The Maisons des jeunes et de la culture (Houses of youth and culture) some other kind of Maisons de la Culture (Houses for Culture) ? Youth and community centres versus Cultural centers in France (1959-1980)
by Laurent Besse (lecturer in History at Tours university (IUT) in a department where Youth and Community workers are trained)
This paper deals with the relationships between MJC, Maisons des jeunes et de la culture (Youth and Community centres) and the sphere of culture related to the Ministry of Culture. The main thesis is that from the mid 1960’s until the late 1970’s many MJC which epitomize the world of animation1 and had no link with the Ministry of Culture played a role as de facto cultural centres in medium and small sized cities.
MJC belong to what is called in France “éducation populaire” whose approximation in English could be non formal education and adult education. Founded in the aftermath of WW2, these institutions which are associations subsided by the Department of Youth and Sport and local authorities aim at giving a civic education to young people. The final goal of “éducation populaire” is to promote active citizenship in a perspective of emancipation. For two years from 1944 to 1946, the federation of MJC was significantly named “la République des jeunes” (Youth Republic). MJC are not the exact counterparts of English Youth centres as they are open to adults, though until the late 1960’s, most of their audience was under 25. Their name, Houses of Youth and Culture, stresses the fact that more emphasis is put in the French context on cultural and artistic matters when dealing to Youth and Community work. But Culture in the “éducation populaire” tradition is not reduced to Fine arts, even not to what is called Culture générale2. It defines culture as the ability of understanding our environnement and to act in order to transform this environnement. This refusal to reduce culture to the Fine Arts is accompanied by a refusal of specialization: culture as a whole that must be seen « globally ». Though recreation, especialy recreation for Youth, made the bulk of the activity of MJC in the 50’s, some of these institutions, the largest ones which were building new premises, had some cultural facilities which enable them to offer plays and music sessions.
The founding of Ministry of Cultural affairs for André Malraux in 1959 is a turning point in French cultural policy. Malraux wanted to create Maisons de la Culture (Houses of Culture) to promote his policy. He asked the MJC in 1960 to quit their final C, the one which refers to Culture in order to become Houses for Youth and not overshadow his new institution. The MJC refused to play along. However, after several drafts, the design of Maisons de la Culture gave no place left for confusion as the minister chose what Philippe Urfalino later called “a exemplarity which makes a distinction” : Maisons de la culture would only house the best of artistic creation and refuse everything which could be seen as amateurish or too education-purpose led. The divide between “éducation populaire” and the new ministry of Culture got wider.
The projects of Malraux were refused by some local authorities which saw them as too jacobine and elitist. This led to the creation of a Fédération nationale des centres culturels communaux (FNCCC) that is National Federation of Municipal Cultural Centers. But even though they had some interests in common, FNCCC and MJC did not really met. The MJC, being independent associations, were very suspicious of the influence local authorities could have on them. All their institutional organisation was designed has to preserve their autonomy from local authorities.
Why is it then that MJC played a role in the cultural life of many cities in France? First, one should take into account the effects of the programs of central government subsidizing Youth and community centres (3 plans 1961-1965, 1966-1970, 1971-1975). The Ministry of Cultural affairs had more prestige but lacked money: only 8 Maisons de la culture were built in the 1960’s, a figure to be compared to the hundreds of Youth and community centres subsidized by the government programmes. After 1965, many local authorities took the opportunity to build a MJC-Centre culturel, that is a Youth and community centre with a theatre or a least a multipurpose hall which could be converted into a theater. The local authorities opted often for MJC to run their premises because the federation of MJC had a long experience of management and could provide a manager, trained both as a youth and community worker and a manager, most of the cost of the being given by central governement.
In the late 1960’s, the activity of MJC shifted from Youth to Culture, these institutions hosting shows, conferences, cultural cycles. The May 68 events reinforced this trend, the MJC being in small towns one, if not the, place where things happened. In the early 1970’s they were seen for some time as the houses of counterculture or underground culture, though being at the same time places of craft workshops. But in the late 1970’s their importance in small and middle sized towns of France declined as a network of purpose built cultural premises began to spread in these towns, a trend which fully developped in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. The role of MJC as de facto or default cultural centres then came to an end.
1 For a very short introduction to French animation in English : http://www.infed.org/mobi/animateurs-animation-learning-and-change
2 For some details on the conception of culture among the militants of éducation populaire at the Liberation : Brian Rigby “Intellectuals, education and culture at the Liberation : the opposition to “la culture scolaire”, French Cultural Studies, 1994, V, p. 241-250, even if the author overemphasizes the anti-intellectual trends of éducation populaire of this time.