France gave teenagers $350 for culture. They’re buying comic books

When the French government launched a smartphone app that gives 300 euros to every 18-year-old in the country for cultural purchases like books and music, or exhibition and performance tickets, most young people’s impulse wasn’t to buy Proust’s greatest works or to line up and see Molière.

Aurelien BreedenThe New York Times
Published : 29 July 2021, 06:58 AM
Updated : 29 July 2021, 06:58 AM

Instead, France’s teenagers flocked to manga.

“It’s a really good initiative,” said Juliette Sega, who lives in a small town in southeastern France and has used 40 euros (about $47) to buy Japanese comic books and “The Maze Runner,” a dystopian novel. “I’m a steady consumer of novels and manga, and it helps pay for them.”

As of this month, books represented over 75% of all purchases made through the app since it was introduced nationwide in May — and roughly two-thirds of those books were manga, according to the organisation that runs the app, called the Culture Pass.

The French news media has written of a “manga rush,” fuelled by a “manga pass” — observations that came via a slightly distorted lens, since the app arrived just as theatres, cinemas and music festivals, emerging from pandemic-related restrictions, had less to offer. And manga were already wildly popular in France.

But the focus on comic books reveals a subtle tension at the heart of the Culture Pass’ design, between the almost total freedom it affords it young users — including to buy the mass media they already love — and its architects’ aim of guiding users toward lesser-known and more highbrow arts.

Every French 18-year-old can activate the pass and spend 300 euros for up to two years on the app, on which over 8,000 businesses and institutions have listed their offerings.

Teenagers can buy physical goods from bookstores, record shops and arts supply or instrument stores. They can purchase tickets to movie showings, plays, concerts or museum exhibits. And they can sign up for dance, painting or drawing classes.

Noël Corbin, a Culture Ministry official who oversees the project, said the pass gave France’s newly minted adults a way of looking up nearby cultural offerings — the app has a geolocation feature — and encouraged them to indulge their cultural passions.

But it also uses incentives to push teenagers toward new, more challenging art forms, he said, a type of curation to “bring young people to discover the realms of possibility of cultural life.”

Those include recommendation lists curated by Culture Pass staff members and by popular artists and celebrities, as well as access to VIP events, like a livestreamed concert at the Soulages Museum in southern France and a behind-the-scenes look at the Avignon theatre festival.

In a speech to launch the Culture Pass in May, President Emmanuel Macron, who had made the initiative one of his campaign promises, said that France would mark a “formidable victory” when young people stop saying, “This work of literature, this movie is not for me.”

Yet critics argue that letting 825,000 teenagers loose with free cash and expecting them to be nudged away from the nearest multiplex and into an art-house movie theatre is a naïve waste of taxpayer money.

Jean-Michel Tobelem, an associate professor at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne who specialises in the economics of culture, said that it was a laudable effort but that it would largely benefit the mainstream media.

“You don’t need to push young people to go see the latest Marvel movie,” he said.

There is nothing wrong with pop music or blockbusters, he stressed, acknowledging that “you can enter Korean culture through K-Pop and then discover that there is a whole cinema, a literature, painters and composers that go with it.”

But Tobelem said that he was unconvinced that the no-strings-attached approach of the Culture Pass would do that, and that the app gave few incentives to engage with “works that are more demanding on an artistic level.”

The app comes with built-in restrictions: Users can spend only up to 100 euros on offerings like e-books and online media subscriptions, and on music or movie streaming services, which are also limited to French companies. And while the Culture Pass can be spent on video games, the game’s publisher must be French, and the game must not feature violence — conditions so restrictive that most popular titles are unavailable.

Naza Chiffert, who runs two independent bookstores in Paris, said the Culture Pass had already had a positive effect on her business. “Getting young people who read but who are more used to Amazon or big-box stores to come to us isn’t easy,” she said, but now she has teenagers in her stores every day.

Still, some worry that the pass will be a financial windfall for people from privileged backgrounds while doing little to help others expand their cultural horizons.

“A kid from the projects will lean toward what he already knows,” said Pierre Ouzoulias, a senator for the French Communist Party who has pushed to scrap the pass. “I can’t for one moment imagine a kid using the pass to go listen to Baroque opera.”

Ouzoulias fell in love with Baroque opera as a teenager, despite growing up in a “relatively modest environment, with almost no musical culture.” But he said he was an exception to the rule, and favours more structured support from the state. “If you leave individuals to their own devices, you perpetuate social discrimination,” he said.

One large union representing hundreds of public cultural institutions, mainly in the performing arts, called the pass a “presidential gadget” with “exorbitant” funding. The project cost 80 million euros this year, and that is expected to double next year, although it will remain a fraction of the Culture Ministry’s nearly 4 billion-euro budget.

Opponents accuse Macron of throwing cash at young people to court their vote before next year’s presidential election and choosing an unregulated approach instead of funding existing cash-strapped outreach programs, like those run by youth community centres, that broaden access to culture in a more structured way.

France’s Culture Ministry counters that it plans to introduce the pass to middle-school students, first in a teacher-managed classroom setting, and gradually increasing amounts of autonomy and money, until students reach 18. It also says the pass enables cultural institutions to reach young audiences, which are usually hard to attract, directly on their smartphones.

Teenagers themselves echoed both critics and promoters of the pass: More guidance wouldn’t hurt, but the freedom is great.

Gabriel Tiné, an 18-year-old osteopathy student in Paris, has spent over 200 euros from his pass at Citeaux Sphère, a Parisian record store, where he and a friend were thumbing through vinyls on a recent afternoon.

Nearly all of his friends have activated the pass, and nationwide nearly 630,000 teenagers now use it. There are minor complaints: The app has glitches and is better designed for those who know what they are looking for, not just browsing. But Tiné said he liked the idea, especially the ability to splurge on musical instruments or art classes.

“I wouldn’t say no to attending a jazz concert or something like that,” Tiné said, although he added that the app hadn’t enticed him to buy those tickets.

“What’s interesting,” he said, “is that each person can do what they want with it.”

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