Minister of Hope

Just mention the name "Jack Lang" to French people, and all at once their moods change, their faces light up and their eyes sparkle. In France, Lang's name is synonymous with the fulfillment of a dream: By serving as culture minister from 1981-1991 (with a brief two-year hiatus) under then president Fran?ois Mitterand and as education minister in the 1990s; and by being active in the Socialist Party, of which he eventually became leader, Lang restored to many French people their belief in their culture and their language and their confidence in the values with which they were raised - the love of art, literacy, intellectual openness and pluralism.

During Lang's tenure and at his initiative, laws that advanced the arts were passed and budgets were enlarged for buildings that changed French culture, such as the Opera House in Lyon, the Opera building at the Place de la Bastille in Paris and the pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre. One of the most striking manifestations of the new, exciting spirit that he brought to his country is the F?te de la Musique, also known as World Music Day, which he initiated when he first took office, as an expression of freedom and creativity.

Over the years, the celebration of music crossed the borders of France and spread throughout the world; now more than 130 countries hold the festival every year around June 21. Few of the people who took part in the celebration in Israel last weekend at concerts and performances on stages around the country knew that its initiator was among them: Lang opened the celebration in Tel Aviv and followed the events in Jerusalem, Haifa, Nazareth and Be'er Sheva.

"It was very joyful here," said Lang at a meeting in Tel Aviv on Friday morning. "The organizing was excellent, with the stages and everything, but to tell the truth the original intention of the celebration was to make the members of the audience themselves musicians and actors. To be spontaneous. It is good that there are stages and the municipality organizes concerts - but the thing about the F?te is to spur and encourage people to make music themselves."

How was the idea born?

"I was the minister of culture, it was the first year of the government headed by Mitterand and all that we want to do was to change, to bring about a revolution in culture and art and in the conditions for creative people. One day I said to my staff, okay, we've worked hard, each in his own area. The time has come for us to do something together. To gather, to feel that we are a team. Let's make one night a musical night, a night when everyone will feel free and spontaneous and give free rein to his creative imagination. And there was something else that gave me the idea: The first day of the summer, June 21, was approaching and I wanted to mark it as the start of a period of light, a period of love and openness. This is how the celebration was born and on the first night it was pretty successful. Three were performances and concerts along the Seine and in the mountains, and people also made music themselves. And gradually it caught on, year after year and over time it also moved outside of France."

Lang has an intimate relationship with music. "The truth is that I studied and played the piano, though just between us, not very well. But music is just a part of a whole way of life in culture and art. I can point to three tracks in my life," he says, "and the first is the passion for art, especially the theater. The second track is education and teaching: I lecture on international law and civil law, and I love the contact with young people, the intensity of the work with them. The third is public service. Politics. I started with that early, at the age of 15, when I witnessed the changes that were occurring in the world."

Lang was born in 1939 in northeastern France to a family of Jewish origin and studied at Nancy University, where when he was still a student he established an important international festival - Festival du Monde - for new theater.

When he was in his teens, the world was alight with revolutions and awash with hope: French lost its colonial hold on Indo-China and faced the revolt in Algeria, the Soviet Union was shaking off Stalinism and opening an ostensibly optimistic period with the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, and Martin Luther King was beginning his struggle for the rights of African-Americans in the United States.

"The colonial wars, the debate about communism - that was in the air," says Lang, "and my heart was always with the left. It was then that I also became aware of Israel: The first time I came here was at the age of 16 or 17, and at that time Israel, for us, was the embodiment of all of the revolutionary social ideas, the real fulfillment of a utopia. The pioneers, the modern socialism and the kibbutzim, the Labor Party in its heyday, the Histadrut labor federation, the establishment of a democracy that is also a country of refuge: It seemed as though Israel was putting together a totally new social model, and this was very exciting."

Lang studied political science at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris (IEP) and also studied law, specializing in public and international law; he was eventually appointed professor. His opinions fired the imaginations of his supporters and horrified his opponents: Lang supported equal rights for homosexuals, called for tolerance toward marijuana smokers, supported inspecting the quality of drugs at nightclubs, believed immigrants from other countries enriched French culture and condemned the reign of terror in China.

The failure in education

Lang admired Pierre Mendes-France and Mitterand, for whom he felt great love: "My dreams came true," he says. "To be a minister in the government of a man I loved and admired endlessly, to be minister of culture in my country, to fulfill what for so many years I had imagined and wished for society."

As minister of culture, says Lang, he succeeded in building institutions and establishing irreversible laws - but not as education minister, a position he held for only a short time. "What the government of the right in France has done to our achievements hurts," he says. "We introduced art studies - music, theater, cinema, painting - from kindergarten to university, and this made a fundamental change in the overall picture at the schools. The children grew more confident ... and the teachers and the principal were delighted with the atmosphere and the achievements."

In his day there was a choir at every school: "Conductors came to the schools, held master classes, taught and learned from one another. We faced accusations that this wasn't exactly practical, but it was of the essence in the development of society. Today I am very angry at the government and at the Education Ministry because of the terrible damage they have done to this initiative, and it is very frustrating because I see this as my greatest failure. I didn't serve long enough at the Education Ministry to establish those laws. At the Culture Ministry we succeeded, but not here. The laws and regulations have remained on paper, nothing is enforced and implemented."

Perhaps the decline in education is a reflection of the spirit of the times, and didn't necessarily happen because of a particular government?

"I don't think so. These phenomena are dependent on place; look at Scandinavia, for example, where education and culture are only flourishing. And it is also connected to a failure in leadership, to the low quality of the politicians. Nowadays there aren't figures like Mitterand, with the intellectual depth and the limitless familiarity with history and art. I am sensing a similar direction in Barack Obama in the United States: His messages and his way of expressing himself testify to morality and knowledge and I am hoping for his victory in the elections."

'Peace will come'

In Israel, too, there has been a decline in education: Can you give us a recipe for success?

Lang chuckles: "Two conditions are necessary for the advancement of education and the first is love. Love of teaching, love of children, love of instilling knowledge in children. Children are ready for this: Their souls are open and an inner fire is burning inside them. It is just necessary to help them: to find the best teachers for them and to develop the best methods."

And the second condition?

"A strict, uncompromising demand for commitment on all sides. It makes no difference what the other constraints are - economic or even security. Education has to be the top priority. It is necessary to invest everything there, to give the best. After all, one day peace will come, and then the risk is to face the collapse of hope. In my opinion, peace agreements are near, and perhaps will even be signed during the coming year, because the new president of the United States - in the hope that he will indeed be Obama, but also McCain - will have to change the situation in the Middle East and not only resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"My intuition says that there will be a broad treaty here, international and regional, that will include the entire Middle East - Israel and Palestine, but also Iran and Iraq and Syria. This will be an international revolution and it simply has to happen, because the situation can't go on like this. It will happen, and then people will realize that the most important resource is he human resource, and in order to produce the best from it, education and culture are needed."

But these are rapidly dwindling here.

"This is perhaps true, but Israel has a very strong heritage in the area. That's how it appears to me. The background exists, the importance that was given to education and culture in the first days of the state is implanted in the tradition and even the worst governments haven't managed to destroy this."