‘Cultural Revolt’ Over Sarkozy’s History Museum Plans

Historians in the News

PARIS — Georges Pompidou’s dream was a modern arts center. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing signed off on the popular Musée d’Orsay.

Every French president since de Gaulle has imagined some Pharaonic cultural monument or other to honor La Grande Nation, as the mocking German media occasionally call their Gallic neighbor, and to enshrine himself, of course. François 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 Enchaîné, 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 Mr. Sarkozy has now decided that 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....

“Bling-Bling history” is how Nicolas Offenstadt, a young history professor at the Sorbonne, described it. He fumed the other afternoon over a pot of tea in a genteel Left Bank cafe.

“Sarkozy said this was a museum to give French people a stronger sense of identity,” he continued, “that history is the cement that binds together French people. Whose history? ‘Soul’ is not a subject for scientists and historians. It is a moral and political concept.”

The very idea of a specifically French history museum is ideological, Mr. Offenstadt added. “To know about French Algeria you need to know about Algeria before France arrived there,” he explained. “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 what is France today.”

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 Mémoire” (“France Is Losing Its Memory”), implying that, just as Mr. 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....

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