A Populist French Mayor Has Reopened Four Local Museums in Defiance of National Lockdown Rules

Visitors started trickling into museums today in the southern French city of Perpignan.

People visit the exhibition "Portraits de reines de France" at the Hyacinthe-Rigaud art museum in Perpignan on February 9, Photo by Raymond Roig/AFP via Getty Images.

A defiant mayor in the southern French city of Perpignan has reopened four museums in his city, despite a national government ban. The move is the latest sign of growing discontent with the French administration over its continued lockdown on museums since the end of October.

“Culture is essential to the life of Perpignanese as well as all French people, it is high time to reopen the cultural spaces,” mayor Louis Aliot, deputy leader of the far-right party National Rally, told reporters yesterday. “We are not going to stay locked down until the end of our days!”

Perpignan’s Hyacinthe-Rigaud art museum, the Casal Pairal Museum of Catalan Art, and the National History Museum all opened their doors to a steady trickle of visitors today, and a fourth museum, the Joseph Puig coin museum, is slated to open tomorrow. Aliot has said that entrance to the museums, where crowd control and mask wearing will be enforced, will be free until March 9. Around 50 people visited the Hycinthe-Rigaud art museum within 15 minutes of its opening, according to AFP. The museum did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The news comes as museum directors have been lobbying the French government to relax its restrictions, arguing that culture is essential to the nation’s mental health as well as stressing the robust health and safety measures already in place.

Some 50 museum directors met with the French culture minister yesterday to plead their case for the reopening of museums in time for the half-term holidays for French schools this weekend. The meeting followed weeks of mounting pressure from the industry, including two petitions signed by a cohort of museum directors and of French art publications.

Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot has assured museums that they will be the first to reopen once infection rates drop low enough. 

The local police prefecture went to court on Monday evening in an effort to keep museums closed. It is as yet unclear what the consequences of the decision to defy lockdown will be, but a summary hearing will be held on February 15. The Perpignan mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Still, some French politicians have voiced their support for the move. “I think that Louis Alion is right to begin the debate,” tweeted French politician Marion Maréchal, niece of the controversial leader of France’s far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen. “It makes no sense today that a municipal museum can’t open when we can go out and buy clothes and things deemed ‘non essential.’ It is disproportionate and incoherent.”

Others, such as Christophe Castaner, a member of France’s centrist ruling party La République en Marche, have condemned the decision. “Louis Aliot wants us to believe that the [National Rally party] is defending culture by opening museums in contempt of health regulations,” Castaner tweeted. “But behind this communications exercise, no one is fooled by its populism. Culture knows how to protect itself from the extremist virus.”

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