Fifth French Republic presidents have put urbanism, architecture, and art at the center of their initiatives in the past century. They have created architectural programs promoting modern monuments in the capital, Paris, in order to symbolize the central role of France in arts, politics, and the economy in the world.
The Fifth Republic was born, bringing forward a new constitution, on Oct. 4, 1958. Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande are the seven presidents of the last 58 years. And they all had one thing in common. It was necessary for them to mark their eras by working on improving cultural and urban life in France, especially Paris. Most of them have inaugurated some of today’s most recognized artistic and cultural centers in the country.
Centre Georges Pompidou was founded by the president of the same name. The Arab World Institute was launched by Giscard d'Estaing. The Grande Arche de la Défense, the Louvre Pyramid, and the National Library of France were all legacies of Mitterrand’s presidency. The Musée du quai Branly was founded by Chirac.
Most Fifth Republic presidents have made sure their names would be remembered for their cultural legacies by spending a big share of the public funds on enormous projects like the abovementioned ones. For this reason, Mitterrand, being the president who built the Louvre Pyramid, was nicknamed “Mitteramsès” and “Tontonkhamon” in reference to Egyptian pharaohs, Ramses and Tutankhamun, respectively.
As for the last two presidents, although the Paris Philharmonic was the only artistic project that marked Sarkozy’s tenure, both Sarkozy and his successor, Hollande, had a smaller impact as presidents on the cultural and artistic scenes in France. Part of the reason their artistic legacies were not huge is their governments facing financial austerity. And during Hollande’s term, specifically, cultural development stopped being a top priority, as increasing security concerns took over as the biggest challenge facing the French republic, ever since he took office in 2012. The country has been in a state of emergency for almost nine months since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
However, current President Hollande has worked on creating new opportunities in artistic and cultural education rather than erecting a new costly eponymous building.
Going back in time to the middle of the 20th century, following are the most influential cultural and artistic hubs in France.
1. Beaubourg: Georges Pompidou Center
“Centre Georges Pompidou” is the national art and culture center. It was established thanks to former president Pompidou’s will to create a unique cultural institution entirely devoted to contemporary creation in the heart of Paris. This one building is the home of graphic art expositions, a library, a theater, and a music hall.
Laura Inghirami, an Italian student currently living in Paris, told Global Young Voices: “Art is the heart of Paris. I was immediately impressed by what the center has to offer when I first arrived in Paris.”
Inghirami made sure she would attend the center on one special night in Paris, “La Nuit Blanche,” which is an annual art celebration held on the first Saturday of October, during which all of the city’s museums stay open and free for the whole night. “There was an extremely long line to visit the museum that night,” she recalled. “Art is a must in Paris.”
2. The Arab World Institute
The Arab World Institute is a cultural establishment representing Arab culture. Located near the Seine River in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, it was founded by Giscard d’Estaing, but its inauguration took place when Mitterrand was president on Nov. 30, 1987.
Architect Jean Nouvel, assisted by architecture company Architect-Studio, wanted to combine Arab and occidental cultures. The main purpose of this project was to improve diplomatic relations between France and Arab countries.
3. The Louvre
The Louvre has been the most popular museum in the world for a long time. But the construction of the Louvre Pyramid at the center of Napoleon’s historical courtyard was controversial at first, since French people couldn’t imagine the idea of having a large modern glass pyramid in front of the traditional and majestic Louvre palace.
The goal was to build a huge cultural space connecting Napoleon’s courtyard to the Tuileries Garden. The “Grand Louvre” project aimed to reorganize collections and transform building architecture, a hallmark of Mitterrand’s era. A Chinese-American architect, Ieoh Ming Pei, was invited to build the well-known glass pyramid. The Louvre opened to the public in 1989.
Anastasia Bushueva who works at the art gallery Sotheby’s in Paris finds it interesting to trace the urban evolution of the Louvre. “Initially, it was the royal palace,” she said, “then it underwent many transformations before becoming what it is today.”
4. La Grande Arche de la Défense
La Grande Arche de la Défense is a monument located in the business district of La Défense, a few kilometers away from the Arc de Triomphe. Two consecutive presidents have headed the project that marks the historical Parisian axis of monuments stretching from the Louvre to La Défense with an architectural masterpiece.
While Pompidou wanted to build a 345-meter tower, Giscard d’Estaing had another project in mind, which ended up being part of the Grands Projets of François Mitterrand, an architectural program to build modern monuments in Paris. It has been inaugurated in July 1989 during the bicentennial of the French Revolution while France was hosting the G7 summit.
5. The National Library of France (BNF)
The BNF is the biggest library in France with four buildings forming a rectangular shape.
Every year, the library collects around 60,000 books, 1,400,000 magazines, 15,000 phonograms, 8,000 videograms, 30,000 multimedia documents, 2,000 musical scores, 3,000 cards and maps, 1,500 prints, 3,000 pictures, 10,000 illustrated posters, and almost four kilometers of shelving originating from acquisitions and donations.
The library also features big art exhibitions such as Victor Hugo’s drawings or Jim Dine’s gravures.
6. The Musée d'Orsay
It was originally a train station that linked the capital to Orléans. Its construction was completed in time for the Exposition Universelle, a world's fair that was held in Paris in 1889. It has a metallic structure and a Beaux-Arts architecture.
Inside, there is a bar on a mezzanine that looks onto Paris. The collections presented inside the museum are from the same era. It is home to plenty of impressionist masterpieces (by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, etc.). This collection has filled the gap between more ancient pieces at the Louvre and the contemporary ones at Centre Georges Pompidou. Its collection and its location, in front of the Tuileries Garden, make it a huge touristic destination in Paris.
Anissa Mahdaoui who graduated from La Sorbonne with a Master's degree in Art History and above all an active culture and art lover said both the museum’s location and collection, comprising of some of the most recognized art pieces of the 19th and 20th centuries, make it “one of the most attractive and successful in the world.”
7. The Parc de la Villette
The Parc de la Villette is located in the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris and is the largest urban cultural park in the capital. There are 55 hectares of park with 35 of them in open air, with green spaces, modern architecture, playgrounds and activity areas for children and adults, cultural zones and theaters.
Designed by architect Bernard Tschumi, the park is a city of music and the home of Europe’s biggest science museum. According to French historian Danièle Voldman, “Mitterrand’s socialist mark is expressed by the need to rebalance Paris to the East with upscale cultural installations.”
8. The Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac
Every president of the Fifth Republic has tried to leave a mark in Paris. Chirac chose the Musée du quai Branly, an open museum that showcases non-occidental civilizations only.
Renowned French architect Jean Nouvel won an architecture competition to design the museum in 1999. Originally, he had designed it with wild gardens, making it a comfortable living space.
Located near the Seine River and close to the Eiffel Tower, the museum contains around 3,500 works of art, making it one of the four biggest museums in Paris.
The museum opened in 2006 and celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. In order to recognize Chirac’s strong involvement in this project, the museum officially became the Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac on June 21, 2016.
Located near the Seine River and close to the Eiffel Tower, the museum contains around 1,300,000 works of art, making it one of the four biggest museums in Paris.
Cover credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV