PARIS French national museums including the Louvre in Paris will let in many visitors free in the coming months, in an experiment intended to open up high culture to a wider public.
"French museums are ready for more visitors, and we hope to draw in a new public, especially young people ... it's a question of money for some people," Christine Andre, spokeswoman for the culture ministry's museum body, said on Friday.
Until June 30, 2008, some national museums will offer completely free admission to their permanent collections, while others will offer it to those under 26, one evening a week.
Foreign tourists will benefit like the French, but the aim is to draw more locals into the 18 museums, which include the Centre Pompidou and Quai Branly in Paris and the Marine Museum in Toulon.
"If the French start seeing long lines in front of the museums, they'll start to tell themselves: hey, foreigners are taking advantage of this -- we'd be morons not to!" Andre said.
In Paris, museums like the Louvre sell most of their tickets to foreigners.
Clarisse Vangucht, a 30-year-old from the northern French city of Lille who visited the Louvre on Friday, said she welcomed the scheme, but wondered who would pay for it.
"I already go to museums often but if they are free, then so much the better," she said. "But it will draw lots of tourists who don't pay local taxes ... where will the money come from?"
Andre said it would take around 220 million euros ($320 million) to make up for the lost ticket sales, funds that were set to come from both private donors and state coffers.
Access to national museums was made entirely free in Britain in 2001, after a protracted battle between the government and museum directors.
The British program led to a 62 percent jump in attendance in its first year, with 2.7 million new visitors.
Le Monde daily said this week all French government ministers would face performance appraisals in coming weeks. Culture Minister Christine Albanel would be judged on the numbers of new visitors the museums program attracted.
Information on all museums participating in the program is available, in French, at the following Web site: (here)
(Editing by Andrew Roche)