The new ‘Louvre in the Sand’, opening in Abu Dhabi, marks a shift in the European balance of cultural influence

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in France’s grandest display of its mission civilisatrice, that revolutionary desire to spread the Enlightenment principles of European civilisation. Accompanying Napoleon’s troops was a battalion of scientists, historians, artists and archaeologists with clear instructions to collect Egypt’s ancient riches for display and study back in Paris. Collecting the artefacts of the Middle East was part of conquering it.

This week, the wheel of history turns full circle as President Macron (another French leader with imperial ambitions) flies to the Gulf to open Louvre Abu Dhabi and, two centuries on, now offers up France’s cultural treasures for display and study. While Napoleon’s invasion was hard power, Macron’s visit is all about the long-term insinuation of soft power. Yet it signals a hard truth: if Brexit Britain is going to find its feet as a global player, we need to be thinking about similarly ambitious displays of cultural bravado.

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