Jack Lang: ‘The Arab world has abandoned Palestine’

At 84, France’s former Minister of Culture is embarking on his fourth term at the helm of the Arab World Institute, a powerful cultural, diplomatic, political and economic lobby

Jack Lang
Jack Lang, president of the Arab World Institute, portrayed at the institution's headquarters in Paris, the work of architect Jean Nouvel.Julie Glassberg (Contacto)
Borja Hermoso

Sporting a black trench coat and a fuchsia scarf, Jack Lang, 84, slowly crosses one of the old bridges over the Seine. He is on his way to his office on the top floor of the Arab World Institute (IMA), an institution he himself inaugurated in 1987 as Minister of Culture with his then boss, the President of the French Republic, socialist François Mitterrand. No one, perhaps with the exception of Louis XIV and André Malraux, has ever wielded more influence over cultural policy in France or probably any other state.

With a doctorate in International Law and a degree in Political Science, Lang has been a city councilor, mayor, government spokesman, Minister of Culture and Education, socialist militant, theater champion and baroque character extraordinaire, lover of the TV cameras, expensive suits and privileged agendas. He is an old media star of the gauche caviar — Caviar left — a real Sun King 350 years after the absolutist monarch’s reign.

Driven by Mitterrand’s controversial vision, he racked up decisive achievements in cultural policy: a single price for books, the allocation of 1% of the state budget to culture, quotas for European audiovisual production on small and large screens in the fight against the more commercial and liberal productions, the creation of an ambitious national network of art centers, and, above all, the setting up of iconic cultural infrastructures in Paris, such as the Grand Louvre and its famous pyramid, the Bastille Opera House, the National Library of France, the City of Sciences, the Grande Arche de la Défense, and the Arab World Institute itself, where he recently embarked on his fourth term as president.

We chatted with Jack Lang in the office where, on April 15, 2019, he watched the Notre Dame Cathedral burn.

Jack Lang in one of his famous scarves at the IMA in Paris. With a salary of €10,000 a month, his third term was not without controversy.
Jack Lang in one of his famous scarves at the IMA in Paris. With a salary of €10,000 a month, his third term was not without controversy.Julie Glassberg (Contacto)

You’re now starting a fourth term at the head of an institution that you yourself created with François Mitterrand. Will this be your last?

It is curious. Some might even say: “From the beginning, Jack Lang has only been thinking about his own future and he invented a house of Arab culture so he could preside over it, so he could again be a kind of Minister of Culture.” [laughs]. Well, no, that’s not the truth.

What is the truth?

Well, when François Mitterrand became President of the Republic and appointed me Culture Minister, he asked me to think about a thousand and one projects, some of which I had already suggested to him. Among them was a headquarters for the Arab World Institute, which already existed as such but was housed in offices. He said go ahead, and very quickly we found the ideal place and launched a competition for young architects.

And Jean Nouvel won.

Yes, when we saw his project, it was love at first sight. At that time, Nouvel was practically an unknown. Now he’s a star. The strange thing is that, years later, I see myself here again, at the helm of a place that I helped get built, and that has been a little bit like my home. I have welcomed some very important people here. I welcomed Yasser Arafat here in 1989 at Mitterrand’s request. At that time, Arafat was considered a terrorist, and nobody wanted to receive him — not even the vast majority of the government to which I belonged.

What exactly was Mitterrand’s idea regarding Arafat?

He said to me: “Since you have declared yourself in favor of the existence of two states, Israel and Palestine, could you please organize a meeting with Arafat and political and intellectual personalities?” And we held the meeting on the terrace, with the then French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Roland Dumas. Then I took Arafat to visit the Louvre. And he ended by participating in a television program in which, at our request, he announced that the non-recognition of Israel clause was going to disappear from the Founding Charter of the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization]. As we suggested, he said that it was an “outdated” clause. So, it was a historic moment.

Beyond the cultural, is the IMA a sort of small Foreign Ministry?

