French Mayor Opens Museums, Defying Coronavirus Orders

Visitors to the Hyacinthe-Rigaud museum in Perpignan, France, on Feb. 9. The city’s mayor ordered museums there to open, despite a national ban because of the coronavirus pandemic.

If you wanted to visit a museum in France this week, you were out of luck. On Monday, all — from the Louvre in Paris, to hundreds of local museums — were shut, as they had been since Oct. 30, when the government ordered them closed in the face of rising coronavirus cases.

They remained shut despite a rising clamor from museum directors, who have begged the government to let them open their doors.

“For an hour, for a day, for a week or a month, let us reopen,” wrote the leaders of some of the country’s most prominent art institutions in an open letter published in the newspaper Le Monde earlier this month. “Art can contribute to cure the soul, as medicine does,” the letter added.

Their efforts fell on deaf ears.

But then an unlikely savior came to the rescue — for museums in the city of Perpignan, in southern France, at least. Louis Aliot, Perpignan’s mayor, is a member of National Rally, the far-right political party associated more with a hard line on immigration than with support for the arts. He became the unlikely champion of culture when he defied the national government and passed a decree allowing the city’s four museums to welcome visitors for the first time in over three months.

“Perpignan has suffered enough, and its inhabitants need this patch of blue sky,” Aliot said by email. The museums were following safety protocols, he added, admitting one person per 100 square feet — the same standard as for most retail stores — and with masks required.

“Don’t come and tell me it is more dangerous to go to a museum than a supermarket,” he added.

France’s government has challenged Aliot’s decree in the courts, but on Friday, Perpignan’s four museums remained open. The action has received some public support — an article in Le Monde called it a “great political coup” — and seems to have emboldened others. On Friday, André Laignel, the socialist mayor of Issoudun, a town in the middle of the country, said he would reopen an art museum there on Saturday.

Many at France’s cultural institutions agree it is time for museums to reopen, even if they disagree with Aliot’s renegade action.

Frédéric Jousset, a member of the Louvre’s board, said that the mayor’s decision was irresponsible, but added that it was a smart public relations move. Aliot gave himself a starring role in the debates around French cultural life, Jousset said.

He added, however, that it was “illogical” that museums were still shut while stores, art galleries and libraries were open. “Right now, you can go and buy lingerie!” he said. “But how come museums — something that is paramount for social cohesion, for education, for entertainment — are still forbidden?”

France, like most of Europe, saw a spike in coronavirus cases over the winter, as new variants spread across the continent. Now, case numbers appear to be stabilizing, partly thanks to a 6 p.m. curfew, but remain high. On Thursday, there were some 21,063 new cases and 360 deaths. As of Friday morning, France had recorded nearly 81,000 deaths in relation to the virus.

But variations in case numbers have not stopped rising opposition to restrictions on cultural life.

France’s bookstores led the charge, with a handful refusing to close when the lockdown was ordered in October. Florence Kammermann, the owner of the Autour d’un Livre store in Cannes, which stayed open for several weeks despite the order, said in a telephone interview that the police visited her business four times and issued a fine. But she did not regret her decision, she said.

She was completely opposed to the National Rally party and its policies, she added, but she supported Aliot in reopening museums. Many in France complained that the country’s lockdown rules were illogical, she added, “but they don’t have the guts to do this.”

French theaters have also staged protests against their forced closure. In December, several venues symbolically reopened their doors to let actors and fans into their entrance halls, though after the action, they shut again.

Jean-Francois Chougnet, the president of the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, in Marseilles, said in a telephone interview that France’s museum directors would happily accept any conditions if they allowed them to reopen their doors. “Just tell us,” Chougnet said. “We are open to anything.”

On Monday, Roselyne Bachelot, France’s culture minister, held a Zoom call with the leaders of several museums, including the Louvre, to discuss how they could reopen safely. She told attendees that museums would be the first cultural venues to reopen once the virus was under control, said Emma Lavigne, the president of the Palais de Tokyo, who was on the call.

“We are disappointed,” Lavigne said, “but I know she heard our concerns.”

ImageLouis Aliot, Perpignan’s mayor, addressing reporters at the Hyacinthe-Rigaud museum on Tuesday.
Credit…Raymond Roig/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Perpignan, the mayor’s decision has drawn a mixed reception. Some 322 people visited the Hyacinthe-Rigaud museum there on Thursday, Pascale Picard, the museum’s director, said in an email. “This opening feels like a precious gift,” she added.

But Claire Muchir, a former curator at the museum, told L’Indépendant, the city’s main newspaper, that the decision was reckless, given the state of the pandemic in France. “We are not in a western, and Louis Aliot must stop playing John Wayne,” she said. “We all want the museums to reopen, but we must be serious and respectful of the measures.”

Eric Pritchard, a sculptor who lives in the city, said in a telephone interview that people there were divided, but he thought the mayor’s move was a good one. “It’s not dangerous,” he said, adding that museum visitors don’t touch anything, and don’t talk. “It’s not like a rave party,” he said.

A court in Montpellier will hear the French government’s appeal to overturn the mayor’s decree on Monday. Aliot said he would argue his case. France has “to learn to live with the virus in a spirit of responsibility,” he said, adding that culture was a vital part of life.

“I have always taken responsibility for my ideas and my actions,” Aliot said. That might not please people who dislike the National Rally party, he added, but, “It doesn’t matter.”

“Don’t come and tell me it is more dangerous to go to a museum than a supermarket,” he added.

France’s government has challenged Aliot’s decree in the courts, but on Friday, Perpignan’s four museums remained open. The action has received some public support — an article in Le Monde called it a “great political coup” — and seems to have emboldened others. On Friday, André Laignel, the socialist mayor of Issoudun, a town in the middle of the country, said he would reopen an art museum there on Saturday.

Many at France’s cultural institutions agree it is time for museums to reopen, even if they disagree with Aliot’s renegade action.

Frédéric Jousset, a member of the Louvre’s board, said that the mayor’s decision was irresponsible, but added that it was a smart public relations move. Aliot gave himself a starring role in the debates around French cultural life, Jousset said.

Jean-Francois Chougnet, the president of the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, in Marseilles, said in a telephone interview that France’s museum directors would happily accept any conditions if they allowed them to reopen their doors. “Just tell us,” Chougnet said. “We are open to anything.”

On Monday, Roselyne Bachelot, France’s culture minister, held a Zoom call with the leaders of several museums, including the Louvre, to discuss how they could reopen safely. She told attendees that museums would be the first cultural venues to reopen once the virus was under control, said Emma Lavigne, the president of the Palais de Tokyo, who was on the call.

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