French presidents, like the nation’s kings before them, have a tradition of commissioning grandiose monuments to be remembered by. That may end with the current occupant of the presidential Elysee Palace.
Francois Mitterrand ordered up the glass pyramid at the Louvre museum, Jacques Chirac directed the construction of the Quai Branly native arts gallery, while Nicolas Sarkozy pushed “Le Grand Paris,” an expansion of the French capital to fulfill a dream of King Henri IV.
President Francois Hollande is all set to halt that age-old practice. The “Mr. Normal” image he has cultivated and, more importantly, Europe’s fourth year of the debt crisis, which has left the country with depleted coffers and the highest joblessness in 15 years, make any such superfluous spending obscene, Olivier Pastre, an economics professor a Paris University, said in an interview.
“With high deficits and the need to shrink the budget, such visible efforts to cut on spending can only give more credit to France,” he said. “Hollande also secures his ‘President Normal’ persona so this choice is not completely absurd. It’s a smart move.”
Hollande plans to back no new museum, industrial project, bridge or castle since there’s no money for it and because France has more than its fair share of such monuments, said a government official with knowledge of his plans. The idea of leaving behind a trace for history doesn’t appeal to Hollande, the official said.
Hollande pledged during his campaign to make a break from such royal habits of presidents that have defined France’s post-World War II leaders.
Record-high debt, an economy that the International Monetary Fund predicts will grow at less than half the government’s estimate for 2013 of 0.8 percent and a commitment to shrink the budget deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product this year are ensuring that his promise will be kept.
France is reducing its public spending by 10 billion euros ($13.4 billion). Hollande, who had promised to spare cultural projects from cuts, trimmed that ministry’s budget by 2.3 percent this year.
Labor Minister Michel Sapin on Jan. 31 blamed Sarkozy’s government for leaving behind a “totally bankrupt” state.
In the midst of the worst financial crisis to hit Europe since World War II, Sarkozy decided on a series of cultural and architectural projects aimed at defining his mandate.
In 2008, he started the expansion of La Defense business district on the outskirts of Paris. He wanted to create a new skyline -- what he called “Le Grand Paris,” which would realize the vision of King Henri IV of connecting the Louvre -- a royal palace when he was crowned in 1589 -- to his favorite hunting grounds 11 kilometers (7 miles) away at a bend in the Seine River at what is now the city of Nanterre.
France’s most ambitious property development since Napoleon III built Paris’s boulevards in the 19th century, it had to be halted amid the crisis. The Hollande administration killed Sarkozy’s plan to build a History of France museum.
The government is, however, going ahead with Sarkozy’s Philharmonie de Paris structure in the north of the city, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, after determining that work on the 2,400-seat concert hall was too far advanced to halt.
The project’s price tag now stands at more than 387 million euros, double the initial estimate. Running the hall, which may be finished in 2015 with a two-year delay, may reach 40 million euros, an extra cost for the state and the city of Paris.
The Philharmonie, conceived by composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, may be the last of the so-called “grands travaux” or ”grand projects” initiated by a French president.
“Costly cultural landmarks that have been built by earlier French leaders do make sense today; they draw attention, tourists and shape an image,” Pastre said. “An architectural project today would not be a terrible investment. The future usually shows these great museums, like the Pompidou Center, are a good investment.”
The most renowned of the royal landmarks is Louis XIV’s Versailles Palace with its 700 rooms.
General Charles de Gaulle’s project was to build dozens of nuclear reactors in the 1960s to make France energy self-sufficient and as a military safeguard, capturing the concerns of his time.
Since de Gaulle’s creation of the current Fifth Republic in 1958, “Grand Projects have existed to reinforce the symbolic and the strength of the institutions: the President and the Constitution,” scholar Marie Alizard wrote in an essay. A landmark is “the incontestable sign of the existence of a man coming to power.”
In the 1970s, President Georges Pompidou commissioned a contemporary art museum in Paris, known today as the Pompidou Centre, stirring controversy before and after its 1977 opening with its oil-refinery-like modern structure. President Valery Giscard d’Estaing backed the Musee d’Orsay, a temple to Impressionist art built inside a redesigned train station on banks of the Seine.
The president most obsessed with leaving his mark was Mitterrand, the first Socialist Party president of the Fifth Republic, who held power for 14 years from 1981 to 1995.
He famously said, “We create for eternity, even if eternity may deny it.”
His construction frenzy is everywhere in Paris: the revamped Louvre Museum, a gigantic library that bears his name with four 79-meter towers, a second Opera house on the Bastille Square, birthplace of the 1789 French Revolution.
Chirac, who led the country from 1995 to 2002 commissioned the Musee du Quai Branly, dedicated to primitive art from across the globe and built at the cost of 232.5 million euros.
Hollande may limit his efforts to make culture and art more accessible to everyone, with a focus on children in schools, according to his presidential platform.