Sarkozy cooks up a cultural museum

Revisiting history: The proposed site for the Maison de l’Histoire by French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Georges Pompidou’s dream was a modern arts centre. Valery Giscard d’Estaing signed off on the popular Musee d’Orsay.

Every French president since de Gaulle has imagined some Pharaonic cultural monument or other to honour La Grande Nation, as the mocking German media occasionally call their Gallic neighbour, and to enshrine himself, of course. Francois Mitterrand became a virtual Ramesses II, opening the Bastille Opera, a new National Library, the Arab World Institute and the Louvre pyramid.

By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy long seemed to flaunt his impatience with high culture. President Bling-Bling is what Le Canard Enchaine, the satirical paper, took to dubbing this politician with his mirrored aviator sunglasses and expensive wristwatches, who hung out with showbiz pals, kept a photograph of himself with Lionel Richie in his office and married an Italian model-turned-singer, Carla Bruni. Otherwise, his biggest cultural initiative had been to back French chefs who campaigned to add French cuisine to the Unesco World Heritage List.

But Sarkozy has now decided he wants a cultural legacy after all. He has cooked up the Maison de l’Histoire de France, the country’s first national museum of French history, to open in 2015, in a wing of the rambling palace in the Marais district of Paris currently occupied by the National Archives. The idea is to distill centuries of Gallic gloire into a chronological display, supplemented by lectures, seminars and temporary shows borrowing materials from the country’s already plentiful local and regional history museums.

That’s the plan, anyway. For months, protesters have taken to the barricades, appalled by the notion of the museum. The biggest ‘cultural revolt’ of the president’s tenure is what one British newspaper gloatingly called the latest French contretemps.

The problem? It boils down to a few issues: What does it mean to be French in the 21st century? And whose ‘history’ should be celebrated? In an increasingly fractious and multicultural nation, the questions have no simple answers.

Opponents call the history museum a transparent sop by Sarkozy to far-right voters before next year’s elections. A poll published on Tuesday showed him running 4 points behind Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate. During the last election, he played the card of national identity to fend off a challenge by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Now Sarkozy has been ginning up fresh debate about multiculturalism. The other day he declared in a television interview that France “has a problem with Islam,” and last week in Le Puy-en-Velay, a Christian pilgrimage town in central France, he extolled “the magnificent heritage of civilisation and culture that Christianity has left to us.” (Never mind that one of Sarkozy’s grandfathers was Jewish.) “It is always dangerous,” he warned, “to forget your history.”

About the Maison de l’Histoire, he added pointedly, “French people want to reappropriate their history.”

He first trotted out the notion of a Maison de l’Histoire a few years ago while concocting a ministry for immigration and national identity. The president described both undertakings as responses to the country’s dwindling morale. His culture minister, Frederic Mitterrand, chimed in, promising that the history museum would illuminate France’s ‘soul’, whatever that meant. Henri Guaino, the president’s speechwriter on matters of national identity and an important player in proposing the museum, went further, envisioning the Maison as a solution to the nation’s ‘identity crisis’.

National identity

Sarkozy has since reversed himself about the ministry in the face of a barrage of criticism, returning immigration to the interior minister’s portfolio and jettisoning the national identity tag. As for the museum, his associates insist it will be a serious, independent institution airing all views, not a political tool.

Detractors just aren’t buying it. Jean-Pierre Rioux, the veteran historian appointed to direct the Maison de l’Histoire, naturally disagrees. He titled a recent book ‘La France Perd la Memoire’ (‘France Is Losing Its Memory’), implying that, just as Sarkozy and the far-right nationalists here assert, France has lost touch with heroes like Louis XIV and Joan of Arc, with the grand boulevard of its own history, which, like the French language itself, had long been presumed to unite the nation.

“This museum’s sin is only that it was created by Nicolas Sarkozy,” Rioux contended one recent morning, seated in his old-fashioned living room. He would never have taken the director’s job if he hadn’t been promised intellectual freedom, he said. “Some historians may not like the word ‘soul’,” he went on, “but in this geographical territory, there is an accumulation of cultural, political and economic circumstance from which comes the concept of France. It is the right moment for the museum. The national crisis today is that different communities in France feel isolated from the nation. We need to understand these fractures, to raise the question in a historical context: ‘What is linking together the people living in this territory called France?”’

Sarkozy has been raising pretty much that same question in his speeches. Historical debate isn’t academic in a country where the annual history festival in Blois, in central France — akin to an American county fair minus the corn dogs and deep-fried Oreos — attracts thousands of buffs. Historical studies regularly top best-seller lists, and bygone French historians like Georges Duby and Fernand Braudel are not unfamiliar names in many households here.

This is partly because in France, “politics and identity are often debated via history,” as Herve Lemoine, Sarkozy’s newly appointed director of the National Archives, pointed out the other afternoon.

As Lemoine was settling into his office, not far away, archive workers picketed. Anticipating Sarkozy’s announcement a few weeks ago that the museum would make its home in the archives building, as opposed to other possible sites that had been under consideration, they quit their library stacks and storage rooms to occupy a wing of the former palace, draping banners over the walls, even staging a sleep-in, complete with fondue dinners.

“Since the Revolution, the archives have been free and open to all,” declared Pierre-Yves Chiron, one of the picketing archivists. A shaggy-haired, modern sans-culotte, he felt ashamed, he said, “that the archives have become a tool for the president’s ambitions.”
Echoing that thought, another angry letter by a group of archivists and historians appeared in Le Monde last week, one of several anti-museum broadsides recently published in the newspapers here, this one stressing the sad ‘paradox’ that a French history museum should displace some of the very public records on which French historians rely.

The real paradox may end up being different.

Historians may look back on the brouhaha as playing straight into Sarkozy’s hands, pleasing far-right constituents who clamour for the restoration of French identity, such as it is, while making opponents look like academic snobs. If the Maison de l’Histoire serves its propaganda role before it opens and the president then claims noblesse oblige and allows the museum to evolve into the scholarly, independent institution its organisers promise, Sarkozy might even someday be included alongside his predecessors as a cultural patron.

That certainly would be a new identity for President Bling-Bling. As Offenstadt put it, “identity is just a construction.”

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