From Charles de Gaulle onward, every French president has tried to leave an imprint on the country's cultural memory. Georges Pompidou concentrated on contemporary art, with the Pompidou Center. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's pet project was transforming the Orsay train station into the Musée d'Orsay. The champion in the field, François Mitterrand, was involved in no less than four signature projects: I.M. Pei's Louvre Pyramid, the French National Library's new location, the Institute of the Arab World, and the Bastille Opera. As for Jacques Chirac, he gave pride of place to non-Western civilizations with the controversial Musée du Quai Branly.
Enter Nicolas Sarkozy. When he announced, almost two years ago, his plans for a French history museum, he immediately came under fire. The Maison de l'Histoire de France, which is expected to cost €80 million ($110 million), is planned for 2015. But, from its contentious location to its association with a Sarkozian vision of French history, the project is encountering plenty of hurdles.
Sarkozy has planned to put the French history museum in the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris's Marais neighborhood — the building where the National Archives have been located for just over two centuries. The archives are to be transferred to the suburban site of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, with only documents relating to the Old Regime remaining at their current site. The museum will take over an area of more than 107,000 square feet. Two hundred jobs are at stake, which, according to Wladimir Susanj, general secretary of the Archives Union, means "the destruction of public employment."
Back in September, union workers occupied the ground floor of the Hôtel de Soubise for 134 nights straight. After obtaining written guarantees that the archives' mission would be maintained, the union stopped the occupation. But this action apparently cost the job of archives director Isabelle Neuschwander, whom the French culture ministry replaced last month with Agnès Magnien. And, as of March 8, union members have occupied the building again, convinced that the French history museum should be housed elsewhere, such as the Hôtel de la Marine. (The navy offices currently housed in the Hôtel de la Marine are going to be moved, and the 18th-century structure's future is uncertain, with private development a strong possibility.) With a central location and a longstanding reputation, the archives seem to have been selected to confer prestige on the new institution — regardless of the cost to archives employees or to their mission, which consists in the actual preservation of the history of France.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy's comments on France's Christian heritage — seemingly an attempt to stave off gains by the right-wing National Front party — have only added fuel to the fire. Nicolas Offenstadt used a derogatory nickname for Sarkozy to refer to his cultural vision: "bling-bling history" — a flashy, one-sided version of history at the expense of other cultures. "To know French Algeria, you need to know Algeria before France arrived there," Offenstadt told the New York Times. "If we need any history museum, it would be a world history museum, not a French history museum, to give us a real perspective on who we are, and on what France is today." Prominent historian Arlette Farge challenged the very notion of a history museum, calling it "an intellectual heresy." "History cannot be put into a museum. Interpretations change with each generation, history is the product of all that sedimentation," Farge said in an interview with the magazine Tout Est à Nous last month. "It's not a frozen object; it gets constructed and re-constructed."
The history museum's research committee is trying to remain above the fray. Last Saturday, committee president Jean-Pierre Rioux told Le Monde that he was personally very hesitant about choosing the archives building as the museum's location, but that it was not the committee's place to become involved in the decision. Regarding a recent speech in which Sarkozy evoked France's Christian origins, Rioux told the paper that the museum was "associated by name with a vision of the national past that we do not share. I'm stating it firmly, like a warning shot: we are not here to give our seal of approval to official statements or electoral proclamations."