Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing tried to settle the future of one of Paris' most prestigious buildings on Monday in a saga that has pitted the arts establishment against a group of famous actors, designers and celebrities.

"/> Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing tried to settle the future of one of Paris' most prestigious buildings on Monday in a saga that has pitted the arts establishment against a group of famous actors, designers and celebrities.

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NICOLAS SARKOZY

French arts world at war over new museum

Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing tried to settle the future of one of Paris' most prestigious buildings on Monday in a saga that has pitted the arts establishment against a group of famous actors, designers and celebrities.

Sophie Marceau, who is backing the project.
Georges Biard (file)

The Hôtel de la Marine sits on the Place de la Concorde in central Paris, where it has housed senior naval staff for over 200 years. They will move to new headquarters in 2014, leaving vacant a prime piece of Paris real estate with stunning views over the historic square.

Businessman Alexandre Allard has long planned to create an artistic centre in the building but his plans have been received with horror by some of France’s leading intellectuals, writers and historians including Pierre Nora and Jacques Le Goff.

The group wrote a letter to Le Monde in which they claimed to be “revolted” by a project that would allow the transformation of a “building which, in its own way, is a lesson in the history of France” into “a commercial Barnum filled with luxury suites.”

A host of well-known artists, designers and celebrities hit back with their own letter. 

It said that while there may be questions over Allard’s project, it had “the immense merit, through the debate it’s created, of unmasking the self-importance of unremitting conservatism and to show that there are audacious ways to refashion Paris as the world capital of creativity.”

Among the 180 signatories were actors Isabelle Adjani, Gérard Depardieu and Sophie Marceau, singers Johnny Halliday and Yannick Noah and the fashion designer Agnès B.

Ex-president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was commissioned by current president Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this year to review the future of the building.

In a report published on Monday, he said the Louvre museum should be free to take over the premises to create a new gallery of French treasures, showing the “crown jewels” of French culture. 

Works would be displayed from the Louvre and other institutes including those housing decorative arts, furniture and the French national library. Visitors will also have access to the first floor colonnade with its views over the Place de la Concorde.

“This is an emblematic part of our national heritage,” the former head of state said in a press conference on Monday afternoon. “It must stay in the hands of the French state and the French people.”

President Sarkozy met the former president in the building on Monday where they discussed the report. The president will now make the final decision about the building’s future.

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NICOLAS SARKOZY

Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée

Right-wing candidates for the French presidential election face off in the first round of a US-style primary on Sunday with former president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Alain Juppe fighting to avoid being knocked out by an outsider.

Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée
Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

In a contest overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, support for the early favourite Juppe has slipped and Francois Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, has risen fast.

The right-wing nominating contest is crucial because with the French left divided, the winner is expected to go on to take the presidency in May, beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

Juppe, 71, entered the two-month-long contest with polls showing him to be France's most popular politician, but his approach of playing the moderate against the fiery Sarkozy and the conservative Fillon appears to be backfiring.

Most polls now show Juppe and Sarkozy are neck-and-neck at around 30 percent, with Fillon close behind after making striking progress in recent weeks.

The two winners on Sunday will go through to the second round run-off a week later.

Two becomes three

“We were expecting a duel but in the end a three-way contest has emerged,” political scientist Jerome Jaffre said in Le Figaro newspaper on Thursday.

Many have noted that 62-year-old Fillon's rise had coincided with the publication of his latest book entitled “Beating Islamic totalitarianism”.

An often confused final TV debate of the seven candidates on Thursday offered few clues about the possible outcome, although viewers polled afterwards said Fillon had performed the strongest.

Sparks flew when Sarkozy was asked about fresh claims that he received millions in funding from the late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi towards his 2007 campaign.

Sarkozy called the question “disgraceful” and refused to answer.

Turning to the Trump effect, the former president said a more isolationist America created “a fantastic opportunity for France and Europe to re-establish a leadership role” on issues including border security and the reform of the UN Security Council.

“The next five years will mark the return of France and Europe to the international scene. America won't be there to put us in the shade,” he said.

Juppe meanwhile said the Trump-era heralded a triple “shock” — in the areas of trade, defence and the environment.

A return to protectionism would be “a tremendous regression”, Juppe said, while warning Europe against being “naive” in its dealings with the United States.

The three leading candidates have similar programmes, underpinned by pledges to reinforce domestic security in a country still under a state of emergency following a series of jihadist attacks.

They also share a desire to reinforce European borders and reduce immigration, while tax cuts also loom large.

The choice will come down to style.

Sarkozy has emphasised his tough-guy credentials, saying it makes him a better choice to handle Trump than the mild-mannered Juppe.

Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised “radical” economic measures but is the most conservative of the three on social issues.

Another unknown factor in Sunday's first round is the number of left-wing voters prepared to pay two euros and sign a declaration that they subscribe to “the values of the centre and the right” to vote in the right-wing primary.

Those who do are expected to vote against 61-year-old Sarkozy, who remains a highly divisive figure in France four years after he left office.

When the right-wing candidate is chosen on November 27, it is expected to trigger an announcement from deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande on whether he intends to bid for re-election.

On Wednesday, Hollande's former economy minister Emmanuel Macron announced he would stand as an independent.

by AFP's Guy Jackson

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