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French galleries sue state over Covid-19 closure

The gallery association CPGA is going to court, claiming its members are “victims of a distortion of competition” as auction houses are allowed to stay open

The French state is facing a backlash from the cultural sector over Covid-19 closures—now galleries are fighting back Photo: Fran Boloni

The French association of art galleries (CPGA) is suing the government over its decision to close galleries in the latest round of Covid-19 restrictions. The case is due to be heard in an emergency hearing at an administrative court on Thursday.

The CPGA is up in arms because while commercial galleries must shut down, auction houses are allowed to stay open for exhibitions and sales. It claims its members are “victims of a distortion of competition”. Denouncing what she calls “blatant ignorance of our trade”, the CPGA's chairwoman Marion Papillon points out its members “issued sanitation guidelines which are strictly respected, and no case of contamination has been related to any gallery or even art fair”. She says she is especially worried for the future of small businesses, in a country where 85% of galleries have less than 5 employees.

One third of the CPGA's 279 members lost more than half of their income last year, although they have received government support to help them survive. However, on 22 March, Louis de Bayser, who chairs the Salon du Dessin and Fine Arts Paris, wrote to the culture minister Roselyne Bachelot, warning that the closure of art fairs and galleries could “be fatal for a great number of dealers".

A ruling is expected next week. Administrative courts seldom rule against the State and the lawsuit has little chance of success. However, the case highlights growing frustration and criticism over the French government’s management of the pandemic, which is especially visible in the artistic and cultural world. Seventy theatres and cultural venues are now occupied by artists demanding more protection and Bachelot was publicly mocked at the recent annual French film awards, the Cesars. She criticised the event as a “political meeting” but her position was made even more uncomfortable when, after having shown selfies in which she was hugging maskless comedians and opera singers backstage, she was hospitalised with Covid-19 complications and placed under enhanced oxygen therapy. She was released on 1 April.

On Sunday 4 April, with more than 5,340 Covid patients in intensive care units across the country, 66,794 new cases and a total death toll close to 100,000, France entered a four-week lockdown. This is a setback for President Emmanuel Macron who, since January, had rebuffed scientists and advisers urging tighter measures to face the swelling surge of variants. Discontent is especially strong in the cultural sector which has not been considered as “essential business” and has borne the full brunt of the pandemic’s impact. Although trains may be filled at a 100% capacity, museums, cinemas and theatres have been closed for five and a half months now. But galleries, like book stores, were allowed to re-open—until now.