Well, yes, technically we work under the auspices of the Quai d’Orsay [the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs]. But we are by no means a miniature ministry. This is not the government, and I’m not a minister. But culture is valued here, not only in the artistic field, but also in the realms of science, diplomacy, and economy and others that are part of the life of Arab countries. It is true, this may sometimes have a strong political influence.

Some of the countries that sit on the IMA board, such as Saudi Arabia, do not have a very positive record in terms of human rights and respect for women. Sometimes it’s hard not to think they are buying respectability with money and influence. What do you think?

Let me see, “buy” is not the right word, but look, even before I was president of the IMA, I followed the political, social, and cultural evolution of these countries very closely. Regarding Saudi Arabia, many have traditionally believed that it was a rigid regime that could never evolve. But I have been traveling there twice a year over the past 12 years, and it is spectacular to see how it has evolved. Of course, it is a strategy, but...

Do you really believe it has evolved? Human rights problems remain.

Of course. But I am not talking about the political regime, which is not a democratic regime. They don’t have the same values as we do. But their strategy is intelligent. It is based on the development of young people, of women, of entrepreneurship, in order to free them from the tutelage of the religious extremists who were blocking the evolution of the country.

Another member of the IMA board is Palestine, which is not actually a state. What is Palestine’s relationship with the IMA within the context of conflict such as the current Gaza situation?

Our relationship is one of reciprocal freedom. I myself decided about two years ago to organize a big event on Palestinian culture. I was determined to make it clear that Palestine is not only a land of guerrillas and Hamas terrorists, but also a land of creative and inventive people that has many exceptional artists and writers. That exhibition opened in May last year and was an astonishing success with the public, especially with young people. When the terrible events that continue in the Middle East were triggered, the exhibition was even more successful, and the queues were enormous. People were eager to understand.

But that image of peace and creativity in Palestine that you tried to promote has been destroyed by the war, hasn’t it?

What is happening is terrible. The situation is catastrophic. Catastrophic for Palestine and for Palestinian citizens. Several of the artists who were present at the exhibition have died in the war. But Israel is also going through very hard times now. The situation in the region is extremely serious.

Lang on the banks of the Seine in 2015 during a tribute to Brahim Bouaram, a young Moroccan killed by a right-wing extremist in 1995.
Lang on the banks of the Seine in 2015 during a tribute to Brahim Bouaram, a young Moroccan killed by a right-wing extremist in 1995.Jean-Francois DEROUBAIX (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Do you believe, as many do, that Israel is committing genocide in response to the October 7 terrorist acts?

I am a lawyer and I have been a professor of international law for many years. And you have to be careful when you use concepts like that. The International Court of Justice has been consulted and I think it has said that there could be provisional measures regarding genocidal actions. But it has not called the Israeli attacks as a whole “genocide.” What the Israeli army has done and is doing is serious. It could amount to war crimes. The reality is that the Palestinian people today are experiencing death, destruction, hunger, and suffering. The war has to stop, and other countries have to participate in the reconstruction of Palestine.

Can we be optimistic about that?

I am, by temperament, an optimist, but it is true that the hatred between these two peoples is extremely strong. Hamas is fighting against the existence of Israel and has committed monstrous acts while a proportion of Israelis along with the Israeli authorities do not accept the creation of a Palestinian state. And that seems irreconcilable right now. Let’s hope there will emerge people on both sides capable of rising above that hatred, like Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk did in South Africa.

By the way, South Africa has been the only country to appeal to the International Court of Justice regarding the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Yes, that’s right.

It gives the impression the Palestinians have been abandoned by the rest of the Arab world.

You’re right. The Arab world has abandoned Palestine. Even some of the countries that had shown signs of enthusiastic support for years.

All this from... a Jew presiding over the Arab World Institute.

My father was Jewish.

A secular Jewish family?


Do you consider being secular an essential requirement for presiding over such an institution?


Just to be clear, this is the Institute of the Arab World, not the Muslim World or the Islamic World?

Listen, I don’t pretend to be a model or an example of anything. Indeed, I am deeply secular, and unfortunately not a believer.

Would you like to be one?

