the Breton region as a cultural institution. Using President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s declaration of regional “self determination” pronounced in 1977, Breton militants begin drafting the Charter. A double movement thus emerges: on one hand, regional structures become increasingly politicized, in line with André Malraux’s decentralization of “cultured culture” mission; on the other hand, a more radical movement seeks tor eradicate any distinction between mass culture and erudite culture. Consequentially, contends Sempé, “administrative decentralization stems from a slow internalization of an “arbitrary” form of culture” as advanced by public figures advocating for cultural democratization.

The Breton cultural Charter of 1978 ensures the establishment of the Breton Cultural Institute (I.C.B) and the Breton Cultural Council, which in turn propose a regional cultural policy. Hence, Sempé concludes that the battle to gain recognition for Brittany’s cultural specificity in the French nation has become increasingly institutionalized, to the detriment of smaller social groups representing a similar cause. Local authorities have taken the reigns of this cultural movement; however, this transfer of power has created heterogeneous movements and contestations in Brittany that persist to this day.

[Read the full paper in french]


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