Provincial France has come a long way since the early '60s when Paris unabashedly monopolized "la culture" and drained the rest of the country of its creative and intellectual talent.
Today, the French capital continues to hold sway, but increasing numbers of local writers, artists, and musicians are snubbing the lures of Paris with all its trappings and seeking instead to stimulate the regions with a more vigorous life.
But in heavily centralized France, these energetic and inspired creators must still face innumerable political and social obstacles before they can hope to achieve the sort of quality that has become evident among many West German and British provincial theaters, orchestras, and opera houses.
Here in this Mediterranean administrative and university regional capital, with its magnificent 17th- and 18th-century town houses, Socialist Mayor Georges Freche has helped transform Montpellier into a model of regional culture. Many left-wing supporters point to the city as an example of the type of cultural change the country could expect were the Socialists to come to power in the two-round French presidential elections (April 26 and May 10).
"The municipality has adopted a policy of encouraging 'culture for all' while still maintaining a high degree of cultural prestige," said Sylvie Pannier, an arts reporter on the Journal de Montpellier. "It is amazing how things have changed over the past three years."
Since coming to power in the 1977 legislative elections, the left-wing municipal government has given Montpellier its own full-time orchestra and heavily subsidizes local theater, music, and artistic enterprises. There are now more than 100 cultural events every week in and around the city, ranging from modern ballet to folk music.
"The problems faced by Montpellier are much the same as faced by all provincial towns in France," notes Vincent Bioules a Montpellier-born painter, whose family is intensely involved in local musical activities. "There are always the problems of finance and finding the right talented people. But we have made much headway here. Before, the city had to rely on outsiders from Paris touring the provinces for cultural entertainment. Now we are producing our own."
But as all too often seems to happen in France, cultural or social projects that must rely on government funding have political strings attached. Critics accuse the central administration of purposely blocking projects proposed by opposition municipalities out of political spite. Towns and villages supporting the majority, they claim, tend to have better facilities than those in the opposition.
Another source of ill-feeling is government-run radio and TV. Many feel that too much politics is involved in choosing performers who go on the air.
But the blocking is not necessarily always between government and opposition. In some cases, coalition Socialist-Communist municipalities are barely on speaking terms with each other. In Pezenas, a beautiful medieval town 50 kilmeters southwest of here, municipal strife between the two parties is expected to prevent the town's highly successful Moliere festival from taking place this year.
"Whatever one does in France it becomes so politicized that one can't do anything," said a hotelier whose trade will obviously suffer.
But compared with the early postwar years, "la culture" has taken a quantative foothold in the provinces.
"There is hardly a village in France which has not got a festival of sorts," said Claire Frachon, a producer of cultural films. "Any pretext is good enough. It is hoped that the locals will come but they are mainly geared toward attracting tourists."