LENS - Matthieu Debas, the owner of the "Chez Cathy" bar, is peeling some potatoes for tonight's French fries. Across the street, he can see the faint lights of the construction site. On Rue Paul-Bert, cars are zigzagging around heavy equipment, lit up by the lights of the diggers.
As the inauguration date of the Louvre museum branch gets ever closer, the city of Lens is buzzing with activity. A group of workers enter the bar. "A bottle of lemonade for three!" jokes one of them. Deadpan, Mathieu Debas serves the drink… with three straws.
You could say the media outlets from all over the world are now getting a taste for his menu of steak-frites: "Two days ago, we had Japanese TV. Yesterday, there was a German cultural radio." Surrounded by traditional miners’ terraced houses, the restaurant has not yet stepped into the future. It looks quite anachronistic compared to the brand new boulevard and park, which hides the white building designed by architectural firm, Sanaa.
The city council has not offered to renovate the surrounding buildings. "I will invest in a simple patio," explains Matthieu, who is not complaining. "It’s all good! It gives hope to everybody. People have already gotten used to taking Sunday walks on these beautiful tree-lined sidewalks. They are delighted to learn that access to some parts of the museum will be free."
Matthieu even wants to recruit new employees: "What a pleasure it is to be able to offer someone a new job! And to be able to participate in the development of the local area, even if it’s only on a small, personal scale." This new job will be added to the 250 direct and 500 indirect jobs created by the museum, according to Mayor Guy Delcourt. Like many people here, the mayor of Lens – from the Socialist Party (PS) – is the son and grandson of coal miners. He comments on the calmness of the town's citizens: "People from Lens, contrary to the fiery reputation of local soccer supporters, are not very communicative. Marked by the history of the coal industry, they bottle their feelings inside. Yet I can feel a discreet quiver of impatience. You'll be surprised by the high attendance rate. People will come out of the pits to see their new museum."
Making culture accessible to the masses
Since 2004, the city council has made a massive educational effort. "We are the only city in France to send all their sixth grade students to the Louvre Museum in Paris every year," boasts the mayor. "We have launched "a Louvre class' at the Paul-Bert school, an art class at the Condorcet High School. The communication program at the University of Artois has also worked on the project."
First, Guy Delcourt managed to convince the Louvre's administration to give a series of lectures. "They did not initially believe in the project. Curators coming to a city that doesn’t even have a museum? I didn’t back down and it paid off. We have 450 students now. It is the largest decentralized school in France."
Delcourt also heard criticisms. "This place is not for us... It is too beautiful… You should have opened a factory instead… The criticism mostly came from the local representatives of the Front de Gauche (the French far-left alliance). There was also jealousy, from the posh business circles in the neighboring city of Lille, who believed that making culture accessible to the masses is a stupid idea.”
Juliette Guépratte, who is in charge of visitors at the museum, has been working on the "Hors les Murs" ("Outside the Walls") campaign since August, to make sure that “the move was not rejected.” The word spread – from the local fairs to the Braderie de Lille (Europe's largest annual flea market) – and the team launched a door-to-door operation. "We copied Barack Obama's electoral campaign," explains this former Ecole du Louvre (the art history School of the Louvre) and Centre Pompidou-Metz student. "We enrolled tourism students from Lens and knocked on 1,700 doors in the space of one month. One third welcomed us, half of them were enthusiastic and the other half was either uninformed or were opposed to it." The skeptical ones had doubts about the legitimacy of the projects in this period of economic crisis. "Others thought that we would only get rejected art pieces from the Louvre."
A few days* before the inauguration of the museum, the city of Lens is getting prepared to host a massive influx of foreign tourists. The lack of beds worries the city council. "We need to be patient," says the mayor. "Hotel owners want immediate profitability, but there won't be any new hotel openings before 2014. The owner of the Westminster Hotel in Le Touquet (a nearby sea resort) plans to build a four-star hotel in front of the museum. He told me: "I'm doing this because I believe in it.""
In front of the city council, the owner of the "Le Bistrot du Boucher" restaurant has anticipated the Chamber of Commerce's recommendation: He has already provided its employees with English lessons. "This year, we organized the general assembly of the Lens shop-owners’ association at the French parliament, in Paris. The mayor invited us there… to visit the Louvre museum," he says.
*The museum was inaugurated on December 4, by France's President François Hollande.