Well, I mean, people who profess a faith have arguments to justify hope, and that’s enviable. But I’m not a believer, although I am deeply respectful of all religious beliefs, as long as they don’t shift into fanaticism, as is happening all over the world today. The Institute of the Arab World must remain faithful to its history. And, let’s be clear, the history of the Arab world includes Muslims, Jews, Christians and people of other religions. We have organized exhibitions here on pilgrimages to Mecca, on the treasures of Islam in Africa, on the Christians of the East and on the millennial history of the Jews in the East.

During your years as Minister of Culture under Mitterrand, it seems you focused your work on taking advantage of the “economic strength of culture.” Does the expression work for you?

Of course.

Not all governments can, or want to, take advantage of that strength.

No, most of them do not. It is sad and ill-conceived.

What did you say to President Mitterrand to convince him this was the right approach?

I didn’t have to convince the President of anything! He was a man of culture himself. He had an extensive literary, historical, artistic, and cinematographic knowledge. And it was clear to him from the beginning that culture had to be at the center of his government’s policies. And he did well.

What did the Great Works symbolize, as in the Louvre pyramid, the Bastille Opera House, the National Library of France, and the Institute of the Arab World?

In what sense?

French president, François Mitterrand (center), accompanied by Jack Lang (right), inaugurates the Great Pyramid of the Louvre on March 29, 1989.
French president, François Mitterrand (center), accompanied by Jack Lang (right), inaugurates the Great Pyramid of the Louvre on March 29, 1989.William Stevens (Gamma-Rapho / G (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Outside of France, at least, they were associated in a way with French grandeur, a little bit Louis XIV-like, don’t you think?

Yes. And why not? There’s no reason why the leaders of a country shouldn’t have lofty and noble ambitions for their country. And for their continent, which in this case is Europe. I fought very hard for the idea of a Europe of culture. One of the people with whom I collaborated in this respect was my friend Jorge Semprún. Together with others, we fought against the supporters of a strictly commercial vision of culture and were very powerful within the European Commission. Another accomplice in that fight was the Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri.

Critics say that you bombarded Mitterrand with a thousand and one messages a day, and that, when you left the Ministry of Culture, the President told you: “I won’t miss your messages.”

Well, that is true... but you are referring to the book published by the journalist Frédéric Martel [Jack Lang. Une révolution culturelle, 2021]. I opened my archives to him and he made a selection... which is not what I would have done. He specifically chose some of the letters I wrote to François Mitterrand. That was a unique episode between a president and his Minister of Culture. It was a time when the left was fighting with real passion for culture, scientific research and education, which is no longer the case today.

People come to Paris and still enjoy its cafés, its restaurants, its bookstores, its cinemas, its theaters, its museums — basically, its intense cultural life. But at the same time, there are the street riots involving the farmers, the yellow vests, then the constant strikes, the unstoppable rise of the ultra-right, the growing insecurity in some neighborhoods — a feeling of generalized discontent. They are two opposing images.

What you say is true. It is so true that many French people think like you. The French are a bit lost. And that, of course, is part of what plays into the hands of the extremists. When people don’t understand things, the populists win. It’s a pity because Emmanuel Macron is a political figure with great human and intellectual qualities. He is head and shoulders above the vast majority of French politicians. But the National Front [actually, the party of Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella is called National Rally] has won not only seats in Parliament, but also quite a lot of sympathy in the collective imagination.

The former Minister of Culture and current president of the IMA, at work in his office.
The former Minister of Culture and current president of the IMA, at work in his office. Julie Glassberg (Contacto)

Do you think the far right will one day be in power in France?

Personally, I will do everything I can to prevent it, but this threat must be taken very seriously. They have no scruples. They are fascists, but they manage to disguise themselves very cleverly. They pretend to be normal politicians when they are not. And that is precisely Marine Le Pen’s strength. But there’s worse. France is a presidential regime, and presidentialism is a nefarious system. In the end, it does not really allow for the political game of parties, tendencies and ideas. It does not work, unless there is a total harmony between the National Assembly and the Presidency of the Republic, but today that does not exist in France. Everything is a permanent conflict.

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