“Culture as a Collective Experience Is What We Are Missing the Most at the Moment”

The French embassy’s service tasked with promoting French culture, education, and academia in the United States has adapted to the lockdown by posting small bites of pop culture on Instagram, reading recommendations, and webinars on dual-language education. We interviewed Gaëtan Bruel, the head of the service since September 2019, who is currently confined in New York.
© Annabelle Marin

France-Amérique: As the cultural counselor to the French embassy in the United States, how are you dealing with the current situation?

Gaëtan Bruel: I am still confident. Our teams are spread across ten cities and three time zones throughout the United States, and are well-versed in working remotely. Meanwhile, our Albertine bookshop is continuing its delivery service for the whole country. We also have weekly meetings with the 40 Lycées Français in the U.S.A. to ensure teaching continuity and to prepare for the Baccalaureate exams. They will be evaluated on a coursework basis, just like in France, and we are providing assistance for French university students who are still in America.

To what extent has the crisis stopped your cultural line-up?

Films on the Green, our open-air film festival planned for this summer in New York, has been cancelled. We have set aside our events program to focus on supporting our partners and devising ways to contribute. We are concentrating our efforts on the Lycées Français, U.S. public schools with dual-language classes, cultural institutions, as well as the artists and designers we support through funding. We have adopted the motto of Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “Mobilis in mobili,” changing within change. In a constantly changing environment, we also have to be able to evolve, and quickly.

This implies a major digital aspect. What is the digital strategy adopted by the Cultural Services?

Digital technology has been our mainstay for the last few years. Given the size of the United States and the diverse challenges we take on, this medium offers unrivalled exposure. We produce our own content, including the podcast The Thing About France and webinars for parents looking to introduce dual-language classes to their local schools. But in an ocean of online content, our main role is to direct and recommend. The platform helps users find the best in French and Francophone culture. Each of our experts unearths fresh new ideas in their field, whether video games and virtual reality, theater and dance, contemporary art, design, or music. They then share it with our subscribers through themed newsletters. On a more playful note, we share pop culture tidbits on social media such as images, videos, and anecdotes.

Is this the perfect chance to make French culture attractive to a younger following?

Exactly. Since lockdown began, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of followers on Instagram, whose users are generally under 34. We are not yet on TikTok, but who knows! Our actions are in fact aimed at younger people, before they even have access to the online world. France is a comprehensive experience that can start with watching a movie or learning a word.

What are you doing to ensure older, less-connected Francophiles are not left behind?

We appeal to people of all ages, and need older generations to pass on their love of French culture. I also think they are far more connected than they were ten years ago. However, there are still people who are not online. Entrepreneur and researcher Yann Coatanlem has just launched a support group for French seniors in the New York area. Volunteers sign up online and take it in turns calling isolated members of the community to see if they need anything. The Cultural Services support this initiative. Digital technology really is a fantastic tool for fighting against loneliness among older generations and maintaining a presence in spite of distance or confinement.

What is your personal experience of the current situation?

It’s great having access to such a diverse cultural offering at home, but this reliance on online content takes a lot away and can even be depressing. We are rediscovering that culture is a collective experience, and that is what we are missing the most at the moment. That being said, I am reading as much as I used to in high school! Like many people, I started the lockdown by rereading The Plague by Camus. I have finally finished Disturbance by Philippe Lançon, who we had invited to the United States in January. I am currently reading the works of Paul Claudel while he was ambassador in America in the late 1920s. I have watched Les Indes Galantes, an incredible contemporary staging by Clément Cogitore blending Baroque opera and hip hop, and the latest season of The Bureau, which portrays the daily lives of French secret service agents. I am also using this strange time to walk the streets of New York. Manhattan in lockdown is spectacularly surreal.