Can you pay an 18-year-old to be ‘cultured’? France gives it a try.

Charles Platiau/Reuters
Visitors take pictures of Leonardo Da Vinci's ‘Mona Lisa’ at the Louvre museum in Paris in late 2018. A new mobile app from the French government identifies many different types of cultural offerings. In its test phase,12,000 18-year-olds have been given €500 to spend on them.

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The Pass Culture, or Culture Pass, is a French mobile app that suggests everything from museums to movies. But for more than 12,000 18-year-olds, the app also comes with €500 ($560) to spend. If successful, the pass could be extended to some 800,000 young people across the country.

The government hopes that exposure to cultural offerings – both French and not – will lift the level of critical thinking, and it wants to remove any barriers. “Money is not the only obstacle for most youth, it’s also about access,” says Clémence Chalopet, in charge of implementing the Pass Culture. “Depending on the region, there can be a lack of reliable internet, information, or transportation. We want to remove those obstacles.”

Some are skeptical about the reach of the pass – even with the monetary bonus – and whether it will be enough to get teens to care about the arts. Yet as 18-year-old Jeanne Marmion says, “Classical music is really not my thing. But if a friend asked me to go to a classical music concert with her and I had this extra money from the pass, I’d probably say yes.”

Why We Wrote This

It’s a centuries-old idea, that in France the government has a key role in promoting culture. President Macron’s attempt to make art more accessible means meeting young people where they’re at – on their mobile phones.

Amid streets lined with soot-washed buildings, the illuminated expanse of windows from Drancy’s local library beckons teens streaming in to get help with their Pass Culture, or Culture Pass, mobile app. The incentive for 18-year-olds to use it is a €500 credit to spend on all things cultural.  

Alan Daniel, a university student, scrolls through the geo-located Pass Culture offerings on his cell phone. “This initiative to give young people easier access to culture is such a good idea because we live in an isolated area,” says Mr. Daniel, a resident of Drancy, one of Paris’s outlying northeastern suburbs. “So to have something that avoids us being stuck, it’s great.”

The Pass Culture, which was rolled out in five regions in an experimental phase last month, is the long-awaited outcome of French President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign promise to make culture more accessible to the French. The new initiative hands €500 ($560) to 18-year-olds on the condition that the money be used to experience culture – anything from museums of impressionist paintings to hip-hop, theater or Spotify. Nearly 12,000 18-year-olds volunteered to help test the program, and if it takes off, the pass could be extended to some 800,000 young people across the country.

Why We Wrote This

It’s a centuries-old idea, that in France the government has a key role in promoting culture. President Macron’s attempt to make art more accessible means meeting young people where they’re at – on their mobile phones.

“We have a very intellectual, theoretical way of looking at culture,” says Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb, a professor of information and communication sciences at the University of Avignon. “Unlike in most other countries, culture is a public affair and governed by the state. We really work to protect culture in France.”

A more varied diet

André Malraux, who was France’s first minister of culture six decades ago, said that at least once in a lifetime, one should experience an “aesthetic shock” after witnessing a piece of art. The government hopes that, with the Pass Culture, French youth will be exposed to cultural offerings – both French and not – that will lift their level of critical thinking in order to encounter that shock. And officials want to remove any barriers that might obstruct it from happening.

“Money is not the only obstacle for most youth, it’s also about access,” says Clémence Chalopet, in charge of implementing the Pass Culture. “Depending on the region, there can be a lack of reliable internet, information, or transportation. We want to remove those obstacles.” Ms. Chalopet’s small startup team working with the French Ministry of Culture also hopes the pass will diversify young people’s interests.

“I usually try to find cultural events online, but this app will help me enrich my knowledge of what’s out there,” says Ziad Lahzami, a Drancy resident. “I want to try to experience new things. That’s the whole point.”

Drancy is located in Seine-Saint-Denis, the region with the lowest living standard in mainland France and a high proportion of youths. Three out of 10 people live below the poverty line and crime is high.

While Mr. Lahzami and others passing through the library say that money isn’t necessarily an obstacle for them when it comes to experiencing culture, the €500 credit could ultimately work to challenge their interests.

“Classical music is really not my thing,” says Jeanne Marmion, an 18-year-old from Drancy. “But if a friend asked me to go to a classical music concert with her and I had this extra money from the pass, I’d probably say yes.”

Dr. Gimello-Mesplomb says that even when money isn’t the primary barrier to accessing culture, it tends to influence how cultural choices are made. It’s been shown that users of France’s unlimited cinema card – which allows viewers as many films as they want for a relatively low monthly charge – tend to see three films that interest them before branching out to more diverse choices.

Still, some are skeptical about the reach of the pass – even with the monetary bonus – and whether it will be enough to get teens to care about culture.

“If a young person has never been exposed to the theater and has no awareness of what it is and you give him a free pass to go, he’ll probably prefer to stay home and watch TV instead,” says Gabriel Segré, a sociology professor of art and culture at the University of Paris-Nanterre.

Dr. Segré says that a campaign to raise awareness in parallel would be useful to maximize the pass in order to reach teens who aren’t naturally interested in culture, but also to make sure the pass isn’t just a continuation of their current consumption.

“It’s very difficult to say if there is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ type of culture, but there’s certainly ‘mainstream’ culture, which is consumed en masse” says Segré, “and it’s not really necessary to put things in place to make this type of culture more accessible. Young people will gravitate toward it naturally.”

Engaging the young

If the Pass Culture works, it could be a model for other countries looking to engage teens – a notoriously demanding demographic. For it to be successful, however, it would need political backing. While France’s government is responsible for cultural education and funding, the United States, for example, uses a complex web of public and private entities to promote culture. France will also be looking to avoid Italy’s result, whose similar youth pass in 2016 reportedly failed to increase cultural participation, due to misuse by teens and retailers.

And cost is, of course, a factor. The Ministry of Culture will need to cough up around €400 million of its €10 billion annual budget to keep the pass running if it’s found to be successful. The Pass Culture team has six months to assess its progress before turning in a full report.

Until then, those working with teens see the pass as, at the very least, an insider’s view into the minds of 18-year-olds, who vary considerably – from high school and university students, to salaried workers and the unemployed. Shanys Francillette, who is in charge of culture and communication for the town of Drancy, sees learning about the app and meeting with young people as a type of reconnaissance mission.

“We’re always looking at what interests young people,” says Ms. Francillette. “But it’s hard to find things that will be of interest to everyone. This generation is very difficult to please.”

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