Paris underdog battles bastion of elite culture

Theatre merger leads to conflict in the arts world

It is a tale of two theatres. France's most venerable establishment theatre, the 328-year-old Comédie Française, has become embroiled in a row with a cutting-edge drama company over the place of high art in Paris's rough suburbs.

MC 93 is a stage for contemporary talent in the outer suburb of Bobigny. For years it has staged provocative performances that would never find a home in the first arrondissement, where the Comédie Française sits alongside the Palais Royal.

Then, two weeks ago, it was revealed that the Comédie Française, backed by the Ministry of Culture, had decided that MC 93 was to become its entry point into the suburbs and was planning to add it to two smaller theatres it runs in the centre of the capital.

'Stuck in the centre of Paris, the premier dramatic company of France risks cutting itself off from a growing audience which will not come to it if it doesn't go to them,' said Muriel Mayette, the energetic new director of the Comédie Française. 'The aim [of the project] is to create an artistic and dramatic utopia.'

In Bobigny the plan provoked a furore. For Patrick Sommier, director of MC 93, it was nothing less than a hostile takeover. 'Never in a time of peace have we seen one theatre make another one disappear in order to expand,' he said. He even quoted Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. 'As described in [Levi's] If This is a Man, the feeling of revolt comes when you feel you have no identity and that anything can be done to you without your accord,' he said.

Charging to the aid of the Comédie Française came Christine Albanel, the Minister of Culture. She said she considered a 'union' between the two theatres a 'superb opportunity'. Her intervention made things worse.

There have been wounding allegations that the main attraction of acquiring MC 93 is not the prospect of a new audience among the culturally disenfranchised youth of immigrant communities but to take advantage of the theatre's modular stage, far more advanced than anything the Comédie Française has.

Experts say the row goes to the heart of arts policy - split between challenging grassroots projects and the massive institutions of high culture. 'Either the project is naive or reveals a colonialist vision on the part of the Comédie Française of the flower of our [national] theatre spreading the good word in the poor suburbs, all without consulting the natives,' said Odile Quirot, of the Nouvel Observateur magazine.

Mayette, 44, denies the charge of snobbery. But last week her actors issued a statement saying they would refuse to work at MC 93 against the will of those running the theatre.

At stake, too, is money. The Comédie Française receives more than £20m a year from the state, with another £6m from other sources. MC 93 gets most of its smaller financial needs from the local region. Will the plucky underdog resist the aggressor? Or will its wealthier suitor make an offer that cannot be refused? The final act is approaching.


Jason Burke in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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